Sunday, September 6, 2009

Yomiuri contemplates the British model

Following the discussion on Fuji TV's Shin Hodo 2001 that I referenced yesterday, Yomiuri today has three articles addressing the flaws in the Westminster model, suggesting that the conservative approach to attacking the DPJ's administrative reforms will be to warn of the dangers of too much power concentrated in the cabinet.

One article warns of "voices" (no word on whose) questioning whether the DPJ's plans to introduce upwards of 120 Diet members into the government could hinder administration. The same article goes on to note that Britain's two-party system and political leadership emerged since the nineteenth century. It then warns that in Britain there is a problem with sub-cabinet officials using their positions to grandstand and otherwise advance their careers, and notes that a committee in the British House of Commons earlier this year recommended reducing the number of sub-cabinet officials.

A second article continues in the same vein as Fuji TV, warning of the over-concentration of power in the prime minister's office despite the constitution's giving decision making power to the cabinet — in effect reporting on the presidentialization of the British premiership under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Like Fuji TV, it cites Britain's participation in the Iraq war as an example of the dangers of the over-concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister, noting the use of special advisers as a means of sidestepping the cabinet. (No mention of how Prime Ministers Nakasone Yasuhiro and Koizumi Junichiro did precisely that to make for a more presidential Kantei capable of evading veto points within the government and the LDP.)

A third article looks at the recommendations that followed from Kan Naoto's study trip to the United Kingdom, in particular his recommendations for personnel appointees. The article quotes an anonymous DPJ member as saying, "The point is not the structure or system but the matter of the people. If politicians with leadership abilities are appointed, the bureaucrats will follow."

It is remarkable that for all the words used to denigrate the British system of government and link its flaws with the supposed dangers of the DPJ's desire to introduce political leadership, I come away with the impression that the DPJ's opponents have few good arguments to make against the DPJ's plans. It is easy to address all of Yomiuri's questions, in what, after all, are editorials disguised as reporting.

Regarding sub-cabinet officials, there are obviously risks associated with introducing so many inexperienced politicians into government positions. But the DPJ has already stated that cabinet ministers will pick their own sub-cabinet officials, which should give cabinet ministers a bit more control over their subordinates. Second, I expect that the DPJ will be putting former bureaucrats among its Diet members to work in ministries, presumably introducing greater professionalism into the work of political appointees. While their numbers are comparatively few, the former bureaucrats should help keep their amateur colleagues in line. Third, I can imagine that if a sub-cabinet official were to embarrass the cabinet through grandstanding, the official would face punishment from the party leadership, i.e. Ozawa Ichiro.

As for the idea of over-centralization in the prime minister, it is remarkable how Yomiuri can write this article but provide not a single example or precedent from the Japanese experience. Indeed, the most amazing thing in these three articles is a total lack of references to the policymaking process as it has existed under LDP governments. Based on Yomiuri's reports, one could be excused for thinking that Japan had a properly balanced system in which politicians and bureaucrats have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and that the decision making process worked well. Clearly that is far from the case: the LDP system has been characterized by power being so widely distributed among actors within the bureaucracy and the LDP that effective leadership by LDP leaders often depended on individual leaders sidestepping the formal decision making process to impose decisions on reluctant politicians and bureaucrats. Yomiuri talks of the dangers of concentrating power in the hands of the prime minister and his unelected advisers as if Koizumi Junichiro never existed. On this score its critique is particularly disingenuous because Kan — who will undoubtedly play an important role in building a new policymaking process — has stressed the importance of government by the appointed politicians in the cabinet. As I've argued, it appears that the DPJ is planning not for a presidential-style government but for cabinet government in the textbook British sense. It is particularly noteworthy that Kan has expressed his admiration for Britain's cabinet committees, which would provide a way to sidestep the custom of unanimous decision making in cabinet.

This idea of the textbook British model is important: the latter-day failings of the British system, while worth studying, ultimately say little about the dangers of the DPJ's plans. The DPJ is trying to copy Britain in a very broad sense, to move Japan in the direction of a system in which political leaders in the cabinet have the initiative in policymaking, with fewer veto players. It may take years before we can speak of a new Japanese "system," but just because it took Britain years to arrive at a point at which it could speak of political leadership is hardly an argument against the DPJ's taking the first steps in that direction. It is a matter of shifting the balance of power. Even Britain, for all its political leadership, has had to contend with supercilious bureaucrats.



As for the idea that appointing "politicians with leadership abilities" is essential, I do not deny that having the right people in the right positions can be tremendously important, but I disagree with the suggestion that good leaders — how does one know in advance who a good leader is, after all? — are more important than proper institutional design, especially because the LDP system's flaws are so readily apparent. The idea that the LDP's failures were simply the result of bad leaders strikes me as farcical.

Ultimately if the DPJ-led government is going to legislate and implement its policies, it is essential to introduce a policymaking process with fewer veto points, which is precisely what the DPJ means to do. This goal explains why the DPJ is so adamant about including SDPJ and PNP party leaders in the cabinet, so ensure that they are at the heart of the policymaking process. Decisions made by the cabinet will be that much stronger if the leaders of the smaller parties have signed on to them from the beginning.

It is also why the DPJ's leadership is trying to crack down on contact between bureaucrats and backbenchers. There is more than a whiff of disorder coming from the DPJ as it prepares to move into government — self-styled transition teams have contacted ministries for documents, prompting warnings from the DPJ leadership to its parliamentarians to exercise self-restraint when it comes to putting in requests to ministries. (The party has also instructed its newly elected backbenchers to exercise discretion in their contact with the media.) A certain amount of disorder is to be expected as the DPJ transitions into government, but this kind of freelancing is precisely the kind of behavior that Ozawa as secretary-general will have to police.

There is another factor that Hatoyama will have to consider as he finalizes his cabinet picks. He must ensure the cabinet is representative of the various viewpoints within the DPJ — most notably he'll have to pick a member or two from the Maehara-Noda section of the party. These members ought to be included in the cabinet simply on the basis of their policy expertise, but including them in the cabinet also makes for good politics. Jiji implies that Ozawa wants them excluded, but even under Ozawa's leadership Maehara held party leadership posts. However he dealt with rivals in the past, Ozawa seems to understand the value in what Lyndon Johnson reportedly said of J. Edgar Hoover: "I would rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." I would be surprised if Hatoyama didn't give posts to Noda and Maehara, or some other representative from their groups.

In any case, we should learn the composition of Hatoyama's cabinet soon enough — the major positions are expected to be confirmed Monday afternoon — although Hatoyama is giving few hints as to his thinking.

It bears noting that even as the public is skeptical of other portions of the DPJ's agenda, a Sankei poll found that 87% of respondents indicated their support for the DPJ's plans for restructuring the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats and altering the budgeting process. When it comes to the most important piece of the DPJ's manifesto, the Hatoyama government will have the public on its side.

4 comments:

RMilner said...

As a Brit I feel there is an important role for a professional, non-politicized civil service.

The British civil service started to lose its edge in the Thatcher years This continued with the use of 'czars', quangos and special advisors under New Labour and a general movement by both parties to lambast the traditional civil service as hidebound and inefficient.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting article on this vital question of cabinet based government that Hatoyama wants to implement.

Noah said...

So is Yomiuri's idea that the key is just to have better people in government...is this basically warmed-over Confucianism? The "rectification of names"?

Tobias Harris said...

That's the advantage of disguising your editorials as reporting: you don't have to offer alternative proposals of your own.

As for RMilner's point about the importance of a professional, non-politicized civil service, I don't think the DPJ would disagree. The goal is to clarify the roles to be played by the cabinet and the bureaucracy, instead of the close cooperation between ruling party and bureaucracy that characterized LDP rule.