The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Bureaucratic Role and Party Governance (Symposium Report 3)

January 29, 2009

The first two sessions of the symposium discussed the relationship between legislators and bureaucrats and party governance issues. Panelists including the British ambassador to Japan, members of the Japanese and British parliaments, and academics exchanged views on ways to improve their political systems.

Click here for the symposium program and list of panelists.
For an overview of the British parliamentary system, click here .
To learn about the Japanese parliamentary system, click here.

Session 1: The Relationship between Legislators and Bureaucrats

Professor Hideaki Tanaka, director of the Research Division at the Tokyo Foundation, began the session by highlighting two issues, namely those of the sectionalism of the ministries and the relations between politicians and bureaucrats.

Bureaucracy in Britain

Ambassador David Warren began his presentation by stating that the civil service he joined 33 years ago was still dominated by its principal officials and, to a certain degree, by the structure that had been laid down in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, reformers replaced a system of political patronage and preferment by family connections with a system of selection of civil servants by competitive examination and promotion by merit. Academic and intellectual strength came to be the criteria by which civil servants were selected. This reform put the Civil Service on a par with other professions, in terms of the esteem in which individuals were held.

HM Ambassador to Japan David Warren

The Second World War propelled the next great shift of emphasis. The Civil Service was galvanized by the mobilization of the state behind the industrial, social, and military organization that was necessary to wage total war. Talent was then recruited from the widest range of professional backgrounds, which diluted the traditional generalism of the Civil Service. After 1945, the Labour government introduced a system for the recruitment of civil servants, adapted from that used during the war for the appointment of officers in the armed services. The basis of this system still applies today: civil servants are expected to have the intellectual skills and personal qualities required to analyze complex problems, make objective recommendations for consequential action, and observe the highest standards of personal integrity and political impartiality.

Civil servants advise on policies, and ministers decide on them; this is as it should be, because it is the politicians who are elected to make these choices. They accordingly shoulder the responsibility for them and suffer the political consequences, good or bad, of the choices they make.

The culture and style of the Civil Service has changed remarkably over the last three decades. It is true that the Civil Service has in the past seen itself as a "permanent administration," whose members will continue in office even when their transient political masters have moved on. The obvious advantage of such a model is that it enshrines absolute objectivity and affords the historical and professional knowledge that enables decisions to be made with a real understanding of the external context in which they have to be taken, as well as their probable consequences. But the disadvantage is that institutional objectivity represents a permanent bias towards the status quo. The system can give the civil servant great leverage over the terms in which the policy is formed, while detaching him or her from the consequences of the decision.

In the 1940s, civil servants were anonymous. Increasingly, though, media scrutiny and freedom of information mean that their actions are more public. There is no area where a civil servant can expect to be immune from direct scrutiny.

In the Civil Service, independence, objectivity, and freedom from political patronage have been important principles of employment. These virtues have sometimes led to excessive detachment from the political imperatives set by ministers. Strong ministers should have no difficulty asserting themselves against obstruction. But the real issue is how the Civil Service delivers and implements the policy and the services in question, and how it continues to make policy judgments and delivers effective services according to the core values of integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality.

Bureaucracy in Japan

Koichi Yamauchi, member of the House of Representatives (LDP), explained that recent efforts to reform the bureaucracy are the most far-reaching ones Japan has seen since the Meiji era. Minister of State for Civil Service Reform Yoshimi Watanabe's eagerness to institute reform of administrative structures was met with opposition from LDP members and special interest groups. Even Watanabe's own subordinates tried to hinder his efforts. But despite the so-called "contorted Diet," in which the LDP controls the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, while the DPJ controls the upper chamber, the House of Councillors, reform has been possible. The bureaucrats themselves played a major role in the debate over the reform, which led to worries in some quarters that the reform might end up being too cozy for them, constituting "reform by bureaucrats for bureaucrats."

Traditionally in Japan, bureaucrats are prone to interfere in politics, and sometimes try to exploit disagreements over policy in the ruling party. Bureaucrats have been known to help politicians benefit from pork barrel politics. A unique feature of the Japanese political system is that bureaucrats are involved in the amendment of laws.

Circumstances that permit bureaucrats to ignore the wishes of their ministers must be changed, and the relationship between the bureaucracy and the ruling parties must be altered, too. Not least, these changes ought to be introduced because bureaucrats take into consideration the interests of their respective ministries, whereas politicians must think about the national interest. In short, politics should be led by the Cabinet.

Mr. Yamauchi ended his presentation with the idea that what is required in the Japanese system of government is more diversity: individuals with backgrounds in, for example, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks should be appointed to improve efficiency.

Kenta Izumi, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), noted the difference in the quantity of information provided by the bureaucrats to legislators in the ruling and opposition parties. As things stand today the opposition is unable to avail itself of the nation's largest think tank, the national bureaucracy. The resultant gap in policymaking and other organizational abilities is striking. In comparison with bureaucrats, the average political party official is relatively unseasoned and unprepared for taking part in the policy process. Party officials lack the ability to collect information and the authority to do so in the field.

In order for civil servants to tackle their jobs with vigor, there is a need to implement a new career system in the bureaucracy. Japan has seen no progress on a system within the bureaucracy to ensure protection for whistleblowers. Achieving a proper relationship between bureaucrats and legislators will involve creating a level field for and increasing the transparency of discussion among them. It will be important to keep a permanent record of all such discussion. The politics of today, in which the loudest voices are the ones that end up apportioning the budget, must be changed, and we must have both legislators and bureaucrats who take a moral approach to their work.

Kensuke Takayasu, an associate professor of political science at Seikei University, identified two problems in the Japanese bureaucracy. The first is sectionalism, which thwarts attempts by politicians to grasp "the big picture." The second problem is the dominance of bureaucrats, which often leads to the wishes of politicians being ignored. The reform promoted by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1998, in response to an increase in policy issues that cut across the fiefdoms of multiple ministries and the apparent limitations of the bureaucracy in providing ideas for policy, strengthened the powers of the prime minister and Cabinet and created a framework for bringing in fresh ideas from outside the traditional government structure. But the bureaucracy still shows little interest in transparency.

Associate Professor Takayasu noted that greater information sharing and transparency are required if the bureaucracy is to develop in a more favorable way from the perspective of the Japanese people.


Photograph by Secretariat of the House of Councillors

Opening the discussion, Professor Tanaka reiterated some of the views of the presenters. The Japanese bureaucracy is supposed to function on the principle of neutrality, but in fact it is more politicized. In comparison to Europe, Japanese governments change infrequently, resulting in coziness; this may have served Japan well in the postwar era to date, but now Japan ought to follow the worldwide trend of politician-led administration. The key issue is the responsiveness of bureaucrats to politicians.

Ambassador Warren remarked that as a civil servant he is content simply to engage in an open discussion with ministers. He remarked that he was horrified to learn of Mr. Yamauchi's account of the efforts of the subordinates of Civil Service Reform Minister Watanabe to undermine reform. In the United Kingdom, such lobbying against a minister would be a cause for disciplinary sanctions. In this regard, a clear code of practice and discipline would be useful in Japan. In any democracy there needs to be a clear structure for civil servants to discharge their responsibilities.

Lord Cunningham commented that in the United Kingdom, relations between civil servants and politicians are on a sound footing, but there are rare occasions when a civil servant is disciplined. In the 1970s a number of ambassadors were retired early because they were not working consistently with government aims. When problems do arise it is usually because ministers do not have a clear plan of political action to pass on to their civil servants; the fault in those circumstances lies with the vacillating politicians.

Alex Brazier, director of the Parliament and Government Programme at the Hansard Society, added that in the past, politicians used to view the civil service as an impenetrable edifice, but nowadays bridges are more easily built.

Professor Arthur Stockwin, emeritus fellow of St. Anthony's College at the University of Oxford, pointed out that in Japan, a high proportion of politicians, particularly in the LDP, are former bureaucrats.

Taro Kono, member of the House of Representatives (LDP), remarked that he had experienced resistance from bureaucrats, but was told that if a politician exerts strong determination, then the bureaucracy will follow the political lead. Returning to the issue of the resistance met by Minister Watanabe, Mr. Kono asserted that in his case the direction of reform had been unclear.

Sumio Mabuchi, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), said that strong will is necessary to cut through the wrangling of the bureaucracy.

Associate Professor Harukata Takenaka of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies added that if the ruling party is not sure of its path, then the bureaucracy will not follow. It is important that leadership be demonstrated by the prime minister.

Session 2: Party Governance Issues

Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University, introduced his topic by declaring that whipping is one of the most misunderstood topics in British politics. Expressed simply, the Whips manage their respective parties in parliament. They have been integral to the parliamentary system in the United Kingdom since the eighteenth century. All parties have at least a single whip; the main parties have several.

The Role of Whips in Britain

Professor Philip Cowley, Nottingham University

The Whips have three functions: management, communication, and persuasion. In terms of management, the Whips are responsible for organizing the business of Parliament, including by liaising with the opposition parties. No British government would survive long without a whipping operation. In terms of communication, the Whips constitute a channel of communication between backbenchers and the front bench. Their top-down communication involves explanation of policy, and their bottom-up role is that of acting as "the eyes and ears" of the prime minister, monitoring the opinions held by backbenchers. In terms of persuasion, when MPs look likely to deviate from party line, Whips exert influence over them in ways that can seem like bullying or even blackmail: promotions can be denied, as can better office space, and overseas trips can be curtailed. But Whips have much less power over patronage than they used to have, and few formal powers (which, in any case, are rarely used). It is possible for MPs to be expelled from their parties, but that has not happened in the past 10 years.

The hostility of the British public toward the Whips is due to their ignorance of their role, though the public's antagonism to political parties also plays into this. But Whips are actually indispensable to multi-party democracy.

In the United Kingdom there is still a high level of party cohesion, though it peaked in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, even the most rebellious MPs vote in line with their respective parties more often than not. Still, British MPs defy the Whips three times as frequently as Canadian MPs do (though this is, in part, because Canadian MPs are much more satisfied with their involvement in policymaking prior to voting on legislation). Two-thirds of Labour MPs have voted against their party at least once, and the vote to authorize the Iraq war led to the biggest rebellion since the 1840s. Beyond defying the Whips, the media has given MPs other avenues to express their disquiet.

Elaborating on the topic of "free votes," Professor Cowley explained two problems. The first is that there is no clear definition about what issues are subject to "free votes": the same issue could be whipped in one party and not in another, and whipped in one chamber and not in another. The second problem is that "free votes" allow controversial issues to become detached from politics: governments can use them to enact controversial legislation without taking responsibility for it.

Party Governance in Japan

Associate Professor Takenaka stated that, generally speaking, Diet members follow the instructions of the leaders of their political parties. In 1994, there was broad political reform in Japan; prior to that, there were multiple legislators from each district. That change had a great impact on party management. The old way had been to seek consensus before crafting party policy, resulting in the major players being in broad agreement. But the enhancement of the power of the party leadership allowed, for example, Prime Minister Koizumi to ignore LDP pre-legislative scrutiny of the bill to privatize the postal services. Nowadays, when the prime minister deems an issue important, it becomes risky for an MP to go against his wishes.

Free debate has been stifled, as legislators no longer feel they have much power to influence policy. Still, if a sufficient number of legislators want to work on an issue on which the government is not looking hard enough, they could group together to submit their own bill. Associate Professor Takenaka advocated expanding the roles of parliamentary ministers and senior vice-ministers in order that their involvement in policymaking is increased.

Sumio Mabuchi, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), pointed out that Article 43 of the Japanese Constitution stipulates that legislators are representatives of "all the people," and Article 51 states that they will not be held liable for their speeches, debates, or votes during house proceedings. However, as party-based politics forms the basis for their activities, there is a need for coordination of them. In the case of almost all bills, the party members find themselves restrained by the dictates of their parties, which saps them of the ability to make individual judgments on the matters at hand. Both the ruling and opposition parties have made efforts to carry out deeper debate of the issues even as they made use of pre-legislative dealing to craft policy. Making policy councils forums for open discussion should result in broader convergence of opinion, even if there will be some issues on which views are bound to diverge. There ought to be whipping on issues covered in party election manifestos because MPs were elected on that platform. "Free votes" should take place on matters judged to be matters of personal conviction, and no sanctions should apply, as is the case in the British Parliament. The critical issue for the future of Japan's parliamentary system is what degree of freedom should be extended to MPs.


Professor Cowley opened discussion by saying that all the main political parties in the British Parliament have private groupings through which backbenchers can communicate their views to the leadership of their respective parties. But backbenchers, especially in the Labour Party, do not find this communication to be satisfactory. The backbenchers' role of scrutiny is important, but constituency work has become more important in MPs' lives: a recent study found that MPs first elected to Parliament in 2005 spend half their time either in their constituencies or working on constituency issues.

Lord Cunningham asserted that the issue of whipping has a different hue when governments have a large majority, in which cases it is not critical. Voting against the party line is not the only way for MPs to express dissatisfaction; abstaining is another option. Backbench MPs often make a nuisance of themselves in order to be bribed with a promotion.

Mr. Brazier noted that although Whips are necessary in the British parliamentary system, the public not only truly despises them, but even considers their existence to be evidence of a dysfunctional system. This impression may have been created as a result of occasions on which Whips have destroyed Private Members' Bills. When Professor Tanaka asked if there is debate in the United Kingdom about reforming the whipping system, Mr. Brazier replied that advocates for reform tend not to come from Parliament, as the political parties know that they will make use of the whipping system should they be elected to govern. Mr. Brazier added that MPs provide input on potential legislation at the consultation stage, as the government is more willing to listen to the opinions of the backbenchers the further the bill is from being formalized.

Professor Cowley added that the people who want to abolish whipping do not have any ideas about how party coherence would be maintained in its absence. Although the public rates "independence" highly in MPs, it also tends to punish divided parties at general elections. Lord Cunningham added that in that sense the British public want the best of both worlds: they want coherent parties, but it is also part of the British psyche to like idiosyncratic individuals. The Whips take the view that MPs were elected on the party manifesto, and the need of the party is to get their bills through the house. On occasions when MPs are dissatisfied, it is partially their own fault for not taking opportunities to raise concerns at an earlier stage.

Professor Stockwin contributed a historical view. In nineteenth-century Britain, parties were much more fluid, and the whipping system evolved from that; since the emergence of two-party rule in the 1930s, Whips have ensured the stability of that system. Professor Cowley appended his view that the Reform Acts ended the state of fluidity by ushering in mass democracy, which requires both accountability and disciplined parliamentary parties.

Participants next turned to the topic of the system of preliminary legislative review in Japan. Mr. Kono voiced sharp criticism of the pre-legislative dealing carried out in the LDP's Policy Research Council and General Council, calling it "clearly against the rules of the parliamentary cabinet system." He stressed that the ruling parties must work through a process of fine-tuning legislation at the parliamentary debate stage.

Masahiko Shibayama, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), voiced his opinion that MPs are given mandates via their parties, so they must respect the platform of their own party. He added a caveat: manifestos have to be more clearly defined, though they need not go to minute details. Mr. Shibayama predicted that outlets for backbenchers to express their dissatisfaction will prove more important in the future. Intimidation in parliament should have no place in contemporary politics.

Responding to questions from the floor, Professor Hiroko Oyama of Komazawa University stressed that MPs ought to vote in line with what they think is in the interest of the voters. One problematic feature of the Japanese parliamentary system is that during the process of deliberation there is not really any room for substantive discussion. The problems with the parliamentary system are all entwined and therefore cannot be tackled on an individual basis: thus, the overarching system needs to be subject to wholesale reform.

    • Yomiuri Shimbun
    • Kiyoshi Aihara
    • Kiyoshi Aihara

Featured Content




Click on the link below to contact an expert or submit a question.