Comprehensive review needed to secure national public servants

Students continue to avoid making national public service as their career choice. To secure the human resources necessary to implement policies, the government must review the current situation from a comprehensive perspective.

There were only 14,310 applicants for the national civil service exams for career-track positions this spring, down 14.5% from the previous fiscal year. This marked the fifth consecutive year of decline, and a drop of 40% from fiscal 2012, when the current system was introduced.

With more people opting to work locally these days due to the pandemic, the appeal of becoming a local government employee has seen a resurgence. In contrast, there is said to be a growing tendency to shun career-track bureaucratic positions at central government ministries and agencies.

In addition, a conspicuous number of young employees are leaving such jobs. According to the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, as many as 86 national public servants in career-track positions in their 20s resigned for personal reasons in fiscal 2019 — about four times the figure from fiscal 2013.

There are quite a few young and mid-career employees who do not find the job rewarding and are exhausted by the long hours. It may be an inevitable consequence that students lose their desire to apply for such positions after witnessing what their seniors are experiencing.

An inability to draw talented people could cause the bureaucracy to deteriorate and undermine its ability to devise and promote policies. The government needs to take the situation seriously as a matter of national interest, and implement effective measures to deal with it.

An urgent task is to rectify the long working hours.

According to a survey conducted by the government between December and February, a total of 2,999 employees had worked more than 100 hours of overtime a month. Some Cabinet Secretariat officials logged more than 360 hours of overtime monthly to deal with matters related to the novel coronavirus.

No doubt workloads have been increasing due to the prolonged pandemic. But it is hardly a desirable situation when it has become common for people to work so much overtime they cross the line at which there are fears of “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

It is essential to flexibly manage the workforce, such as increasing staff according to the amount of work. Transfers across ministries and agencies should also be increased. It is important to ascertain the actual working conditions and review the workloads and assignments of personnel.

One reason why bureaucrats are exhausted is that Diet members are often late in notifying them of questions they plan to pose during Diet deliberations. The ruling and opposition parties should comply with the principle of presenting questions two days in advance, to prevent many bureaucrats from being forced to wait around till late at night.

If lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties abuse their mandate as politicians and repeatedly engage in high-handed ordering and badgering, bureaucrats will become less motivated, and this situation could disrupt the process of formulating policies for the future.

Politicians have a responsibility to improve how the bureaucracy is run and enable bureaucrats to demonstrate their abilities. It is hoped that politicians will exercise their wisdom to consider what the ideal relationship should be between politicians and bureaucrats.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 10, 2021.