Identify structural factors behind bureaucrats’ mistakes in documents

A series of mistakes were found in budget-related documents submitted by the government to the current Diet session. According to the government, this was the result of typographical errors and insufficient checks. The government needs to thoroughly analyze the factors behind these numerous mistakes.

The errors were found in reference materials attached to the government’s fiscal 2022 budget plan. The materials were compiled separately by the four ministries of internal affairs and communications; justice; education, culture, sports, science and technology; and land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. In supplementary materials known as a “detailed list of expenditure items,” there were mistakes in the amounts of different budget items and in the number of officials eligible for an employee allowance, among others.

Although the government said the mistakes would not affect the budget compilation itself, which must be approved by the Diet, the supplementary materials are a prerequisite for Diet deliberations. It is only natural that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and some of his Cabinet members apologized for the issue.

The internal affairs ministry had the largest number of such mistakes at 13. They included entering data in incorrect places when pasting them on computers and inputting old data on the number of officials. The justice and infrastructure ministries also made typographical errors, while the education ministry failed to fill in the title of a document.

The government said the officials in charge did not sufficiently double-check the items. It must be said that they have lacked a sense of tension in handling documents.

During the ordinary Diet session last year as well, a total of 181 mistakes were found in government-sponsored bills, including 14 errors in the provisions of the bills themselves. In response, the government compiled measures to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, including the establishment of a multilayered inspection system. It is regrettable that such efforts were not utilized.

Bureaucrats’ mistakes and their sloppy handling of documents must be severely criticized, but it is also necessary to pay attention to the structural factors behind the problem.

It has become the norm for bureaucrats to work from early in the morning to late at night because they have to prepare budget-related documents and bills, explain them to Diet members and check the content of Diet questions from lawmakers.

Between December 2020 and February 2021, a total of about 3,000 officials did more than 100 hours of overtime per month, which is considered to be the danger line for death from overwork.

An increasing number of young officials are said to be resigning, and in fiscal 2019, the number of officials in career track positions in their 20s who left their jobs for personal reasons was quadruple that of six years ago. The number of students applying to take exams to become national civil servants has been decreasing, with applicants for career track positions in fiscal 2021 down by more than 10% compared to the previous fiscal year.

Despite more work as a result of measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, there are not enough personnel or systems in place to handle the greater burden. The number of civil servants per capita in Japan is said to be smaller than that of major Western countries in both the national and local governments.

The Japanese government should study how to secure sufficient personnel to handle the workload of each ministry and agency.

The problem will not be solved if lawmakers only pursue bureaucrats’ responsibility for mishandling documents in the Diet. If bureaucrats’ morale remains low, the nation’s policymaking could also be adversely affected. The government and the ruling and opposition parties must devise ways to enhance the discipline of bureaucratic organizations and the motivation of bureaucrats.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 3, 2022.