National ‘Directive Authority’: Clarify Where Responsibility Lies in Event of Emergency

Widespread chaos would ensue if local governments responded in an uncoordinated manner to emergencies such as major disasters or pandemics. Mistakes similar to those made during the COVID-19 pandemic must not be repeated.

The Local Government System Research Council has compiled a draft report calling for the establishment of a national “directive authority” that would have power over local governments. To this end, the central government aims to amend the Local Government Law during next year’s ordinary Diet session.

Reforms to decentralize power have been progressing since the 1990s, and the relationship between the central and local governments has changed from that of “superior and subordinate” to that of “equal and cooperative partners.” The central government’s role in local administration has diminished in line with the abolition of administrative functions delegated to local governments while being directed and supervised by the central government.

The move was aimed at allowing local governments to resolve issues close to residents’ lives.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to cases that could not be dealt with under the “equal and cooperative” relationship. There were times when the central and local governments held differing views, coming into conflict over such issues as requests for businesses to refrain from operating and the coordination of hospitalization for people infected with the coronavirus.

Cluster infections aboard a cruise ship were handled by the Yokohama city government, which manages the port where the ship docked. However, the city could not afford to transport patients across prefectural borders, so the central government arranged their transport instead, even though it does not have the authority to do so under the Infectious Diseases Law.

Emergencies, in particular, require prompt administrative responses. It will be a significant step to establish a central government directive authority in advance, which underlines the roles of the national and local governments.

The draft report calls for the central government to limit its use of this authority to emergency situations that could have a serious impact on public safety.

It is understandable that the aim of the draft report is to clarify where responsibility lies by giving the central government this authority only in emergencies while respecting the principle of decentralization.

However, even if the central government has directive authority, its instructions will not be effective if there is a dearth of local medical systems and disaster response specialists. It is important for the central government to maintain close communications with local governments on a daily basis so it can grasp the situation in regional areas.

The draft report also proposes that the central government promote the digitization of public administration and strengthen systems to share information with local governments.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments and public health centers used fax machines to exchange infection-related information. Some municipalities administered financial relief measures manually. It is crucial to link the central and local governments through a unified system in order to improve administrative efficiency.

Nevertheless, municipalities are responsible for administrative services close to home. Some people may prefer to conduct procedures face-to-face for such services as resident registration and nursing care. It would be undesirable if the convenience for residents was undermined by the digitization of administrative activities.

Digitization must be carefully advanced in line with the central government’s policy of “digitization that is friendly to people, so no one is left behind.”

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 2, 2023)