Utilize private sector’s strengths, increase mobility of bureaucrats

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Katsunobu Kato, Former Chief Cabinet Secretary

The year 2022 is expected to continue to pose challenges for Japan on issues including the pandemic, foreign affairs and the economy. This is the 11th installment in a series of articles on how authoritative figures in various fields view these matters. The following was excerpted from remarks by Katsunobu Kato, the former chief cabinet secretary, in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun interview.

As policy issues become more complex and people’s values diversify, we are no longer in an era where it is feasible to pursue policy solely through relationships between politicians and bureaucrats.

In particular, dealing with loneliness and isolation, and with child-related policies, is closely intertwined with various issues. It is essential that the public sector, meaning politicians and bureaucrats, do not respond alone, but in cooperation with nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations in the private sector.

Politicians have relationships not just with central government bureaucrats, but also with these kinds of private citizens in their daily lives. My theory is that politicians should serve as a point of interaction and deal with policy issues by connecting horizontally rather than vertically.

To that end, it is important to increase personnel mobility among bureaucrats who work in Kasumigaseki.

To help bureaucrats gain valuable experience, I think we need a kind of “revolving door” framework in which bureaucrats move back and forth between their home ministries and the private sector, as well as other ministries and agencies.

The Digital Agency that was established in September has hired many people from the private sector. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aims to establish a new child and family agency in fiscal 2023. We should increasingly encourage a variety of people with specialized backgrounds to play a role in this endeavor, including hiring private sector professionals.

Meaningful work

In the past, central government ministries and agencies were said to work for their own interests, not those of the nation, and senior assignments were sometimes decided long in advance.

I changed this practice as the first director of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which was established in 2014. Under the new system, we actively appoint civil servants who observe and work for the country as a whole, with the prime minister given ultimate authority over personnel matters.

Instead of people whose work is based solely on the thinking of their home ministry or agency, jobs were given to candidates who had worked at other ministries and agencies or studied abroad, and who could approach their work from multiple perspectives.

And we listened to bureaucrats’ wishes. For example, when a department to address loneliness and isolation was established under the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, we put two bureaucrats in charge as they expressed their eagerness to take the initiative on the issue despite their “non-career” status [that does not let them take high-rank managerial positions] and had them meet with the prime minister.

The civil service is not such a popular career anymore, and many young civil servants are quitting. When I was at the Finance Ministry, the work was tough, but I was proud to be involved in national policy decisions. I thought, “If I work hard, things will go well at the Liberal Democratic Party subcommittees.”

We need comprehensive work style reform, such as eliminating long working hours. In addition, I think it is important to ensure that bureaucrats feel their work is rewarding and interesting.

To achieve this, we need to improve the management capabilities of executive staff and motivate their subordinates. These are important roles for the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs.

Led by Prime Minister’s Office

In the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats under the administrations of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Suga, it was said that every decision was made at “initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office.”

If an administration is in power for a certain period of time, the prime minister will continually be called on to show leadership. While demonstrating the leadership and racking up achievements one by one, an administration will gain confidence and may stay in office long-term.

Even in the administration of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, under which I was secretary to the deputy chief cabinet secretary, a lot was decided by the Prime Minister’s Office, and the prime minister was the one who set the direction. In terms of leadership by the Prime Minister’s Office or politicians, I do not think anything has changed from the past to now.

As for the relationship between the government and the LDP, the government has been said to have more power than the party, but the prime minister is the leader of the party and Japan has a parliamentary cabinet system. I think government decisions equal what the party has decided.

When something needs to be decided quickly, the government will become stronger, and when there is time to spare, things will go through all the intraparty processes. Anyway, I think that both the party and the government need to be vitalized.

This is especially true now, when people’s values are diversifying and the changes are significant. I think the role of politicians is becoming more important because they have a finger on the pulse of public opinion.


Katsunobu Kato joined the Finance Ministry in 1979. After serving as a secretary to his father-in-law, the former agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Mutsuki Kato, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2003. He was appointed deputy chief cabinet secretary in the second Abe Cabinet, and has served as state minister in charge of promoting the dynamic engagement of all citizens; health, labor and welfare minister; and chairman of the LDP General Council. He was chief cabinet secretary under the Suga administration. He has been elected seven times as a lawmaker.