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[Event Report] The 97th HGPI Seminar – The Role of the Administration and Steps for Future Reform to Correct Unhealthy Work Styles at Kasumigaseki (July 28, 2021)

[Event Report] The 97th HGPI Seminar – The Role of the Administration and Steps for Future Reform to Correct Unhealthy Work Styles at Kasumigaseki (July 28, 2021)

For the 97th HGPI Seminar, we hosted Mr. Yasuhiro Sensho, who was previously involved in legal reform in the field of long-term social security and labor at the MHLW, and now serves as CEO of SENSHO-GUMI Co., Ltd. Mr. Sensho gave a lecture on the situation of and challenges related to work styles at Kasumigaseki, issues within the current policy-making process, and his hopes for future measures.

Key points of the lecture

  • The severe work environment at Kasumigaseki is causing national Government employees to take leaves of absence or to quit. That environment is also causing recruitment difficulties.
  • Work style reform at Kasumigaseki is not for the sake of Government officials. It is necessary to maintain the functions for creating the policies needed by Japan.
  • To correct unhealthy work styles at Kasumigaseki, three actions are necessary: reduce unnecessary work, reform quotas for the number of public officials at the national Government, and implement Diet reform to achieve both high quality discussions and efficient operations.
  • Factors that prevent the traditional policy-making process from continuing to function include changes in the political landscape and declined ability to gather opinions at intermediary organizations.
  • The policy-making process must be rebuilt so good policies can be created. In the new process, it will be necessary to engage in cross-sectoral cooperation while continuously engaging in opinion exchange and cooperation with various stakeholders.


■The current state of unhealthy work styles at Kasumigaseki

My experiences from many years at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) left me with a strong sense of danger toward work styles at Kasumigaseki. This led me to publish Black Kasumigaseki[1] in November 2020. I think it generated interest among many parties, including those in the Government, Diet members, and people in all forms of media.

An official announcement from the National Personnel Authority revealed that national public service officials work an average of 29 hours of overtime per month. However, over 40% of respondents to a private-sector survey reported they were working more than 80 hours of overtime per month, which is said to be the threshold for heightened risk of death by overwork. This is an indication that working unpaid and untracked overtime (referred to as “service overtime” in Japan) has become the norm. To address this situation, Minister of State for Regulatory Reform Taro Kono is currently leading efforts to gauge the situation surrounding long work hours and untracked overtime as well as to implement countermeasures.

Furthermore, the percentage of those who have taken leaves of absence for one month or longer due to mental health issues was three to four times higher than workers in the private sector. The number of people quitting has also been on the rise. Taking a closer look at national public service officials (also called “career bureaucrats”) in their twenties, the number who have left their jobs has quadrupled in the past six years, with particularly sharp increases in the past two to three years. The number of students who want to become national public officials is also decreasing, so recruitment difficulties are also beginning to emerge.

The situation surrounding long work hours is worsening, in part, due to the ongoing Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. It has been revealed that employees at several Ministries have had months where their overtime exceeded 200 hours. At the MHLW, about 500 officials worked 80 or more hours of overtime in February 2021.

To get a more detailed understanding of the situation, the MHLW conducted a workplace satisfaction survey among its employees.[2] Results showed particularly low workplace satisfaction among younger employees between ages 25 and 39 and those of middle age. Many of these respondents said they grew dissatisfied with inefficient work practices early in their careers, after finishing their on-the-job training, or that they had trouble balancing work and their personal time for family and other commitments. In general, the best time to change jobs in Japan is said to be around age 30. Low workplace satisfaction among people near that age can be a direct cause of higher turnover, so it is urgent that steps are taken to address this issue.

■What reforms are needed to improve work styles at Kasumigaseki?

To correct these unhealthy work practices, I believe three main types of reform will be necessary.

  1. Reduce unnecessary work

First, it will be necessary to cut down on unnecessary work. One item that has been mentioned is going paperless. A paper-based work culture is still in place at Kasumigaseki. This means great amounts of time are being consumed by printing and other preparations, so paperless work practices are urgently needed. It is also crucial to take inventory of operations. Workers at Kasumigaseki frequently spend lots of time and effort creating and checking documents that are mostly unnecessary and are only created in accordance with outdated work practices. Efforts to take stock of tasks being done should be made and focus should then be placed on the tasks that are truly necessary. Even when for critical tasks, both internal and external resources should be utilized actively, as is done in the private sector.

  1. Reform quotas for the number of national public service officials

Practices for setting quotas for the number of national public service officials also require reform. In recent years, the number of officials across the national Government has been reduced through administrative reforms and there are no longer sufficient human resources for handling the workload. A suspension of staff reductions should be considered. In addition, the situation surrounding overtime varies greatly among Ministries, so the work environment at each ministry and department must be made visible so that human resource allocation can be redone from scratch.

  1. Implement Diet reform (to achieve both high quality discussions and efficient operations)

Along with these administrative reforms, reforms of the Diet are also important. There, outdated customs in which bureaucrats are expected to work around the clock are still being followed. A highly illustrative example of this can be found in the way questions are handled in the Diet. In Diet deliberations, the member who asks a question must provide advance notification of that question to the relevant ministry or agency.[3] The later notification is submitted, the greater the burden placed on officials at each ministry. Each party must state their intent to submit these notifications to Ministries as soon as possible. While I hear that the situation is improving, such measures have been attempted in the past, and they tend not to take root. Measures must be taken to address this, such as publicly announcing the date and time of question notifications.

■Who is work style reform in Kasumigaseki for?

Work style reform at Kasumigaseki is not for the sake of Government officials. It is necessary to sustain the functions used to create the policies the country needs.

The current issue in Kasumigaseki is that workers are inundated with tasks pressed upon them by others. The type of person who becomes a bureaucrat is the type that has a strong intrinsic motivation to contribute to society by creating policy. Allowing workers to independently gather information and devote more time to creating policies will enhance the quality of those policies and have beneficial effects on society while giving each worker a sense of fulfillment. Work styles at Kasumigaseki must be reformed so that better policies can be created on a continuous basis.

■What is policy?

I define policy as “Activities in which the Government’s resources are utilized to encourage people to alter their behavior, thereby solving social issues.” It is the Government’s duty to think about the ideal way to combine its various resources, such as legal revisions and budgets, to solve the issues facing society.

Policy and business are different. With policy, the customers (in this analogy, the public) cannot select the product (the policy), and the Government cannot choose its customers. With business, customers select specific products or services and pay for them. For policy, however, the products are paid for by the entire public (through taxes or social security premiums). This means obtaining social consensus is an essential step during policy development. Some say that Government offices are slow to make decisions, but that is due to the complex coordination process that must be completed to obtain social consensus.

■Changes in the policy-making process

Traditional policy-making was bureaucrat-driven and bottom-up. In that process, bureaucrats first create policy proposals based on their own network and resources. Then, they gather opinions on those proposals from deliberation councils made up of industry group representatives and experts and synthesize those opinions into policies. Some people refer to this as “deliberation council politics.” However, in recent years, this traditional policy-making process has been growing less effective at yielding results.

  • The decline in the ability of intermediate organizations to gather opinions

Opportunities for information exchange between the public and private sectors have been decreasing since the late 1990s. This has made it difficult for bureaucrats to obtain information and build networks. Intermediary organizations have also been on the decline, as has their ability to consolidate the opinions of their members that attend deliberation councils. Labor union membership is one example of this decline. While one out of three workers was a member of a labor union during the period of rapid economic growth in Japan (from the post-World War II era to the 1970s), factors such as the increase of non-regular workers mean that now, only one out of six workers belongs to a labor union. As such, even labor unions representatives do not necessarily represent the consolidated opinions of the greater workforce. The decline of intermediate organizations’ abilities to consolidate opinions has made it more difficult to obtain social consensus through deliberation councils alone.

  • Changes in the political situation due to changes in the electoral system

There has also been a dramatic change in political circumstances, particularly in the electoral system. In 1996, the House of Representatives adopted a mixed electoral system of single-seat constituency and proportional representation. The constituency system made maintaining high approval ratings more important because election outcomes are directly affected by the Government’s approval rating before and during elections. Therefore, the Government started introducing policies on issues of high public interest while the public was still paying attention to those issues. The traditional bottom-up approach to policy-making under the leadership of bureaucrats requires time for the coordination process, which often makes it difficult to implement major changes to existing systems. In response, the Government has reinforced the functions of the Prime Minister’s Office by strengthening Cabinet functions, establishing councils like the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Council for Regulatory Reform, and appointing senior officials through the Cabinet Personnel Bureau.

  • Changes in the political situation due to the increase in unaffiliated voters and the dissemination of Social Networking Sites

Another factor changing the political landscape is the increase in unaffiliated voters. This is partially due to decreasing influence of intermediate organizations, which has in turn resulted in shrinking influence on the voting habits of their members.

The growing popularity of Social Networking Sites (SNSs) has also had significant influence. These services have made it possible to see the opinions of members of the general public which were previously invisible. These opinions have begun to influence politics. There are an increasing number of cases in which the Government shifts policies, even after enactment, due to their reception on the Internet. Past examples of such changes include the freeze of the premium for pregnant women and changes in eligibility for the emergency stimulus package provided during the COVID-19 pandemic and its amount.

■Steps for creating better policies

In view of these changes to the policy-making process, the policy creation process should be rebuilt in a manner that reflects current social and political circumstances so good policies can be created in the future.

Social issues are always present in the real world, in the everyday lives of the people. The issues facing the public and the needs of society must be grasped before good policies can be created. We then have to think of the specific items to include in policies as well as solutions. Then, to complete the complex policy-making process, we need to create strategies on how and when to coordinate, and with whom. To deepen understanding of policies, especially among the general public, public relations strategies are also important.

There is no individual or single organization that can carry out this entire process alone. That means making good policy requires cooperation that spans sectors and involves various stakeholders.

For that collaboration to take place, we must create opportunities for politicians, bureaucrats, specialist NGOs, the media, experts, NPOs, and local governments to connect and exchange opinions on an ongoing basis. It will also be important to encourage civil society to use those opportunities to provide good input to politicians and bureaucrats. That means the public must understand the policy-making process. People will have to think about what policy is; when, how, and by whom policy is made; and, based on the answers to those questions, when to make appeals, who to seek action from, and how to do so.

I will share specific points for proposing policies in a book I am currently working on, “A Textbook for Policy Professionals: Linking Actual Voices to Policy.” I also post about this topic on SNSs, and I would love for anyone who is interested to have a look. In the future, I plan to work with the HGPI to propose methods of creating opportunities for discussions between the public and private sectors held from positions of equality. By continuing these activities, I want to correct the unhealthy work styles in Kasumigaseki and contribute to creating an environment where the public and private sectors can make good policies together.

[1] Our use of “black” in “Black Kasumigaseki” reflects the Japanese title of Mr. Sensho’s book. In Japanese, the term “black” can refer to companies, organizations, or environments that generally force their employees to work long hours, overload their bodies, and strain their mental health, or workplaces where such unhealthy work styles have become the norm.
[2] Materials from the fifth meeting of the MHLW Reform Implementation Team (March 11, 2021). 
[3] A Diet member with a question must submit a “question notification” to inform the ministry of the question in advance. Ministers at each ministry and agency are experts in their respective fields, but they have broad jurisdictions and do not necessarily always have a detailed understanding of every topic. The advance notification gives them time to prepare so that more concrete policy discussions can be held. After receiving a question notification, responsible parties at each ministry and agency sort through information like histories and relevant data. Then, before Diet deliberations begin, they work with the Minister in question to make preliminary adjustments to the content and wording of answers in advance. The answers are then submitted during Diet deliberations. As a general rule, questions must be submitted by noon two days before the Diet deliberations. This deadline is rarely met, however, and question notifications are often submitted during the evening or night before deliberations. (Source: Sensho, Y. 2020. Black Kasumigaseki, p50-54)

■ Profile
Mr. Yasuhiro Sensho (CEO, SENSHO-GUMI Co., Ltd.)
Mr. Yasuhiro Sensho was born in 1975. He graduated from the Department of Political Science at the Keio University Faculty of Law in 1999 and joined the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) in 2001. After working in the Pension Bureau and in various other positions, he served as Deputy Director of the General Affairs Division, Minister’s Secretariat and as Secretary to the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare. After that, in 2013, he was made responsible for drafting the Act on the Safety of Regenerative Medicine as Deputy Director of the Research and Development Division of the Health Policy Bureau. As the first official from the MHLW to serve as First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy in India, he initiated exchanges between regulatory authorities in Japan and India to simplify the examination process for Japanese medical devices in India. In 2016, he returned to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, where he served as Deputy Director of the Equal Employment, Children and Families Bureau in the General Affairs Division. In 2017, as Deputy Director-General for Policy Planning in charge of Social Security, he worked on social security projections for 2040, the Basic Policy for Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, and systems for accepting workers from overseas. In 2018, he was appointed Deputy Director of Health Policy Planning at the Health Policy Bureau of the General Affairs Division, where he engaged in efforts for physicians’ work style reform. In 2019, he retired from the MHLW at age 44. He established SENSHO-GUMI Co., Ltd. in 2020 where he continues focusing on the field of healthcare and welfare provision by providing consulting services, supporting companies who wish to expand in India, issuing policy proposals, penning articles, and making media appearances. He also serves as a member of the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office Security and Safety Working Group and as a member of the Ministry of the Environment’s Advisory Council on Accelerating Work Style Reform. He serves as an expert commentator on digital affairs for Asahi Shimbun and as a specialist member of PoliPoli Inc., has given many lectures at healthcare organizations, and is the author of Black Kasumigaseki (published by Shincho Shinsho). He has a column on physician work style reform on m3 and writes for the “Textbook for Human Resources in Policy,” a subscription magazine from Note

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