By Hamada Tomohiro, staff writer
An in-house survey by the labor ministry found that Diet lawmakers add to the burden of bureaucrats, already saddled with notoriously long work hours, in requesting help to prepare speeches and reference materials for important meetings–even if it means burning the midnight oil.
It said bureaucrats faced hundreds of requests between late 2019 and late last year to prepare speeches for gatherings of support groups in lawmakers’ constituencies, a responsibility that critics contend is not part of their official duties.
The investigation by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare turned up at least 400 instances in which bureaucrats were asked by Diet members, most of them legislators with the ruling coalition, to draft speeches or provide an outline of information for speaking engagements.
The findings suggest that the ministry, which is in charge of reforming work practices in both the public and private sectors to reduce excessively long work hours, also needs to revamp the way things work on its home turf.
The study was prompted by a meeting between administrative reform minister Taro Kono and members of a group of reform-minded bureaucrats at the labor ministry in November 2020.
During the meeting, the bureaucrats griped about the widespread practice among ministries of having to prepare speeches on behalf of Diet members. They complained that the work added to their burden as public servants.
The group was formed in spring 2019 with 38 employees to review the ministry’s work practices and organizational structure. Many members of the group are in their 20s and 30s and represent a wide range of fields under the ministry’s jurisdiction, from health care to labor issues.
That summer, the group compiled a report on a set of emergency proposals to make office life easier. The members pointed out that the amount of work they are required to get done is so heavy that they are forced to work in an oppressive working environment.
The meeting between Kono and the labor ministry group came at a time when he was starting to champion an end to the longstanding practice among government employees of putting in unpaid overtime.
The investigation was conducted in November last year, according to a document sent by the General Affairs Division at the Minister’s Secretariat to officials in other divisions of the ministry.
In the document, the officials were asked to list the number of requests from lawmakers in which ministry bureaucrats were asked to prepare speeches to be made at political gatherings in their constituency or provide reference materials they could refer to on such occasions.
In ordinary circumstances, speeches for legislators to be given as part of their political activities are supposed to be written by their policy aides.
The ministry also defined such gatherings as those of support groups and industry organizations in a particular local constituency.
For the study, the period in which the requests were made by Diet members was limited to one year from December 2019 to “quickly come up with an overall picture” of the additional burden bureaucrats have to shoulder in their work, according to the document.
It also noted that the investigation was being carried out because its Diet liaison office had discarded written documents concerning such requests, even though it was obliged to keep them.
A former ministry bureaucrat said drafting speeches for lawmakers had become routine among bureaucrats and that the task is generally assigned to young employees.
“They felt it is not part of their official responsibilities, but could not decline the requests because they came from their superiors,” the former official said.
Satoshi Nomura, who heads the General Affairs Division, said the “purpose of the investigation was to get a better understanding of the current situation, not a comprehensive one.”
He added that the ministry does not have any plans at the moment to publish the results of the investigation.
Manabu Yoshida, an administrative vice minister and the highest-ranking bureaucrat at the ministry, defended the practice.
“Drafting speeches for and offering related information to Diet members is not in conflict with the responsibility of public servants as legislators attend such gatherings in the line of duty,” he said.
But Hirotake Masaki, a professor of administrative law at Kyoto-based Ritsumeikan University, took issue with the task of being forced to do additional work for some Diet members.
“Serving some lawmakers runs counter to the philosophy of Article 96 of the national civil service law, which defines public servants as those serving the general public,” he said.
He said the issue could be also problematic if the task of writing speeches for lawmakers reaches the point where the original responsibilities of bureaucrats as public servants become disrupted.