Former Microsoft and McKinsey executives set to lead Japan civil service reform

By on 30/03/2022 | Updated on 30/03/2022
A wide shot of the National Diet in Japan
One of the new executives said hiring civil servants for life makes it harder to justify bringing in external talent.

Two female corporate leaders are expected to usher in a new merit-based system in the Japanese civil service, marking a break from its traditional emphasis on seniority and length of employment.

Katsura Ito, chief learning officer at Microsoft Japan, and Yuko Kawamoto, an ex-McKinsey consultant, have been appointed to senior roles on the promise to galvanise Japan’s bureaucracy into an institution fit for modern public service. They will serve together in Japan’s National Personnel Authority (NPA), the agency which formulates recommendations on issues from civil service pay and working conditions to hiring guidelines.

Ito received approval to become a commissioner of the NPA from Japan’s lower house of parliament last week and could receive the go-ahead from the country’s National Diet by the end of the month. The NPA is led by Kawamoto, who, as a former McKinsey consultant and Ito’s appointment means two of the agency’s three commissioners will be women who have worked for American companies.

“We could have a sort of fast pass for promotions based on merit”, Ito said at her confirmation.

She added that hiring civil servants for life makes it harder to bring in “outside talent”, argued for more fixed-term contracts, and said government agencies would have to digitise to improve productivity.

Read more: Japan launches Digital Agency

Tackling disincentives to civil service work

Kawamoto urged government to allow individual agencies to grant most fixed contracts of up to five years without the NPA’s approval. She also encouraged young officials to propose changes aimed at reducing long working hours, which are driving away prospective applicants as well as existing civil servants.

Applications for the civil service exam in Japan fell by around 30% in the space of a decade. Around 87 full-time, career-track civil servants between ages 20 and 30 quit for personal reasons in the 2019 fiscal year, according to reports, a four-fold increase compared to the previous six years.

Hisashi Harada, a professor of public administration at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, told Nikkei Asia there was “a big gap between the rules and the reality in Japan’s civil service framework”.

“Even when the rules are changed, the customs don’t. Things won’t improve unless parliament and other external influences also improve.”

Challenging traditions

The Japanese government has meanwhile begun challenging traditions around gender roles within its civil service. In 2019, Global Government Forum reported that Japan was to encourage male civil servants to take more paternity leave from 2020, extending their childcare leave beyond one month.

According to the NPA, only 1,350 (around 21.6%) of male government staff in regular full-time service and eligible for paternity leave took advantage of it in 2018.

It is also said to be developing measures to evaluate managers based partly on the number of subordinates take such leave, and to ease the process of putting work arrangements in place in their absence.

Figures from 2019 showed that the proportion of women among Japanese civil service recruits rose to 35.4%, 5% above the government’s annual goal of 30% that year, making it the highest rise on record.

The figures also reveal that more women were being hired as career-track civil servants, thus becoming part of Japan’s highly competitive employment scheme for high-ranking government officials in central government. In fiscal year 2020, 36.8% of career-track civil servant hires were female, a jump from 34.6% in 2019.

Read more: Japanese civil service chips away at gender inequality mountain

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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