Relocate Public Servants to Remote Capitals

The resistance will pile up unless the offer is irresistible.

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At the heart of many politicians who intend to break a promise in public, the relocation of civil servants out of the capital comes as the definitive sign of false statement. The wise public has already grasped a long time ago that such a statement will not materialize after the election. The pledge is an obstruction with public administration, too. Over the years, as this probably goes back to the time after the Second World War, an idea of relocation has existed for a long time and will continue to be on the debate years after years without any actual attempt but unanimous opposition from bureaucrats.

Countless benefits will emerge in the debate and immediately disappear among opinion leaders. According to a British newspaper The Economist, the article of “Capital flight” elegantly summarizes three objectives of the shift to local town; to improve the living conditions of civil servants, to save money of space and free up more space for talented professionals. The third, the most important concern, is to rebalance the regional inequality.

Urban life is not easy but rural life is definitely much harder. The first aim will face a challenge that the social life will be depleted once city dwellers move to a remote area of mountains, rivers, and the ocean. There will be no culture, no entertainment, and small community to look after unless they settle for at least 10 years or more. The newspaper cites the example of Norway which shifted 1,600 civil-service jobs outside Oslo. When urban young couples moved from Oslo, the welcoming town newspaper reported their arrival on its front page. This story is slightly unbelievable, but my experience in local town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a population of 100,000, suggests that a newly wed couple often appeared on the life section of the newspaper. My university life doesn’t prompt students to read the local paper so much, especially the social life section, but I remember the Ann Arbor News depicted the profiles of young people just getting married on the day of wedding. It is not certain that the local newspaper asked for a prior consent from the couples. If not, whisper it, people in Ann Arbor know the couples. It is kind of interesting social life to start with for city residents, isn’t it?

The second reason of the shift is the reduction of costs for space where paper-pushing bureaucrats occupy in the central Tokyo. The talented professional firm such as the law or consultancy primarily works on hours to pay attention to the productivity of the work. They are 180 degree opposite to cost-insensitive bureaucrats. During 1980’s, my work as research assistant at an investment bank included a visit to one of Japanese ministries in Kasumigaseki, a central government within a 15 minutes of walk from my office. It was a brief visit to photocopy a couple of sheets for the statistical data of the Japanese economy. There existed no security guard, nor electric gate, nor any ID verification wit the driver license. To my surprise, some civil servants watched the Summer Olympics on TV while they were on duty in the afternoon.

Apart from indulgence of the public administration, the cost cutting initiative has been planned and executed in a totally wrong manner. According to my long time friend in the ministry, the central government shut the air conditioner off at 18:00 to presumably save the electricity and does not turn it back on until the next morning during the heat wave in August. Nobody wants to work in heat after 18:00 but many bureaucrats in the central Tokyo stay inside the sweltering buildings to work after mid-night. To my surprise, a former public administrator, now professor of pubic university recently boasts on the panel discussion of public policy on weather forecasting, that he used to work until 2:00 am in the morning. Alas, this kind of talk does not make sense at all and is off-balance in terms of productivity, health, and the quality of work itself, which ultimately drive young cool graduates out of ministries.

Some hot sunny day in the summer, when you walk around the streets of the central governments, a dark suite-dressed man rides on the bicycle with a stainless box behind the saddle. That man in the red tie shuffles the confidential documents between ministries and the Diet. It is nothing wrong doing such a thing but high-ranking public officials with a diploma from prestigious university may not want to use the bicycle for hot delivery. In Europe, a James Bond does not come with a mom-and-pop style old-fashioned bike with a cost of less than $100 on errands. It could save some cost but there must be something much bigger in scale to consider.

The third aim is somewhat convincing but the relocation is difficult. The Economist showed the attempt of Norway’s public administration to shift 42 civil staff, resulting in 34 of them or 80% decided to resign the position. The remaining 20% is a record high for Norway. In Japan, a small local town promotes city residents to settle there. One example is the initiative of Toyama government, which recommends that the young couples get married, have a child, and settle there to receive the public subsidy of $2,000 a month. No urban professionals, not to mention civil servants, are interested in spending a romantic life with heavy snow from December to March unless they don’t mind getting rid of snow from the top roof with plastic shovels almost everyday. Resistance will surely pile up with monetary incentives. A better offer must be presented.

What does it imply to me? There should be somewhere in the comfort zone between the central Tokyo and towns. Neither urban life nor rural one is easy in Japan. That is what politicians should mention in election, but if they do, nobody votes for them. The idea could be rather entertaining. The relocation is too good to be true. One says, the idea is too obvious to doubt.