Aidan Rave reports on a recent study tour to look at local government in Japan where he discovered surprising similarities in public sector challenges with the UK
This was my first trip to Japan and on so many levels it lived up to expectations. Our tour took in both Tokyo and Kyoto, with the theme of environmental sustainability pervading throughout. The tour was remarkable on several levels and impeccably organised by the Centre for Local Authority International Relations (CLAIR) and the Japan Local Government Centre in London. Three things in particular struck me.
First – structurally – local and regional government in Japan is a fascinating dichotomy. Following the Second World War, government was neatly structured into three distinct layers, with central government, 47 prefectures at regional level and then municipalities at city level. At local and regional level, the administrations are run by the equivalent of a directly elected chief executive – a notion that is causing much debate in our country at the moment.
Of course it’s impossible to conclude whether such a system works or not, but it certainly does seem that such rigid structures seem to paradoxically provide for much more freedom within the layers of government – perhaps because there is little incentive for trying to push at the boundaries of responsibility.
Second and rather encouragingly – while Japan has some impressive environmental management credentials, I don’t think we saw anything that was genuinely beyond what we are doing in the UK at the moment. I suspect this is testament to the fact that we have caught up with other developed nations in terms of the environment – predicated largely on the fact that the last few years have seen a considerable shift for ‘green politics’ from the periphery to the centre ground.
Third, Japan has much to teach the UK (and for that matter many other western economies) about managing public services within the context of a stagnant, indeed declining economic environment. The fact that Japan’s economic growth has been consistently sluggish since the recession of 1991 has meant that they have had to manage a downsizing of their public services over the last decade – much as we prepare to do so in the next.
While I’m not convinced they have done everything right – the evidence – good and bad – is there to see and can surely be instructive to our own local government administrators and politicians?
As with any such exchange, one is left with a mixed feeling of being genuinely impressed (if not envious) of some things seen – and yet at the same time reassured about the efficacy of some of our own policies and services. Above all, the opportunity to explore new ideas and build new friendships is critical to our progress as a sector and such opportunities must be guarded jealously.
Aidan Rave is director, interim management at Pinnacle and former deputy mayor at Doncaster MBC