Monday, June 02, 2008

The Quality of His Councils

Last week the Prime Minister's advisory group on education revitalization caused quite a stir by advocating a public education program discouraging the use of mobile telephones by elementary and middle schoolchildren.

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo was asked in his daily news gaggle his opinion of the recommendation.

He responded:

"It is a fact that there are also harmful effects from the possession of mobile telephones. They cause many kinds of problems. It is necessary for parents to carefully consider whether or not it is good to give mobile phones to children. It is necessary for society to take an interest in the question of whether or not the carrying of mobile phones has a purpose in childrearing."

Wire services and publications around the world carried the story, lured by the heady mixture of the seeming hopelessness of trying to crack down on access to wireless communications, overblown reporting of crimes against and by children abetted by the new technologies, latent technophobia and the ubiquity of mobile telephony.

A few mentioned another recommendation, that children start English language education in the third grade.

In their reports, the news services referred to the authors of the recommendations as a government panel or government advisory council. A lot jumped the gun, saying that limiting access to mobile phones was a new government program.

It isn't.

It likely will never be.

Because they aren't.

In a furious op-ed entitled "Education Revitalization: Their Feet Don't Reach the Ground" (Kyōiku saisei: chi ni ashi ga tsuite nai no de wa) the editors of the Mainichi Shimbun last Tuesday asked, quite seriously, "Who are these people making these idiotic recommendations in the name of revitalizing education?"

Who indeed?

It turns out that the Commission on Education Revitalization (Kyoiku saisei kaigi) -- the advisory council organized by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō which set out to and did produce a blueprint for toughening up the yutori (slack) education curriculum and the new, some say anti-union, standards for ensuring teacher quality -- quietly, without any fuss, closed up shop earlier this year.

In its place Prime Minister Fukuda appointed similarly-named Roundtable on Education Revitalization (Kyoiku saisei kondankai). Unlike the Commission, though, the Roundtable has no clear mission: it is not required to produce a report; it does not seem to have a particular problem or set of problems to tackle. Continuous improvement of education, as the Mainichi editorial points out, is the remit of another, well-established advisory group: the Central Education Council (Chūō kyōiku shingikai).

So what the heck is the Roundtable on Education Revitalization for?

It seems to be simply a talk shop, its members commenting on whatever they want to comment on.

Without considering the consequences or implications of their recommendations.

For example, in the case of the recommendation that English be taught third graders, no projection is made on how the program is to be funded or how the necessary teachers would be recruited. Its just an idea, floating in the wind...

The establishment of the freelancing Roundtable on education reform would not be quite so disturbing if it were balanced by an institutionalization of advisory organs in other policy areas. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Fukuda has overseen a dismantling of an independent advisory and policy making apparatus around the prime minister, reversing the trends of the last decade. Unlike his predecessors Koizumi Jun'ichirō and Abe Shinzō, Fukuda has no economic point man or woman on his private staff. He has failed to follow in the footsteps of Abe in appointing a Prime Minister's Special Advisor for national security. Indeed, Fukuda seems to have little use for the special advisors he has retained: I cannot recall the last time I saw any of them mentioned in the news. He has allowed the plan for an independent Security Council to languish and has kept Sadakazu Tanigaki in charge of the Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council...

Just what one would need to make an evisceration of politician-driven policy change all the more complete.

Why is Fukuda allowing this regression? Is Japan suffering from a surfeit of reformism and/or a dearth of pie-in-the-sky dreaming, making it necessary to deprofessionalize the adjunct advisory councils to the prime minister?

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