Suga’s top-down management style under review after series of rapid political changes

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As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushes for a faster vaccine rollout for a nation catching up with much of the developed world, his top-down management style is coming under increasing scrutiny after weeks of instant decisions that bypassed even members of his own cabinet.

In the space of about a month, Suga declared ambitious goals for vaccines in rapid succession, opening mass vaccination sites run by the Self-Defense Forces, completing all vaccinations for people aged 65 and over. or more by the end of July and targeting 1 million doses. per day. Exasperated by a surprisingly slow rollout, the PM turned to a towering style he perfected during his nearly eight years as Chief Cabinet Secretary to chart a more ambitious course.

“I believe vaccines are the trump card to protect every life,” Suga said on May 14.

But this top-down approach emphasizing the rapid delivery of results could backfire and undermine the government’s traditional chain of command.

In fact, the administration’s armor may already be showing some cracks: when Suga decided to put three prefectures – Hiroshima, Okayama, and Hokkaido – under near-urgent antivirus measures instead of a state of emergency. full in mid-May, he was forced to go back. due to strong objections from experts on a government panel.

More than eight months after taking office, the Suga administration continues to question how to iron out differences of opinion among officials and present a united front to the public. As chief secretary to the cabinet, Suga was praised for his exceptional ability to coordinate with various government agencies and bureaucrats. The absence of a Suga-like figure in his own cabinet has been lamented by some, including Suga’s former boss Shinzo Abe, who remarked that “there is no ‘Suga’ in the within the Suga administration.

“Someone who is in charge of coordination within the administration becomes a bulwark for the most senior power-holder, so it is normal to have discussions or hesitation about political decisions at the stage of coordination, ”said Takashi Ryuzaki, a former political journalist and professor of political science at Ryutsu Keizai University.

“However, if a prime minister himself tries to coordinate and his decisions are inconsistent, questions will arise as to his decisive character, as is currently the case. … I have the impression that Suga can only be satisfied if he has to make decisions about everything.

Suga has shown his appetite for taking control with recent steps to respond to the health crisis by directly issuing orders to Cabinet ministers.

Earlier this year, he called on Taro Kono as minister responsible for vaccine deployment and Minoru Kihara, a special adviser to the prime minister, to oversee border control measures. The changes took place even though two ministers – Minister of Health Norihisa Tamura and Minister of Economic Revitalization Yasutoshi Nishimura – were already tasked with managing the government’s response to the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga talks to reporters with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (left) at a large-scale vaccination center in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA KYODO

He then looped through more cabinet ministers. On April 27, Suga ordered Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi to speed up plans to open mass vaccination sites run by the Self-Defense Forces in Osaka and Tokyo, with the two metropolises in the throes of a fourth wave of infections. These instructions bypassed Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Nishimura, Tamura and Kono.

Until then, only municipalities were responsible for administering vaccines in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s roadmap. Frustrated by slow progress that was hampered by bureaucratic red tape, the prime minister’s office implemented the plan to mobilize SDF doctors and nurses to vaccinate up to 10,000 people a day in Tokyo and 5,000 per day in Osaka.

Other decisions have followed a similar path.

At a press conference on April 23, the prime minister outlined his plan to ensure that 36 million people aged 65 and over receive vaccines by the end of July. On May 7, he also introduced a goal of 1 million doses per day in order to meet the July target. Along the same lines as the plan for mass vaccination sites, Suga gave a direct order to Minister Ryota Takeda for his Department of Home Affairs and Communications to support municipalities to ensure a smooth vaccination program.

The prime minister’s top-down decision-making process has been a key feature of the administration. For the sake of speed, Suga has deployed similar tactics on carbon neutrality, cell phone bills, and digitization.

Instead of giving instructions to his Chief Cabinet Secretary, who usually acts as the Prime Minister’s messenger, Suga has shown a willingness to bypass Kato and deal directly with ministers. He frequently summons them to the Prime Minister’s Office to receive updates and reprimand them if necessary to speed up the project they are working on.

Ryuzaki of Ryutsu Keizai University noted that although Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga acts as a mediator between Abe and other ministers as well as bureaucrats, he has often been asked to make decisions on behalf of the Premier. minister. Suga apparently did not move beyond that position, as he “does the same thing he did as chief cabinet secretary,” Ryuzaki said.

“The Prime Minister has to deal with various problems, so there is a limit to what one person can do,” he said. “The Prime Minister makes the final decision on the assumption that there is someone in charge of general coordination like Mr. Suga was. In other words, no prime minister can make all the decisions “alone”.

When Abe was prime minister, he advised with a tight circle of elite bureaucrats. He controlled the bureaucracy through Suga and Kazuhiro Sugita, the deputy chief secretary of the Cabinet, to materialize his political decisions.

Together, they used a top-down leadership style that increased the decision-making power of the Prime Minister’s Office, instead of letting bureaucrats take over their own ministries. Among bureaucrats, Suga has gained a reputation for not wanting to listen to opposing views and not hesitating to relegate them if they stubbornly disagree with his policies.

Sugita, who still serves as deputy chief cabinet secretary, is said to have orchestrated the mass vaccination plan using the self-defense forces. In his role, Sugita is supposed to assist the chief secretary of the cabinet and manage the bureaucrats as the administrative head. However, despite his successful push for mass vaccination sites, he seems less involved in coronavirus policy decision-making than his time under Abe. Instead, Suga often consults directly with adviser Hiroto Izumi and three senior health ministry officials.

Regarding coordination within the administration, someone like Sugita could help with crisis management on a temporary basis, but it would be difficult for someone in their position to do so continuously, said Izuru Makihara. , professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.

“I think there has to be someone who can rule all the ministers involved in the long-term coronavirus response,” Makihara said.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a Cabinet meeting with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) on May 14.  KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a Cabinet meeting with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) on May 14. | KYODO

Signs are emerging that the absence of a reliable coordinator and Suga’s management style may not be sustainable.

On May 14, the government sought expert approval from a government panel to invoke quasi-urgent countermeasures in several prefectures, including Okayama and Hiroshima, and not to apply a state of emergency in Hokkaido. Suga apparently worried about the economic impact of a full state of emergency, he pushed for a targeted approach to stem a growing wave of infections in those areas.

Experts, who until then had reliably endorsed government decisions, revolted against Suga’s assessment: Infectious disease specialists and economic experts questioned the administration’s plan to maintain these areas outside the state of emergency – particularly Hokkaido, where a record 712 new cases had been reported the day before.

Nishimura surrendered, left in the middle of the panel meeting, and rushed to the prime minister’s office. Nishimura then consulted Suga, Minister of Health Tamura and Kato after a Cabinet meeting.

In an unprecedented move, Suga reversed his decision and decided to impose the emergency. The government bowed to the demand because almost everyone in the panel felt the more stringent option was necessary, according to a senior administration official who knows about the development.

The opposition camp jumped at the chance to criticize Suga’s about-face.

Jun Azumi, the Diet Affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party, rebuked Suga as frivolous, saying the incident had shattered public confidence in the administration’s ability to manage itself.

The U-turn exposed the administration’s inadequate coordination, Ryuzaki said.

Typically, Nishimura “would have called Kato to seek the decision of Suga, which is the role of chief cabinet secretary,” Ryuzaki said. “But Nishimura rushed to the prime minister’s office because he knew talking to Kato wouldn’t make sense and had to ask Suga’s decision directly to contain the situation.

“Nishimura should have rightly known what the experts would suggest (the day before the group meeting) and advised the prime minister, if not the chief cabinet secretary,” he said. “But he knows that the Prime Minister would say to him:” It is up to you to convince the experts “. … Since Suga adopts such a style, the current environment would not have allowed Nishimura to offer his opinion to the Prime Minister in advance.

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