The Elements of Independence
The discussions that have been going on in Japan regarding the need for greater independence of the nuclear regulatory organization have, to date, focused mainly on the organizational independence. There are really at least three types of independence that are important--organizational independence, independence from the licensee, and ability of staff to assess the technical situation independently. While these have been discussed separately, it is worth considering them together. This blog post will look at the role each of these characteristics plays in creating an independent agency.
Organizational independence is, indeed, important. I have addressed this issue previously, as have others. The placement of the organization within a government's structure does matter because of both the perception and the real possibility that a regulatory organization that is subordinate to other government functions could be subject to pressures to slant its judgments to help support the other missions of the parent body. For example, there could be concerns that a safety issue is dismissed to help assure that power demands can be met. Many other countries originally had regulatory organizations buried within promotional ministries or departments, much as Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is buried in the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (METI). Most have now separated these functions.
Independence from the Licensee
I have previously written about my concern that the Japanese system of amakudari makes it difficult for the regulator to maintain true independence from its licensees. This system, which I believe is unique to Japan, institutionalizes the movement of government employees from an agency into companies regulated by the same agency. People often counter this concern by noting that people move between the government and industry in other countries as well. This is true, and some movement between sectors is probably even a good thing. We all need to understand the issues, constraints, difficulties, and concerns faced by the people and organizations with which we interface. However, in other countries, such movement between sectors occurs in both directions and is based on individual initiative. In fact, there are often even some temporary restrictions on the activities of government officials who move into the private sector. But most importantly, such moves are not managed by the personnel department and do not depend on coordination between government and private organizations as is the case in Japan.
Technical Ability of Staff
Another characteristic of the Japanese government is that the majority of the government employees are generalists. Although the Japanese government does employ some specialists in different fields, the majority of staff, even in highly technical areas, do not have technical degrees or experience in technical fields. Furthermore, the government employment system operates much like the US military and diplomatic personnel systems operate--that is, individuals are rotated to positions throughout their agency, and sometimes to other agencies. Because of this, they do not become specialists in a single area, even after a career in one agency. As a result, government agencies have come to rely heavily on committees of outside experts. Japanese government staff is overly reliant on the advice and is unable to develop any of their own independent assessments. Therefore, they may not be able to recognize it in the hopefully rare case where an expert adviser makes an error. Of course, regulatory agencies in other countries use expert advisers and expert contractors as well. The difference is that the staffers in other countries are capable of reviewing the technical materials developed by others and making independent judgments.