Growing need for local government services
When it comes to the work of local public servants, many people may think of the over-the-counter services provided at ward offices or city government offices. In other words, we may imagine that they work only during the fixed hours from 9:00 to 5:00 without overtime and that their employment is secured.
But the actual situations of local government servants are quite different from what we imagine.
Currently, an increasing number of local governments outsource the so-called over-the-counter services, such as issuance of simple documents and certificates, to private service providers. The providers offer the services on a contracted basis for fixed hours. Therefore, the working hours of over-the-counter services ends, for example, at exactly 5:00.
What do local government employees do? The answer is that they are in charge of matters that cannot be processed mechanically at the counter.
For example, they cover the part of citizen services that cannot be codified into a manual among welfare services, including livelihood assistance and childcare support.
Originally, one of the important roles of local governments was to function as a safety net to support people who are suffering from poverty or who are said to be socially vulnerable due to various reasons. In recent years, such work has increasingly occupied their works.
This is mainly because of decentralization in Japan. Since the 1990s, authority and financial resources for administration have been transferred from the national government to local governments. Thanks to that, local governments came to offer more resident-tailored services.
Since around the same time, society has experienced a rapid pace of declining childbirth and aging population as well as a widening of disparities. Local governments have to respond to a growing amount of work in the welfare field urgently, such as support for the elderly and child rearing, measures for single parents and social withdrawal, and public assistance.
In other words, as local governments, which provide resident services, have gained authority, the residents’ need for local government services has also increased.
However, due to financial reasons, the number of local government employees has been decreasing year by year since its peak in 1994. So of course the amount of work each employee is responsible for has increased. Also, disasters have occurred frequently in these years, forcing local servants to devote a lot of time to disaster response.
Although the number of local government employees increased in 2017 for the first time in a while, the outsourcing of over-the-counter services emerged as one of the solutions to tackle this situation.
On the other hand, society is increasingly concerned about long working hours, death from overwork, labor shortages, and low labor productivity. It is not only a problem for private companies, but also for local governments.
The private sector has struggled for work style reform to solve such situations by introducing ICT and digital devices and by promoting work awareness reforms.
However, local governments have been slow to implement work style reform. This may be because there is a difference between private companies pursuing profits and local governments focusing on administrative services for residents.
Slow digitalization in local governments
According to “Results of Survey on Overtime Work by Local Government Employees” issued by the MIC, local government employees worked 158.4 hours of overtime per year during the period from FY2014 to FY2015. Employees of private companies, on the other hand, worked 154 hours of overtime a year, so local government employees worked more overtime hours than them.
In the private sector, companies have already been promoting telework and online working gradually, and due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, such style of work has spread rapidly. Consequently, the shift from paper to digital has made significant progress.
In addition, the flextime system and the overtime work permit system (in which employees need to have permission from managers before doing overtime) have been introduced widely in the private sector. As a result, there should be a growing awareness that the management of employees’ working hours is the responsibility of supervisors, that is, the management ability of managers.
This seems that private companies have succeeded in changing the structure of their work and the awareness of how they work by setting their main goal of increasing employee productivity.
On the local governments’ side, however, especially in the welfare field where residents’ needs are increasing, face-to-face services are often provided for understanding the situation of service-seekers in detail or for visiting their homes in some cases, and the working hours of local government employees in charge are likely to be tailored to the residents’ convenience.
It is not easy to introduce a flextime system because each employee has a large number of cases. The overtime work permit system has already been introduced, but there is also a sense that such a system must not result in budget constraints or deterioration of resident services.
Introduction of an online system is also not as advanced as in the private sector.
For example, meetings within organizations are gradually going online. Also, in city planning and bidding activities, since the counterparties are often companies and institutions, it is easier to promote doing related work online.
However, digital transformation in the field of offering citizen services to residents has been slow to progress.
For example, if private companies were willing to make efforts to create environments for their employees to work online, the employees would also make efforts to create their own Internet environments by themselves.
However, local governments cannot provide all services online to residents with different Internet environments or none at all. Therefore, they have to use online and face-to-face services at the same time.
Thus they cannot shift from paper to digital at once, and they will suffer duplication of work and increase of work volume instead.
In addition, there are information security issues. Residents’ information must be protected.
Looking at these points, we can find that it is not easy for local governments to digitize and go online, which are considered core methods for work style reform.
For promoting work style reform of local government employees
Local government employees, however, must also reform their work style. One reason is that many of them suffer mental health problems due to excessive overtime.
According to “Absentees Due to Poor Mental Health in Local Public Governments and Related Measures” issued by the MIC, 2,250 out of every 100,000 persons take leave due to poor mental health.
Of course, this does not mean that local governments are so-called “black workplaces” where employees are forced to work under bad working conditions. Most local government employees are proud of their work of offering citizen services and are motivated by it. Furthermore, local governments, as employing entities, promote preventive measures against mental diseases and provide more generous support for employees on leave.
For example, local governments have introduced a system in which multiple employees are in charge of one project or case rather than holding it individually. In addition, they engage workplace physicians to provide support to their employees on a daily basis and to make judgements as to whether employees on leave can return to work or not. There is also a system in which a manager and/or chief decides the work amount of an employee returning to work after leave while communicating with the workplace physician.
Local governments are also introducing personnel assessment systems. In these systems, employees are assessed both for their ability and performance. The ability assessment measures communication ability, coordination ability and skill level, and they should be almost the same as those of private companies.
On the other hand, the performance assessment, which mainly measures quantitative achievement levels, is difficult to adapt to local governments because their work performance cannot be evaluated simply with numerical values like business performance in the private sector.
However, the evaluation checkpoints for the performance assessment sometimes include goals towards work improvement and more efficient work. If these goals are taken more preferentially, discussions on more effective work style reform for local government employees will flourish, and better systems and initiatives will be created.
However, the previously mentioned group working style, in which multiple people are in charge of a single project or case, is currently doing the opposite. This is because it increases the number of projects per person, and digitization increases the amount of work.
In my opinion, that’s because local governments are now in the transition period of work style reform. I believe that the evaluation system must shift in the direction of increasing labor productivity in the future.
As citizens, we expect the local government to provide more tailored services to the residents. Local government employees are also doing their best to meet our expectations.
On the other hand, if they work too hard, develop mental issues, and need to take time off, it will be counterproductive, and they will not be able to play an active role even though they have worthwhile jobs.
Digital transformation, as promoted by private companies, is very effective in reforming the way people work, but for local governments, there is a contradiction between introducing digitization and realizing more tailored services.
“Human friendly digitalization: No one left behind” is the goal of the Digital Agency, but how local governments that aim to support the elderly and the socially vulnerable will achieve this will be a major challenge. It can be said that this is an issue for society as a whole.
Promoting mutual assistance among citizens will lead to solving these problems.
I also believe that the progress of the work style reform of local government employees will improve society as a whole.
* The information contained herein is current as of April 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.