Japan launches Digital Agency in digitisation and productivity push

The use of digital technology in Japan has not filtered down to the day-to-day operations of individual ministries and agencies. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan's Digital Agency started work on Wednesday (Sept 1), realising a pet cause of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to streamline and modernise the antiquated administrative processes.

Despite Japan's global reputation as a high-tech nation, the use of digital technology has not filtered down to the day-to-day operations of individual ministries and agencies that rely heavily on paperwork and usually operate in silos.

The drawback of this was exposed amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with Japan's early struggles in promoting telework and online education, as well as in devising a system to track the number of vaccine doses administered.

There were also hiccups in the roll-out of an emergency cash handout programme that relied on paper-based applications, while glitches in the contact-tracing application had rendered it useless for months.

"The delay in digitisation of the bureaucracy and private sector has become apparent," Mr Suga said on Wednesday. "Japan cannot move forward unless we take the plunge with digitisation, for which we need a strong command tower."

A priority for the Digital Agency is to digitise Covid-19 vaccination certificates by the end of the year.

The new agency, which has 600 employees of whom about a third were hired from the private sector, will serve as the hub for whole-of-government digital services.

It is led by digital transformation minister Takuya Hirai, who has blamed the lack of integration for Japan's "digital defeat". He said on Wednesday that digitisation will be key for building a society that leaves no one behind.

His second-in-command is Professor Emeritus Yoko Ishikura of Hitotsubashi University, who specialises in corporate administration.

Among other things, the agency will leverage the 12-digit My Number personal identification system to pull together individual information across various sectors. It will encourage the public to link their ID numbers to their bank accounts for the fast delivery of government benefits.

An official with the Digital Agency told reporters in a background briefing that the agency is looking at best practices in high-tech nations like Singapore and Estonia that are relevant to Japan.

Referring to Singapore's efforts to build a smart nation, the official said: "The Smart Nation initiative is good organisation, it's smart governance. We are good friends with them (Singapore's Smart Nation and Digital Government Office) and are learning the best practices."

But he also acknowledged that the Digital Agency will have its work cut out for it. Standardisation is a major challenge when there are different levels of governance in the country - the national level, prefecture level and municipality level.

Besides the 23 special wards in central Tokyo, there are 1,718 municipalities - cities, towns and villages - across Japan's 47 prefectures, each with its own preferred way of doing things. And even at the national level, different ministries have their own customised IT systems with little cooperation.

The Digital Agency aims to standardise this patchwork of systems into GovCloud by fiscal year 2025.

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