Japan launches Digital Agency

By on 08/09/2021 | Updated on 08/09/2021
Japan is known for its technological prowess but that hasn’t translated to the digitalisation of the country’s public services. Its new Digital Agency aims to remedy that. Photo courtesy Aleksandar Pasaric via Pexels

The Japanese government has launched a new Digital Agency to spearhead the development of online public service delivery and integrate IT systems across departments and agencies.

The agency, which began operating on 1 September, is a major policy priority for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who planned to personally head the initiative aimed at propelling the government’s antiquated IT systems and paper-based services into the digital era.

However, Suga announced his resignation as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party two days later, following record low poll ratings prompted by the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most cities are under emergency measures again, after case numbers soared over the summer.

Minister for digital transformation Takuya Hirai, who has led preparations for the new agency, was appointed digital minister in charge of its operations, and Yoko Ishikura, a former manager with consultancy McKinsey & Co, was named as its chief officer.

At the launch event, Hirai stressed that it was critical to change the mindset of officials across government departments and agencies, as reported by news website Japan Times. “We are in an era where digitalisation matters to every policy,” he said.

Japan needed to accept that its IT policies had failed in the past, Hirai said, citing the 2020 Digital Competitiveness Ranking compiled by IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, which ranked the country 27th out of 64 countries worldwide.

“This means that there’s a lot to catch up on,” he said. “We hope to connect digitalisation efforts with the growth strategy in various ways.”

The Digital Agency will lead the development of interoperable IT systems across Japan’s public services. It has 600 employees, four times the number in the IT Strategic Headquarters that it replaces, with 130 staff members drawn from the private sector to bring in cutting-edge tech expertise.

The agency aims to digitalise and standardise procedures across 31 administrative divisions, developing online services using a 12-digit identification code for citizens called My Number. Its first challenge will be to develop a system of digital vaccine passports by the end of the year for people who are travelling abroad.

It will also roll-out GovCloud, a cloud-computing platform that aims to enable information exchange and digital collaboration between local governments across Japan that rely on customised IT systems from different vendors, which are mutually incompatible.

Under a law passed in May, the Digital Agency is empowered to oversee digital policy and to advise heads of government departments and agencies. It will also control the IT budgets for all departments and agencies, which were previously managed internally.

The Digital Agency was prompted by bungled initiatives early in the Covid-19 pandemic that highlighted how ill-prepared Japan was to use digital technology to carry out government policies, according to leading national daily The Nikkei.

An emergency cash handout programme stalled because applications had to be processed manually, while weak IT systems in hospitals and schools hampered efforts to provide telemedicine and online lessons during lockdown.

Suga’s surprise resignation has triggered a last-minute contest for a party leadership ballot at the end of September that will determine who replaces him as serving prime minister and go on to fight a general election that is due to take place by 28 November. Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister, were the first to throw their hats into the ring. It is unclear whether Suga’s successor will head up the Digital Agency.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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