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U.S. online strategy holds clues for Tokyo

Hatoyama's team needs to reform Web policies to connect with Japanese voters

by Fumi Yamazaki

Imagine befriending Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Facebook. Or getting “tweets” from Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Twitter. It could happen if Tokyo follows Washington’s lead.

This summer, Japan, like the United States last year, opted for a new government. Snubbing the Liberal Democratic Party after a more than 50-year ruling streak, voters rewarded Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan and, according to polls, are expecting change in return.

Technologically, change is needed. Public services are weighed down with paperwork, there is a lack of IT utilization and old laws still prohibit parties from using the Internet during an election period. These are things that should have been changed long before now. According to a study on e-government by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Japan ranked 37th out of 198 countries in 2008.

The e-government movement — the utilization of IT and Web technologies to increase efficiency, and enhance communication and transparency — has taken hold in Washington, D.C.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says the e-government movement has greatly changed information flow in Washington, enhancing communication among and between workers, agencies and the public.

Government agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have opened up online, communicating directly with citizens via Web services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and their own blogs at FCC Connect (fcc.gov/connect/).

Steven Van Roekel and Mary Beth Richards, managing director and special counsel for FCC Reform, respectively, both say their efforts go beyond communication and aim to actively increase citizen participation in FCC reform. One big initiative relating to this is available at the Broadband.gov Web site, where Americans can have their say in the lawmaking process. Citizens can submit their ideas on the site and other users can vote on those ideas so that the popular ones get filtered up to the top of the page. It is an approach similar to what U.S. President Barack Obama’s team did with the Change.gov Web site during the transition period before taking office. Richards sums it up by saying that Broadband.gov is basically cloudsourcing the procedure of making laws.

In Japan, there is a system known as paburikku komento (public comments), where citizens can submit their opinions on specific policy issues. However, submitting an opinion doesn’t guarantee it will be listened to. In 2007, the Agency for Cultural Affairs invited input on outlawing online downloads. The issue attracted 8,720 comments from the public, with 80 percent opposing the move. Despite the opposition, a law making downloads illegal was enacted.

In 2008, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare requested comments from the public concerning the prohibition of online medicine sales. It received 2,353 opinions with 97 percent opposing the move, but again the law was enacted based on a plan bureaucrats had laid out even before soliciting the public’s opinion.

The key factor in U.S. initiatives such as Broadband.gov and Change.gov is that Washington actually attempts to incorporate the public input it receives.

What Japan needs to do is not just change the technology, but change the mind-set of politicians and bureaucrats so that they listen to public opinion.

The bureaucracy is notorious for being set in its conservative ways and resistant to change, and this notion is summed up in the Japanese phrase oyakusho shigoto.

Steve Radick, a consultant at strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton based in Virginia, believes that in order for e-government to work in Japan, simply building the platform or using the technology won’t work. The governmental process itself must also change and how people work must change too.

Atsunori Higashikawa of NTT Data AgileNet agrees. He says just copying what the U.S. did will not be effective, as Japan’s bureaucracy must change the way it works. For example, official Japanese documents require the affixing of hanko (personal seals). The current system forces officials to print documents at the last second just to have the hanko added. Higashikawa says Japan needs to make a system that works without the need for a hanko.

U.S. government agencies used to work in isolated conditions in the past, according to the Brookings Institution’s West. The old practice of isolation is slowly being shattered as information exchange and communication improves among workers in the same agency, between agencies, and with outside experts.

This change in thinking came partly from a private-sector influx of new blood into the public system. New IT talents with marketing and communication skills have also been drawn out from within the agencies.

West says outside talents who are not bound by tradition are critical to increasing innovation within government agencies.

Craig Newmark, founder of classifieds Web site Craigslist, devotes much of his time and his extensive experience in the Web industry to improving e-government.

“Like everyone else, I would prefer to be at home watching TV [rather] than thinking about politics,” says Newmark. “But there are so many things we can do to make the government better.”

Newmark is a member of Govloop, a social-networking site focused on connecting people interested in improving government, that attracts a broad range of talent.

A vast amount of human networking and information sharing of the best practices channels through Govloop, according to its founder Steve Ressler. Govloop was the leading source of government input into the Obama administration’s Open Government Memo, which was a memorandum published from the president to the heads of executive departments and agencies stating the government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative.

In Japan, there are IT vendors who expect they can get a piece of the budget if they write proposals to the government using buzzwords — prompts that the government should be wary of. For example, phrases such as denshi-seifu (e-government) and “government 2.0″ are tossed about frequently in the quest to receive state funds.

In the past there have been so-called e-government systems in Japan that hardly anyone used, but which cost billions of yen. One such program was the passport registry system, which was abolished in 2006. Around ¥4.8 billion was invested in the program, but only 133 people made use of it.

In contrast, sites such as Change.gov were made with a small budget because they used existing systems. Therefore it is crucial to start initiatives with a small budget, test them well and get user feedback. The important thing is to create systems that the citizens actually use, and that are beneficial for them. For example, in the U.S. more than two-thirds of Americans pay taxes online.

Critics have derided e-government as mere hype, but that hasn’t prevented Microsoft, Adobe and Google from joining the movement.

Merely opening government information is not enough, according to Ginny Hunt of Google. She says presenting the data in visual form and making information understandable is important, and Google is putting lots of effort into this. For example, if a voter puts their address into Google’s election site, they will be able to see ballot information for their area before reaching the venue to vote.

“We are creating informed and empowered voters. This is the next step of democracy,” says Hunt.

Two major obstacles stand in Japan’s way to e-government realization. First is the “read the atmosphere” culture. Government must discuss its strategies faster, build quickly and then fix problems if necessary. The current culture dictates too much caution with regards to what others might be thinking and adjusting to pacify those possible scenarios in order to form a consensus that ends up slowing down the decision-making process.

Second, Japan has a “specification culture” where problems must be predicted and fixed beforehand.

What Tokyo needs to learn from Washington is a kind of “beta culture,” where action is fast and problems are taken care of quickly if they arise.

Lovisa A. Williams, a technology adviser at the U.S. State Department, says the key to getting citizens involved is to use the platforms they already use.

Working on public diplomacy, Williams uses not only Facebook, Twitter and Second Life, but also QQNet to communicate with the Chinese community and Orkut to communicate with the Brazilians. She says that rather than building your own space for people to come to, you must go to them.

Japan has thriving technology subcultures and Google’s Hunt is one of many who believe there are lots of ways for citizens to contribute, especially if it adapts programs such as Apps for America, a contest site in which citizens design software applications to make government data easily understandable for the public.

Japan may be able to get advice from its neighbors as well. In the Brookings’ e-government survey, South Korea ranked first, Taiwan was second and Singapore came in fourth.

However, the best advice the Hatoyama administration could probably get is to move quickly while they have voters’ support for change and to be ambitious and seek real change.