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Japan may have a reputation for cutting-edge technology, but anyone who has lived here knows that digital services in the country are often rigid, antiquated and slow to change — especially in the public sector.

The country has proved it again amid the coronavirus pandemic: Failures range from major glitches with a government-backed COVID-19 contact tracking app to the delayed distribution of cash handouts due to inefficient online application systems.

The resulting embarrassment has prodded the government to finally get serious about long-overdue digital reform, and these efforts are set to begin in earnest on Wednesday with the launch of the Digital Agency.

Hype about the new government entity is growing, but is it going to effect real change?

That will depend on whether the Digital Agency will be able to break away from Japan’s traditional bureaucratic culture, according to experts.

Digital reform is indeed a serious task, but some might think the creation of a new agency is nonetheless unnecessary. But Masaaki Taira, former state minister at the Cabinet Office in charge of information technology policy, believes the Digital Agency will be the linchpin that keeps change on track.

“It’s not about technology lagging behind. It’s about structural problems,” said Taira, who is also a Lower House lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

One enduring issue with Japan’s traditionally minded bureaucracy is the dearth of digital and IT talent within the government.

This was one of the reasons behind the serious system glitches with the health ministry’s COVID-19 contact tracing app.

Known as the COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application (COCOA), the smartphone app is designed to notify users of close contacts with infected individuals using Bluetooth technology.

It failed to send notifications to Android smartphone users for more than four months from September 2020.

“As the health ministry did not have enough officials with experience and knowledge about app development and management, it was unable to manage the project in a proper way,” a ministry report reviewing the failure pointed out.

Masaaki Taira, former state minister of Cabinet Office in charge of information technology policy, speaks during an interview in August in Tokyo. | KAZUAKI NAGATA
Masaaki Taira, former state minister of Cabinet Office in charge of information technology policy, speaks during an interview in August in Tokyo. | KAZUAKI NAGATA

As a state minister of IT policy during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, Taira oversaw the government’s tech team in charge of digital tools such as the COCOA app to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Abe resigned and his administration ended in September, Taira was relieved of his post before the malfunction occurred.

“That glitch probably would not have happened if the government had had the Digital Agency,” as it would have had more staffers suited to managing the project, said Taira.

Historically, the central government has not been a popular destination for tech specialists because it’s highly unlikely that they will be promoted to higher positions.

This approach to personnel has been somewhat problematic, said Toshiyuki Zamma, executive adviser to the government’s chief information officer (CIO). As an IT specialist who worked in the private sector, Zamma has been serving as an adviser to the government for more than a decade.

Many bureaucrats learn and acquire digital and IT knowledge quickly, “but they usually transfer to different sections after a year or two. Then we have to teach new officials from zero again,” said Zamma, adding that “the current career rotation system is not working well” in facilitating digitalization efforts. For officials climbing the civil service career ladder, being a specialist focused on specific tasks long-term is not a typical path.

The shortage of tech specialists also causes ineffective IT-system procurement, as more knowledgeable vendors might be tempted to take advantage of inexperienced government organizations and inflate their prices.

A divided bureaucracy is another structural issue that has weighed down Japan’s IT policies.

For instance, IT infrastructure systems differ by ministry, since each of them procures its own. As a result, some ministries have ended up making duplicate orders from the same producer.

The annual IT budget has ranged between ¥600 billion and ¥800 billion over the past few years. Digital reform minister Takuya Hirai has repeatedly said that the size of the budget is too big, saying it can be cut by channeling authority over IT-related expenditures into the Digital Agency so its oversees procurement.

Takuya Hirai, minister in charge of digital reform, speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in September 2020. | KYODO
Takuya Hirai, minister in charge of digital reform, speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in September 2020. | KYODO

In addition, sectionalism has also hindered smooth cooperation between ministries when creating digital services.

As digitalization is becoming more common in many fields today, “there needs to be a coordinator that can make cross-divisional arrangements from the user’s perspective,” said Zamma, adding that he has faced sectional barriers many times.

Tech policy has mainly been managed by the IT Strategic Headquarters, which consists of some 150 members, under the Cabinet Secretariat, with the agency also acting as a coordinator.

Yet Taira said that the body has been too small and its authority too weak to overcome these structural issues.

“In that sense, it’s only logical to establish a powerful control tower by establishing a new government agency and giving it authority over the budget and strengthening personnel,” he said.

The Digital Agency will start with about 600 officials, with about one-third coming from the private sector.

Given the government’s aim of giving the country’s IT and digital policies a shot in the arm, the launch of the Digital Agency makes sense, especially when considering the daunting the task of drastically shifting Japan’s administrative culture. But some experts remain skeptical, saying that past precedent and entrenched attitudes bode ill for the project.

“It is actually progress to launch the Digital Agency … but Japan’s IT policies have not borne much fruit in the past 20 years,” said Hideaki Tanaka, professor at Meiji University and expert in public policy. “I think it’s optimistic or naive to believe that things will change that quickly.”

Japan drafted its first national IT policy in 2001, setting a goal of becoming the world’s most advanced IT nation in five years, but the scenario was far-fetched.

Tanaka, who is a former Finance Ministry official, expressed concern over whether Digital Agency bureaucrats, many of whom are from existing ministries, will be able to shift their mentality.

Digital transformation is about reviewing the way things are operated, but “this is starkly different from the culture of (Japanese government) bureaucrats,” he said

“Changes come with risks, which means they might fail. Failures affect their careers, so bureaucrats tend to avoid taking risks. … Continuing what they are doing is the tradition.”

Since bureaucrats are not likely to take the initiative voluntarily, it will be crucial that politicians lead digital reform. But as the public is becoming more critical of the Suga administration for its handling of the pandemic, “I don’t think (the prime minister) has the luxury of spending a lot of political resources (tackling red tape),” said Tanaka.

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