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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local assemblies in Japan are starting to embrace digitalization.

Local assemblies across the country have canceled or shortened deliberations and asked citizens to refrain voluntarily from attending debates to avoid the risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

As a result, many local government heads have made decisions, including on budgets, unilaterally without convening assemblies, raising concerns about the functions of assemblies being eroded. The trend is "a grave matter of concern from the viewpoint of democracy," said Kazunori Kawamura, associate professor of political science at Tohoku University Graduate School of Information Sciences.

In April 2020, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry told all local governments and assembly secretariats that they were allowed to hold committee meetings online if they amended ordinances or assembly regulations.

The Osaka Municipal Assembly changed its regulations the following month, the Osaka Prefectural Assembly revised an ordinance and many other local legislatures took similar moves to enable online sessions.

Kawamura praises the moves as "the greatest reform since the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to change local assemblies' principles of face-to-face meetings and documentation." Online committee meetings have so far been adopted by more than 80 prefectural and municipal assemblies, according to the Research Institute for Local Government.

Liberal Democratic Party members of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly hold an online meeting in May 2020. | KYODO
Liberal Democratic Party members of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly hold an online meeting in May 2020. | KYODO

The Osaka Prefectural Assembly has made it possible for members to participate in committee meetings online not only as an anti-infection measure but also in the event of a major disaster or for childbirth and child care. The online participation system has been used by a child-rearing assembly member and a member who was determined to have been in close contact with an individual infected with COVID-19.

The ordinance revision is "extremely momentous because it ensures opportunities to ask questions for members unable to come to meetings," an official in the Osaka Prefectural Assembly secretariat said.

The digitalization of local assemblies will not only improve the efficiency of their procedures but also help them cope better with crisis situations, and increase opportunities for participation by people with disabilities, Kawamura said. An increase in opportunities for participation by a wider range of citizens may also contribute to resolving the shortage of people willing to become assembly members.

Moreover, the adoption of digital technology by assemblies will boost communication between assembly members and citizens and promote "open data" programs, because conference minutes and other documents will be made more accessible on the internet.

But local assemblies aiming to further promote digitalization face financial difficulties and a shortage of personnel with information technology expertise. Although IT professionals are urgently needed, the cost of employing them is rising sharply due to the shortage of them across different sectors. In addition, many local governments are financially struggling and have had to think twice before introducing the digital equipment needed to hold meetings online.

In a survey conducted by an expert panel at the National Association of Chairpersons of Prefectural Assemblies, more than two-thirds of the secretariats of prefectural assemblies cited manpower and budget shortages as hurdles to the promotion of digitalization. Some secretariats called for financial support from the central government.

"The digitalization of assemblies, if pushed ahead altogether, may provoke opposition from the perspective of a digital divide," Kawamura said. Support for assembly members unfamiliar with digital equipment will be essential, he noted.

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