Through Japan’s handling of the novel coronavirus, it has become obvious how behind the curve the country’s administrative bodies are in digitalization.
Online applications for one-off handouts to the public and corporate subsidies failed to function. The fact that hospitals were communicating information on patients infected with the novel coronavirus by sending handwritten forms to public health centers via fax shocked those overseas.
The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is planning on establishing a digital agency in the 2021 fiscal year, which will promote the digitalization of administrative bodies in an integrated manner. This is because officials deemed the negative effects of vertically segmented administration to be too large with digitalization split into the jurisdictions of the Cabinet Secretariat, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, among other bodies.
In Denmark and South Korea, digitalization took off with the establishment of a government body that cuts across ministries and agencies. What the Suga administration is aiming for is understandable.
But there are many challenges in realizing a system that the Japanese public can use both with ease and with ease of mind.
Ever since the 2001 launch of the “e-Japan strategy” by the administration of then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the Japanese government has upheld the promotion of digitalization. Through the administration of previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, related budgets rose to several trillion yen (tens of billions of dollars). However, the government was unable to realize a digitalization system in which the public could feel user-friendliness in fields including medicine and welfare.
The government dubbed the newly established position of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Information Technology Policy “the control tower of digital administration,” and aimed to demolish vertically segmented administration. However, the systems of each ministry and agency, as well as local governments, stayed separate, and when it came to dealing with the coronavirus crisis, the government could not even hold satisfactory video conferences that cut across ministries and agencies.
There is also the problem of there being a dearth of human resources well versed in information technology among the bureaucracy. Establishing a digital agency without an investigation into “the lost 20 years” will fail to get any results.
Suga has also put forward his position to promote the implementation of the My Number individual identification card system among the public. This is due to the fact that online applications for the government’s coronavirus handouts did not go smoothly because the percentage of the public who have My Number cards stand at less than 20% of the overall population.
Deliberations are being made to tie My Number with driver’s licenses, thereby increasing their convenience. But what stands in the way of My Number card adoption by the public is deeply rooted fears regarding security, including the possibility that personal information could be leaked.
The digital agency scheme is said to have been proposed by members of the Investing in the Future Conference, including former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Heizo Takenaka, and has the support of the business community.
What’s crucial is whether the government can create a digitalization scheme that places the public in the center, and one that will be widely used. Administrative costs must also be cut back. If that doesn’t happen we may face another failure.