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Editorial: Japan’s new digital agency faces numerous challenges

  • August 31, 2021
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

The Japanese digital agency will be launched on Sept. 1 as the control hub for the country’s information technology policy. The new body will be required not only to streamline government operations but to provide administrative services that will lead to a sense of security among the public.


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the adverse effects of Japan’s rigid administrative divisions as well as the lack of skills necessary to make good use of IT. Different ministries and agencies failed to cooperate over computer systems, slowing down the process of understanding the current state of infections and providing financial support.


The new digital agency is responsible for managing the government’s overall system development and advancing the use of data in various fields including education, disaster prevention and medical care. IT-savvy talent from the private sector has been recruited for the new agency.


While the digital agency is a new government organization promoted by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, just creating the instrument isn’t enough. Until now, the IT expert Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Information Technology Policy (government CIO) was in charge of managing the digitalization of government ministries and agencies, but they had little presence.


When the government’s contact-tracing app, which was meant to let users know if they came into contact with those infected with the coronavirus, had glitches, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was unable to respond due to its lack of knowledge in app development and management. The government CIO also provided little support for the problem.


In Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district where central government ministries and agencies are concentrated, there was a lack of awareness over the use of IT to collect data and reflect it in policy-making. A reform mindset among bureaucrats is essential.


Upon reflecting on these failures, the digital agency has been given authority to issue an improvement advisory to the ministries and agencies that are slow to respond. The agency’s deputy chief, the top non-elected official, has been hired from the private sector and will be responsible for advancing reforms while exercising their leadership.


It’s possible that a conflict of interest will emerge between private firm workers who will be doubling as part-time agency employees and their home companies. Regarding a business commission for a Tokyo Olympics app, it emerged that a government employee had consulted with a business owner whom they had close ties with and that owner’s firm ended up accepting orders for part of the app business, raising suspicions. Therefore, an employment framework is necessary which allows for the recruitment of excellent human resources while securing the fairness of public administration.


In the meantime, there are ongoing challenges to the My Number social security and tax identification system, which is supposed to be a litmus test for achieving a digital government.


If an individual’s My Number ID is linked to their bank accounts, it could be used for social security payments and swift provision of financial aid in times of natural disaster. On the other hand, there is this deep-rooted sense of concern among the public over government surveillance and misuse of private information. The expansion of the Personal Information Protection Commission, a government watchdog over the use of data, is an urgent task.


Digitalization is only possible when supported by the people. The Japanese government must first work on winning back the public’s trust that it has lost over its poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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