More than 11 years have already passed since the news flash that sounded like a bad joke. “Prime Minister Mori refers to IT as ‘it.’” The following year, the Basic Act on the Formation of an Advanced Information and Telecommunications Network Society came into force in January 2001. Article 20 of this law states that necessary action shall be “taken to actively promote IT in administration, such as increased use of the Internet and other advanced information and telecommunications networks in the Government of Japan and in local public entities, in order to increase convenience for citizens and to help improve simplicity, efficiency and transparency of administrative operations.”
he whole idea to “increase convenience for citizens” was that online and one-stop access to various administrative services would reduce the burden on the people in terms of both time and cost. As for “improve simplicity of administrative operations,” the objective here was to increase the speed and to radically reduce the cost of administrative procedures.
This was supposed to be accomplished through the development of a paperless environment, adoption of common formats for administrative documents, and the consolidation and centralization of the government’s information systems.
However, as pointed out in the 2010 White Paper on Information and Communications, Japan continues to lag far behind other countries in the area of utilization of information technologies in the public sector. According to the 2010 UN e-Government Readiness Index, Japan ranks 17th in the world. (The top 10 countries in 2010 were: (1) Korea, (2) United States, (3) Canada, (4) United Kingdom, (5) Netherlands, (6) Norway, (7) Denmark, (8) Australia, (9) Spain, (10) France.)
While the year 2000 was widely acclaimed in Japan to be the “first year in the IT era,” in the ensuing years, the government has been unable to make satisfactory progress toward the computerization of its administrative operations.
The main reasons for slow progress are: (1) failure to introduce a national identification number system that would serve as the foundation of e-government, (2) undue emphasis on hardware and failure to take the users’ perspective into account, and (3) problems related to the government’s approach to promoting computerization.
Starting with the first reason, a national identification number system constitutes a fundamental prerequisite for e-government and must be pursued as a top priority. However, action on this front has been postponed because politicians and government administrators feared public outcry and opposition. As a result, individual ministries and agencies have each developed their own systems and formats for processing and filing administrative data (such as the attributes of citizens).
Consequently, almost no progress has been made in paperless and one-stop administrative services. Much worse, the public’s faith in the system has been seriously shaken by the scandalous situation surrounding the “missing pension records.”
As for the second reason, which relates to undue emphasis on hardware (infrastructure) and the failure to take the users’ perspective into account, almost no effort has been made in business process re-engineering (BPR).
Instead, all that has been done is to computerize existing administrative systems. As a result, the old problems that relate to rigid and compartmentalized government administration have remained intact and very little progress has been made in providing the public with access to paperless and one-stop administrative procedures.
The third reason is rooted in inadequacies related to the government’s approach to promoting computerization. Normally, one would expect the IT Strategic Headquarters to take the lead in this process. However, unfortunately, this organization has not been given centralized control over the budget and administrative authority for promoting e-government.
Consequently, it has not been able to function effectively as a centralized command post that transcends the vertical divisions in government administration. Over the years, a number of programs have been formulated and approved by successive cabinets, starting with the “Basic IT Strategy” of 2000 and continuing on to the “e-Japan Strategy” of 2001, the “e-Japan Strategy II” of 2003, the “New IT Reform Strategy” of 2006, the “i-Japan Strategy 2015” of 2009, and the “New Strategy in Information and Communications Technology” of 2010. Notwithstanding these well-intentioned plans, it seems that all that has been done is the repeated postponement of the achievement of specific goals and formulation of new policies.
What a tragic waste of time and effort. The outcome of all of this is that Japan now lags far behind other countries in the area of e-government. So, what should Japan do to catch up? I am proposing the following “actions.”
1. Recruit Government CIO from the Private Sector
The first order of business should be to go to the private sector to recruit a CIO (chief information officer) for the government, and to place all the budget and authority for promoting e-government under the CIO. This authority should extend to all areas of government administration, including local governments. Consider what India has done in recruiting outstanding individuals from the private sector to benefit from their knowledge and experience.
For instance, Nandan Nilekani, Co-Chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd, has been appointed the head of the government’s IT agency (the post is equivalent to cabinet minister). I have met Nandan Nilekani on several occasions, but the interesting thing is that he was at the helm of a global company as CEO of Infosys until immediately before his appointment and move to the government post. Japan should follow this example.
The CIO posts at various government ministries and agencies as well as in local government bodies should be filled by individuals from the private sector with high levels of expertise. For these posts, “100 Actions” recommends individuals such as Masayuki Makino, CEO of Works Applications, who has valuable experience in starting an IT software company.
It is generally understood that the IT industry is primarily engaged in the development of basic and product software. However, in the case of Japan, the majority of the companies in this industry are involved in providing IT-related services including systems operation and the dispatch of temporary staff.
With the proliferation of cloud computing, we are going to see a strong movement toward “software as a service.” This development is going to increase the demand for people with software know-how. What kind of staff should be working under the government CIO?
I strongly recommend recruiting human resources from the private sector to organize teams of experts in such areas as optimizing operational efficiency. With this strong and effective mechanism in place, the government CIO should work to speed the process of e-government by steamrolling over any opposition.
2. Promptly Introduce National Identification Number System and Launch Online Administrative Procedures
In Korea, six types of government documents (certificate of residence, etc) can be issued and printed out directly at home, and one-stop online access is available for almost all administrative procedures, including life events (such as change of address, marriage, school enrollment, and retirement). It is notable that Japan and Korea have very similar systems in such fundamental practices as family registry, seal registry, and national pension system.
Why is then that Japan cannot do what Korea has accomplished? One of the most serious bottlenecks obstructing the advance of e-government in Japan is the absence of a national identification number system that can serve as a common foundation for verification of identity. Japan must adopt such a system as soon as possible.
The fact of the matter is that almost all of the top ranking countries in the 2010 U.N. e-Government Readiness Index have instituted some form of national identification number system or social security number system. An essential prerequisite for introducing such a system would be to take appropriate actions to ensure the protection of personal information.
Options would include the establishment of an independent organization and mechanisms enabling individuals to confirm the contents of information held by government agencies concerning themselves. To realize greater convenience for the public, a “Law Prohibiting Repeated Request for Personal Information” (provisional title) should be enacted so that any individual filing an application with the government, in principle, will not need to enter or attach any personal information that other administrative agencies already have in their possession.
If such a system were established, imagine how convenient it would be and how less stressful it would be for the applicant. As a goal for the future, a system for electronic voting should be considered for both national and local elections. As the first step in this direction, I strongly recommend that the ban on Internet-based election campaigning be quickly lifted so as to allow this type of activity in the next national election. Why all this foot dragging?
There is absolutely no reason to maintain the ban on Internet-based campaign activities. Therefore, act immediately to lift the ban!
3. Connect the Public and Private Sectors at All Levels
By connecting the public and private sectors at all levels, government information can be transformed into a public good (transformation into social information resource). With this in mind, the government should take the following actions as soon as possible.
(1) Establish computerized and paperless processing of administrative procedures between all government ministries and agencies.(2) Standardize all administrative documents, budget statements, and government accounting statements exchanged between central and local governments.(3) Enable online exchange between government and all businesses and corporate bodies. The government should make the transition from conventional cabinet meetings and Diet deliberations to “e-cabinet” and “e-Diet” formats.
I earnestly hope that in so doing the legislative branch (Diet members) will show the people their strong determination to speed up the deliberative process and cut costs by moving to a paperless environment. The government has at its disposal a vast volume of statistical data and information obtained by surveys.
This body of information should be treated as a public good (social information resource). After taking appropriate measures to ensure the protection of personal information, in principle, all such data and information should be made readily accessible through the Internet.
I have presented three specific proposals:
(1) recruit government CIO from the private sector,
(2) introduce a national identification number system and launch online administrative procedures, and
(3) connect the public and private sectors at all levels.
By implementing these measures, Japan will be able to “increase convenience for citizens” and “improve simplicity of administrative operations” in the spirit of the Basic Act on the Formation of an Advanced Information and Telecommunications Network Society that was enacted in 2000.
Needless to say, it will be very important to continue to meet the needs of people with low IT skills. For this part of the population, government offices should maintain their current counter services. Japan must take positive action in promoting the computerization of government that will also contribute to raising the general level of productivity.
By doing so, Japan can not only show its superiority in the area of communications but also in the area of IT. It goes without saying that at least 20% of the tax money spent should be allocated to orders placed with startup companies.
Consider the myriad benefits to be reaped by the application of IT to government administration: increased convenience for citizens; simplification of administrative operations; raising the IT skills of the Japanese people and Japanese businesses; and, fostering the development of startup companies. I sincerely hope that the foot dragging will come to an end and that bold “actions” will be implemented without any further delay.
JapanToday.com | Yoshito Hori The writer is president and dean of GLOBIS University and managing partner of GLOBIS Capital Partners.