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What Next for Japan’s Digital Agency After the My Number Misfire?

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What Next for Japan’s Digital Agency After the My Number Misfire?

As the cliché in digital government goes, technology is almost the least important indicator of success in the space. 

What Next for Japan’s Digital Agency After the My Number Misfire?
Credit: Depositphotos

A few weeks ago, Japan’s Digital Minister Kono Taro appeared via video link at the Tallinn Digital Summit – one of the biggest digital government events in the calendar – for the second year in a row. This particular international engagement was a continuation of a strong year for Japan’s digital presence on a global stage; in hosting the G-7 Digital Minister’s meeting back in April, Kono oversaw the establishment of a general international framework for cross-border “Data Free Flows with Trust.”

But rather than celebrate this – or another – success in his address, Kono took the opportunity to talk about “why we cannot do the astonishing things that the Estonians do.” In a 4-minute speech he raised Japan’s unfavorable demographic dividend; his department being understaffed; the complexity of Japan’s writing system compared to Estonia’s; and finally the “mentality” of the population he served.

His comments about “mentality” come as his department rocks from a scandal over Japan’s My Number cards – an IC-chip embedded smart identity card designed to be the bedrock of the country’s digital government services. It was found that thousands of IDs had been mislabeled or linked to the wrong individual.

“We made mistakes just like any government,” Kono said in his Tallinn Digital Summit speech, mistakes that affected only a fraction of a percent of all ID cards. But “for Japanese consumers who are used to Toyota quality, just one mistake is too many.”

About a year ago, I wrote about Japan’s GovTech ambitions against the backdrop of its Digital Agency’s first anniversary celebrations. At that event, Kono appeared in avatar form to kick off Japan’s “Digital Day,” the sort of trademark headline grabbing performance that he has become renowned for. A year on, Kono is still just as likely to tweet about Japanese sweets or share photos of his lunch on his X, formerly Twitter, account as talk about policy. So, for such a public stage as the Tallinn Digital Summit, his tone was unusually defensive.

There is good reason for this. A damning interim report on the issues with My Number cards published weeks before the summit found that 20 percent of Japanese local governments followed the wrong procedures when linking My Number with Disability records. Of the 55 million My Number cards linked to bank accounts, approximately 130,000 had been linked to the wrong accounts. In September, the government’s Personal Information Protection Commission found that “systematic safety management measures needed to be improved” after it came to light that information was not widely shared within the agency even after registration errors were detected.

All this has done little to boost Japan’s hope of digitalizing a famously stagnant and analogue government bureaucracy. The government has been working for over a year on revising the 1,900 legal articles that still refer to the use of floppy disks and CD-ROMs, and Kono is famous for his attempts to eradicate the nation’s reliance on hanko seals – a carved stamp typically used by individuals in lieu of a signature. But by the government’s own figures, less than half of the population think that the digitalization of society is a good thing, and only 28 percent of people feel they are adapting to it. Just 29 percent of those who have used the country’s digital government services are satisfied with them. 

It is in these contexts that Japan’s Digital Agency – formed in September 2021 as a cross-governmental control tower for managing the public sector’s shift to digital – published its Annual Report back in September, an attempt at an answer to the question of where Japan’s digital efforts go from here. Their proposition is effectively threefold: remove the barriers to technology adoption; standardize the government’s approach to digital; and fix their own house internally.

One of the difficulties for Japanese citizens in adopting a My Number card has been the convoluted process of acquiring one in the first place. Applicants have had to collect the card in person from post offices along with proof of ID. Once in possession of it, a lost PIN or a stolen card could lead to a two month wait to replace it. Recognizing this, the government has recommitted in this latest strategy to improving digital accessibility, announcing that “procedures can now be completed without going to a counter, and we have been working to minimize the hassle of completing procedures.”

Elsewhere, some 560 My Number card services have already been rolled out to each local government around the country – with use cases ranging from medical care to disaster prevention – but mobile accessibility remained low. In May this year, the Digital Agency introduced a long overdue service for installing digital certificates on Android smartphones, and reiterated in their annual report that they are now “considering implementing them on iOS devices.”

To help ensure the smooth delivery of these services, the Digital Agency established a “standardization liaison” team back in May to support local governments in the technical and organizational standardization of their approach to digital government. Over the next three years, the central government is aiming to migrate local government IT systems onto the central government cloud, while introducing public service meshes (information sharing infrastructure) to allow them to collaborate with each other more easily. A cross-governmental AI strategy council – comprised of representatives from various ministries and agencies – has also been set up, perhaps a sign of a a future government working effectively across vertical silos to deliver Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s digital ambitions.

Then there is the internal department plumbing. One of the biggest announcements in this year’s review was the foundation of a Corporate Planning Office, responsible for supporting the decision-making of the Digital Minister and his senior leadership team. While maybe less exciting than an AI Council, this body will be responsible for the management of the more than 100 projects being run by the agency, managing risk, cross-government communication, and consensus building.

“In our project activities until now,” the report states, “more than 100 projects had been promoted with separate goals and implementation plans,, meaning that “it took time to share information between projects and prioritize them in order to achieve a final goal.” The new planning office has already begun to reorganize this project structure, grouping 13 of them under three key department focus areas. Goals and priorities are set at both a focus-area and project-specific level, with the project management team conducting regular reviews of progress against these goals. A new risk management system – including a point of contact within each project team tasked with sharing information to relevant parties in case of a risk incident – has also been set up to manage project risks.

None of this is to say that Japan’s latest strategy is not replete with exciting new policies. Kono’s promise to smash the fax machines remains, and the government has set a target to eliminate analogue regulations (an approximately 3.6 trillion yen opportunity) by June 2024. The country has also embraced AI, with city officials in Yokosuka becoming some of the first in the world to integrate ChatGPT into their work earlier this year and AI being tasked with exposing misinformation on Fukushima wastewater. 

But as the cliché in digital government goes, technology is almost the least important indicator of success in the space. Writing about Japan’s Digital Day last year, I wrote that “nobody should doubt Japan’s ambition, or deny its progress in its first year. But the road ahead is uncertain, and might just be strewn with jammed fax machines.” One year on, the government is picking up the pieces of those broken fax machines, and emerging a more mature and resilient organization because of it. 

In the immediate aftermath of the My Number debacle, Kono’s contrition was palpable, deciding to surrender three months’ worth of his cabinet salary back to the government. In the months that have followed, his sense of responsibility has echoed through his agency in its attempts to restructure to improve delivery. Now that the dust has settled, Kono remains one of the most popular politicians in the country and it appears his digital ambitions are to be given a second chance. But – to return to his comments at the Tallinn Digital Summit – “for Japanese consumers who are used to Toyota quality,” he may not get a third.