Government struggles to achieve “e-Japan”

The Japanese government has admitted that it has experienced some setbacks in its attempts to “go digital.” But in its newly announced “Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform for 2020”, the Abe administration has signaled it is redoubling its efforts on this front, making restructuring the e-government system its utmost priority.

The basic policies approved by the cabinet on Friday include a pledge to speed up the government’s transition to digital work arrangements. This comes as the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how far behind other developed countries Japan lags in this regard.

The government’s bungled distribution of subsidies to businesses and people affected by the pandemic is the main reason for the policy. The fact that IT infrastructure on the federal and local levels are not connected has made it difficult for those in need to navigate the online application system. The government is facing growing anger from people who have been left waiting for funds for months.

The government intends to tackle the issue intensively over the course of a year, establishing a new headquarters to lead the efforts. It says it will work with private sector experts and outline the necessary steps toward achieving an effective e-government system by the end of the year. It will also push for the elimination of regulations that require paper documents and seals.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said on Friday that Japan is in the middle of a historic crisis. He says the basic policy for this year reflects his administration’s unwavering commitment to creating a new future for the country through fundamental social reforms.

Japan’s current struggles with digital work are ironic given that the government has been trying to position itself as the “world’s most advanced IT nation” for over two decades. The government has been investing heavily in IT infrastructure since 2001, recruiting top talent from the private sector. However, these efforts have borne little fruit at the local level, where the decision of what kind of IT infrastructure to adopt has been largely left to municipal authorities. This lack of integration has hindered the larger digitization efforts.

Takahide Kiuchi, Executive Economist of Nomura Research Institute, says it is high time for Japan to learn some lessons from its recent failures.

“The country cannot afford to lose another chance to move forward in achieving an e-Japan that actually works,” Kiuchi says.

The basic policy does not outline a specific path to meeting its goals. As such, it will be important to revisit these latest efforts after the government's self-imposed one-year deadline to see how much progress has actually been made.