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01/25/2019

‘Digital first’ shift transforming society

Public administrative services look to streamline to new platforms

Deputy Commissioner of The Small and Medium Enterprise Agency Yasuhiro Maeda talks about his expectations on digital transformation efforts at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Deputy Commissioner of The Small and Medium Enterprise Agency Yasuhiro Maeda talks about his expectations on digital transformation efforts at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

What kind of future does the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry foresee ahead of administrative reform under the premise of digitalization that the ministry is working on?

The METI Journal interviewed Yasuhiro Maeda, deputy commissioner of The Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, about his expectations for the digital transformation effort. (The agency is an extra-ministerial bureau of METI.)

Question: METI has been promoting a digital transformation initiative, aiming to provide extremely convenient administrative services for the public and corporations, and streamline its operations.

We heard that the METI Digital Transformation (DX) Office, which was established to take the lead, has hired information technology professionals from the private sector and promoted “agile development.” How are these approaches different from conventional ones?

Maeda: The effort aims for three changes. The first focuses on relations between applicants and public administration. To date, it has been users of administrative services who had to prepare necessary documents and visit relevant offices. Moving forward, the administrative side will work to accommodate users, completely eliminating applicant documents. In other words, the burden undertaken by the respective sides will basically be reversed.

Secondly, we’d like to reverse the relationship between institutional rules and the relevant system. System development in accordance with complicated rules is so inefficient as to be completely useless. So, it needs to be reviewed so that rules correspond to systems.

Lastly, we need to change our mindset from “flow” processing to “stock” processing; this means it’s necessary to utilize applicant information to analyze relevant policies and create new ones.

This series of transformations, promoted mainly by the DX Office, is being pursued uncompromisingly through these three goals.

Ending past policies

Question: There were various initiatives and plans on digitalizing administrative procedures in the past. We heard that you were involved in The e-Japan Strategy crafted in 2001, so could you tell us the difference in measures taken at that time and now? What’s going to change this time?

Maeda: Rather than what’s going to change, the digital transformation effort this time seeks to bring an end to the measures in the past that ended halfway. The concept itself this time has not changed much in that it aims to improve convenience for administrative services and create advanced policies.

However, a mere rallying call does not lead to progress of these efforts. No matter how passionately top officials create plans, it’s not easy for the staff on the front lines to break away from familiar ways of doing and developing things.

Overcoming such a structure and securing a workable system requires upholding a commitment for what should be done and incorporating it to an action plan and in the schedule. Discussing details at the front-line level is essential in realizing this.

Question: Is the effort this time being prompted by the development of digital technology over the years?

Maeda: Data analysis by artificial intelligence and methods such as deep learning were certainly not common at that time, but how to take an approach using technology is more important than technology itself.

We have regrets that we were working to uniformly digitalize one system that received hundreds of applications yearly and another that had just a few applications when we were dealing with the e-Japan initiative. There might have been a stimulated atmosphere caused by an IT bubble at that time; it’s delusional to think that simply exerting leadership can lead to change.

Question: How would digital transformation affect society?

Maeda: As a start, what METI is promoting includes “one-stop” services that allow people to complete a process with a visit to just one website and “once-only” service, which requires no further reports of information if people have already submitted the same information. However, improving convenience and streamlining are not the only goals we are trying to achieve.

We see this digital revolution from the perspective of how to redesign communication between citizens and public administration.

Digital transformation at public administration bodies could lead to streamlined operations and highly convenient administrative services for the public and corporations. | GETTY IMAGES
Digital transformation at public administration bodies could lead to streamlined operations and highly convenient administrative services for the public and corporations. | GETTY IMAGES

Toward collaborative society

Question: Could you elaborate further on that?

Maeda: If contact points between the public and private sectors expand thanks to data linkage, we have expectations that it would prompt new potential players, such as companies and nonprofits to enter into a sphere previously regarded as that of public service. The platform of public administration and a wide variety of services provided by the private sector would then be connected organically, and high-quality public services that are close to the public’s daily lives would be realized.

In other words, public administration would increasingly play a role as a platform. Such a concept is already in practice in some countries, including Denmark and Estonia. For Japan, which is facing a low birthrate and aging population, realizing a society where various players work together is an urgent task.

In particular, among municipalities facing increasing financial difficulties, it is expected that there will be a spread of moves to sustain administrative functions through mergers. However, merely expanding the size of administrative units could cause fears such as lower service quality for residents and increases in the burden of background work.

That’s why it’s essential to have a viewpoint of nurturing new players to take a role in the public service field, which used to be exclusively handled by the government.

Question: Do you think digital transformation will play a part in bringing that about?

Maeda: I do. Preparing for administrative reform based on digitalization, we are planning to create services that illustrate the look of future public administration in advance in policies for small- and medium-sized businesses.

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