As Demography Drains Local Govts’ Labor Pool, Prepare for AI to Step in

Due to the declining population, it is inevitable that many local governments will become short of staff. It is necessary to maintain public services through such measures as simplifying administrative procedures and using artificial intelligence.

According to an estimate by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the number of municipal employees nationwide in 2040 will be 10% to 20% lower than in 2013. It is certain that such burdens as dealing with inquiries from residents, inputting data from handwritten documents and compiling minutes of municipal assemblies will become heavier.

AI allows computers to process large amounts of information, automatically analyze it and make decisions. If the introduction of AI can reduce the need for manpower, it will become possible to transfer employees to welfare and other sectors that lack personnel.

The trend of using AI as a solution to the declining number of employees is reasonable.

While 68% of prefectural governments and 50% of government-designated major cities have introduced AI, only 8% of municipal governments have done so. These figures indicate that small municipal governments are hesitant to use AI due to financial difficulties and lack of tech-savvy human resources.

To promote the introduction of AI, the central government intends to expand financial support in the next fiscal year for joint introduction of AI by multiple municipal governments. It plans to shoulder 50% of the costs if municipal governments jointly introduce an AI system, compared to the 30% support offered when they adopt the system on their own.

The joint introduction is expected to reduce the burden on small municipalities. Considering that the more input information a municipality has, the more accurate AI becomes, it can be said that the wide-area collaboration is reasonable.

In Nara Prefecture, which has many municipalities with populations of 50,000 or fewer, the prefecture and eight cities and towns have jointly introduced a service mainly on their websites that automatically responds to inquiries from residents, available 24 hours a day. The prefectural government took the initiative in inviting the participant municipalities to join in.

There are many small municipalities in which there are few staff with specialized knowledge, and their mayors and assembly members often lack interest in AI. It is hoped that prefectural governments and other entities will play an active role as “facilitators” in sharing advanced example cases and coordinating opinions among municipalities that are willing to adopt AI.

Japan has been slow to digitize its administrative services, and the central government has been standardizing the specifications of core systems that are different among local governments.

The promotion of AI is a separate initiative from such an effort, but the importance of avoiding duplication of investment and reducing the burdens of renovation remains unchanged. It is indispensible to unify specifications and take compatibility into consideration.

In the future, the central government should establish standard specifications based on examples of local governments that have successfully introduced AI, and should promote the use of AI among municipalities.

The central and local governments must closely cooperate to speed up digitization and promptly make administrative procedures effective.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 24, 2021.