Japanese government to stress benefits digital reform will bring to public

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Diet members pass legislation related to digital reform during a plenary session of the House of Councillors on Wednesday.

Following the recent enactment of legislation related to digital reforms, the government will accelerate its efforts in this field, including preparations to establish a digital agency in September.

The government intends to promote to the public the benefits to be gained from digital reforms, a policy to which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives high priority, but many hurdles remain to be cleared.

“Enactment is one transit point. We’ll keep working so that we can get off to a good, powerful start,” digital transformation minister Takuya Hirai stressed to reporters in Tokyo after the bills’ enactment on Wednesday.

The main administrative duty of the envisioned agency will be to unify the information management systems that central ministries and agencies, and local governments, have so far commissioned separately, resulting in varying specifications and standards.

Commissioning and operating a standardized system will enhance the sharing of information and related cooperation among the central and local governments, thereby improving administrative services.

All government funding for the system will be allocated to the agency. Expenditures related to commissioning and operating such systems, which totaled about ¥800 billion in fiscal 2020, are expected to be cut by 30% by fiscal 2025 as a result of unification.

On Wednesday, a glitch occurred in the reservation systems for vaccinations against the novel coronavirus operated by local governments across the country. If a government agency can take command, a prompt response can be expected in such cases.

There were problems with the reservation systems even before the trouble on Wednesday. During a press conference on Tuesday, Hirai said, “Local governments have been handling the reservation systems in separate and varied ways.”

“The digital agency may develop a system on its own and provide the necessary functions needed by the whole country,” he said.

Directly to the people

The government will also expedite efforts to bring the benefits of digital reform to the people, which is a priority of Suga’s.

The recently enacted bill concerning the registration of bank deposits and savings accounts, and the bill concerning the management of accounts, are designed to make it possible to link the My Number personal identification system with bank accounts. The government intends to use this mechanism to swiftly provide various benefits to the public.

First to be tackled is the provision of benefits to financially distressed households with children that are exempt from residential taxes. Some local governments plan to pay benefits directly into the accounts of such households, without any application procedures required, starting as early as late June.

As prospects remain dim for the novel coronavirus pandemic to be brought under control, Suga has struggled to steer his administration.

A former cabinet minister said: “The swift provision of benefits to the public through digital reforms is an achievement that can be clearly shown to voters. This will appeal to the public in the event of the dissolution of the House of Representatives and general elections, which are to be held by this autumn.”

Pillar of growth strategy

The enactment of the bill related to the formation of a digital society, which revises the Personal Data Protection Law, will solve the long-standing problem of the about 2,000 different ordinances related to personal data protection among the central and local governments.

Statutes concerning the protection of personal information differ among the entities that handle such information — the central government, 47 prefectural governments, 1,741 local municipal governments, and private-sector business operators. This has resulted in about 2,000 such laws and regulations.

As a result of differences in how they are defined, interpreted and enforced, these various laws and regulations are said to impede the sharing and utilizing of data among different organizations.

The handling of personal data will be unified in line with standards set by the central government, a move that is expected to allow the wide-ranging utilization of personal data, which will be processed to be anonymous.

If this huge amount of information can be effectively utilized as big data, new private-sector services and social and economic activities will be created, which is expected to be a pillar of the administration’s growth strategy.

Data exchanges among multiple medical institutions will also be facilitated when administering treatment or conducting research, helping to improve the quality of people’s lives in this regard as well.

The government intends to craft by this summer a “data strategy,” stipulating the general rules for the use of such data.

Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the Policy Research Council of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, emphasized at a press conference on Wednesday: “The promotion of a digital society has huge potential to lead to drastic changes in society as a whole, from both the perspective of regulatory reform and the growth strategy.”