Within a zippy 24 hours of becoming prime minister this month, yoshihide suga had not only created the post of japans minister for digital transformation but had also ordered its new holder to rush off and draw up a blueprint for the countrys first digital agency.
Asked about the herculean labour before him, takuya hirai most recently in the news for browsing crocodile videos on his tablet during a parliamentary hearing looked suitably hassled. we are being asked to move at a speed never before seen in kasumigaseki, he told reporters, referring to the bureaucratic heart of tokyo and a district rarely singled out for its pace.
But the general impulse is to wish hirai the best of luck with an endeavour that many see as long even reprehensibly overdue. japans state of digitisation, across both the private and public sectors, is an inelegant patchwork. parts are world class, parts are dreadful and the stitching that binds it all together is, at best, haphazard.
On an optimistic reading of hirais new job (and of the prime-ministerial propulsion behind it), japan has decided to be embarrassed by the current service and to devise a better one. or at least one that looks vaguely fit for this century.
For many years, defenders of the current arrangements, or those arguing that japan receives disproportionate criticism for its pockets of technological intransigence, have been able to point elsewhere for validation. parts of the us health system still depend on fax machines, for example, and germany still uses cash in an awful lot of transactions.
And in some formal international comparisons, japan manages to persuade the assessors that it is not despite the vexing, paper-heavy day-to-day experience of millions behind the curve. in the uns 2020 e-government development index, japan sat alongside singapore, denmark and others in the highest-ranked tier.
Hirais appointment suggests there are new ideas at the top. one is that japan, rather than settling for its current pace of progress, needs to accelerate things while there is time and, grimly, the momentum created by covid-19.
The other is that japan is ready to take a holistic approach, addressing not only the individual areas where it demonstrably lags (banking, individuals dealings with the bureaucracy, the substructures of the bureaucracy itself etc), but also identifying where habit, instinct and other factors are persistent barriers to progress.
If that reading is correct, hirai faces two immediate challenges. the first is that he must tightly define digital transformation (or dx, as it has become known) in a way that allows everyone to understand what the government is talking about and what needs to happen. he must prevent the term dx becoming an empty buzzword and fast. already companies have begun smothering their five-year plans in the war paint of dx, hoping that it makes them look ready for battle, but often revealing their lack of real firepower. if hirai leaves dx vague and vulnerable to hijack, the war is lost before itstarts.
The second challenge (assuming the first is overcome) will be to land a first-round knockout an area where digital transformation can be quickly and measurably imposed to demonstrate the potency and purpose of the new agency.
There are, at first glance, a number of targets that would fit this bill, some of which healthcare in particular have already been identified as prime dx candidates by hirai himself. but none, perhaps, makes as much sense as the digital transformation of school education, where japan is way behind and much shorter on valid excuses for being so.
A 2018 programme for international student assessment survey put japan last out of 51 countries for frequency of computer use in schools. in a survey by the ministry of economy, trade and industry published in the same year, wifi coverage in japanese schools (as of 2015) was 26 per cent, compared with 88 per cent in the us and 78 per cent in the uk. computer programming became a school curriculum requirement five years ago in the us, uk and china, but only this year in japan.
If japans new pm, and his handpicked digital tsar, want to demonstrate that they are serious about digitisation as a flagship policy, they should focus their energies on supercharging the digital skills of a generation that is already tech-savvy enough to know never to get caught looking at crocodile videos during class.
Leo lewis is the fts tokyo correspondent
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