“it is the responsibility of the public sector to include and support everyone”

All citizens online

Japan is learning from Europe about e-government


MARCH 2022 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

The perfect illustration of resistance to the digitalisation of government in Japan can be seen in the former reform minister Taro Kono’s quest to end the use of faxes. After calling on ministries and agencies to stop using the outmoded tech last April, his taskforce was inundated with more than 400 complaints from government entities, all insisting that the facsimile transmission was indispensable.

In September, the government signalled that it appeared to be serious about pushing ahead, despite such ingrained opposition, with the establishment of the Digital Agency, which has recruited a large proportion of its staff from the private sector. Part of the agency’s brief is to look at what has worked elsewhere, including in Europe, where countries such as Denmark and Estonia are leaders in the field of e-government.

The Danish government has made the use of e-government systems mandatory for its citizens, while it provides training for older people and has installed computers in public libraries to ensure everyone has access, explains Hans Jayatissa, chief technology officer at software and IT firm KMD. The firm was founded in 1972 by Denmark’s municipalities to help them create IT solutions. It was later privatised, then bought by Japan’s NEC in 2019.

Danes’ high levels of trust in public institutions significantly contributed to a relatively smooth transition to e-government services. Jayatissa notes that there are strict rules on privacy and data usage.

Systems such as a digital mailbox, through which all official correspondence with authorities passes, and an e-ID — which also validates payments with numerous private companies — have helped shift Denmark almost entirely to e-government, in which it topped global rankings in a 2020 UN report.

Those who struggle with online services can request to be exempted — and public authorities are obligated to provide analogue alternatives for non-digital citizens — but the vast majority of the population uses the digital public solutions, notes Tanja Franck, director-general of the Danish Agency for Digitisation.

“As many as 92% of the country’s residents over the age of 15 use the secure national service, Digital Post,” she says. “However, it is not easy for everyone to be digital, so it is the responsibility of the public sector to include and support everyone. We must ensure that everyone can be part of society.”

E-government was put to the test during the pandemic, but Franck reports that the high level of digitalisation in the Danish public sector made it much easier to keep society running.

“We have spent over 20 years developing our digital service infrastructure,” she says. “The level of digitalisation in Demark has enabled a consistent level of public services, even with a high number of people working remotely within central government, regions, and municipalities.”

The situation is similar in Estonia, which kicked off its digitalisation push in 1996 with a huge deployment of IT in education, the launch of internet banking, and even e-cabinet meetings for its government. The nation has gone on to introduce e-IDs, online voting (in 2005, a world first), and an array of digital services and systems that have led to the country adopting the moniker e-Estonia.

At the peak of the pandemic, schools were able to switch easily to online learning as children already had digital textbooks, and permission was given for processes such as property transactions to be conducted online, explains Estonia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Andres Sutt.

“Now, the only things left that are analogue are getting married and getting a divorce,” adds Sutt.

“It’s a simple fact: where business is easy, business will grow”

The obvious benefits of e-government are cost and labour savings, as well as increased efficiency and ease of access for citizens. But Sutt believes the digitalisation process has other positive knock-on effects that have likely contributed to the rise in living standards that Estonians have enjoyed in recent decades.

“It’s a simple fact: where business is easy, business will grow,” he says. “That’s why Estonia is also among the countries hosting the highest concentration of startups per capita.”

Another innovation is the Estonia e-Residency system (also a world first), which it introduced in 2014. This grants access to services such as banking and the setting up of companies but not the right to live in the country. There are more than 80,000 e-Residents, according to Sutt, and over 16,500 companies have been started from Estonia through the system. Notable e-residents include Bill Gates, Pope Francis, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

When it comes to implementing e-government, mindset rather than technology is one of the biggest barriers, according to Mari Krusten, spokesperson for Cybernetica AS, an IT firm that has been at the heart of the e-Estonia project.

Cybernetica has deployed its technology worldwide and the events of the past two years have only increased interest in e-government. However, factors including laws around data usage and cyber security still impact the speed and nature of rollout, according to Krusten.

“It’s never just about technology; if it were, every country would have advanced e-governance by now,” she says. “More often, it’s about policy making and the legal space, but also process management and the speed of change making.”

Toshiyuki Zamma, head of international strategy at Japan’s Digital Agency is under no illusions as to the challenges ahead. However, he is hopeful that the imperatives caused by the ageing population and shrinking workforce will help overcome the inertia that has hampered progress in the past.

He points to the example of how, for years, the tax agency has been encouraging people to use e-Tax but that, even during the pandemic, many people filed in person, partly because banks often only issue paper documents.
Incompatible IT systems used by local governments, ministries, and other public entities also remain a very real problem, acknowledges Zamma, but one that the agency is committed to resolving, along with establishing a standardised government cloud computing infrastructure.

Another crucial issue is citizen involvement, something Zamma has been exploring in discussions with counterparts in countries including Denmark, Estonia, and the UK.

“However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We can’t just copy and paste solutions,” he says. “We have been focusing on countries that have similar complex problems to Japan, like the UK.”

In terms of success so far, Zamma points to the digital Vaccination Record System (VRS) that the agency was tasked with developing soon after its establishment late last year. The requirements for the VRS were that it would give the government real-time data on immunisation, work smoothly even when citizens moved between municipalities, and later connect with online vaccination passports.

“We asked the usual IT vendors and were told it would take six months. So, we decided to do it ourselves, hired engineers, and launched it in only one month. That couldn’t have been done in the past,” declares Zamma with a justifiable tinge of pride. “We told the vendors what we’d done and they were shocked, but that’s a good shock for the market.” •