Postcard from Tokyo

Hironori Iwasaki
Hironori Iwasaki, who supervised our book’s translation, speaking at Musashino Art University

Last month, a Japanese translation of Public Digital’s book was published. I went to Tokyo to take part in some events talking about it.

It was an ideal time to be visiting Japan (apart from the heat), because the country is taking digital transformation more and more seriously.

Japan has long been a paper and cash-heavy society. During the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the challenges caused by being slower to build excellent online public services were thrown into sharp relief. In response, last year the Japanese government set up the Digital Agency, a new organisation charged with leading the government’s digital transformation. This August, the Digital Agency got a new Minister - Kono Taro - who is widely seen as a reformer. He immediately made his views clear on floppy disks and fax machines.

It’s still fairly early days at the Digital Agency, but I was made to feel very welcome on my visit by Takashi Asanuma, Chikako Masuda, and the team. We talked a lot about the pressures on new digital teams and the need, wherever possible, to do less, better.

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the progress Japan might make over the next few years. There is political will, an influx of new talent into government, and the recognition that things have to change. There is an active civic technology scene mushrooming all over Japan. There’s also growing recognition in the private sector that the corporate world also needs to adopt new, user-centred ways of working.

JR East representatives
At IDEO Tokyo with representatives from JR East, Japan’s biggest rail company.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges too. Japan has fewer home-grown technical graduates than I would have imagined. Social norms mean that many things we would see as being core to successful digital ways of working - servant leadership, working in the open, testing and learning - are relatively unfamiliar and often counter-cultural. There is a lot of legacy, and an ageing population not always comfortable with going online.

But there are real examples of progress. A team from Code for Japan working with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government built an open-source Covid dashboard (their github repo is here). 224 contributors from around the world contributed to it, and the government published an open source software guideline to encourage more, similar projects.

As ever, digital government faces similar challenges to others around the world, but in a different context. Japan is now very much part of a global movement, and will bring its own spin and innovation to it. I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Public Digital’s book, Digital Transformation at Scale, can be bought here in English, and here in Japanese.

Digital Transformation at Scale

Written by