Photo/Illutration Takashi Asanuma, the top bureaucrat in the Digital Agency, holds a news conference on Sept. 1, the first anniversary of the agency’s start. (Yasuyuki Onaya)

Growing pains have plagued the central government’s Digital Agency in its first year of operations from a lack of personnel to being ignored by other agencies, and key resignations. 

The Digital Agency was established by then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with the noble aim of helping government ministries move toward digitalization of their operations.

But after opening on Sept. 1, 2021, Suga decided that same month to resign. The first bureaucratic head of the agency, Yoko Ishikura, resigned in April due to health reasons.

Takashi Asanuma, who took over from Ishikura, said at his Sept. 1 news conference, “One thing I want to make loud and clear is we do not have enough staff.”

While the number of Digital Agency employees increased from about 600 at the start to about 750, almost all of the 250 or so hired from the private sector are part time.

Along with being short-staffed, more often than not, other ministries simply ignored requests from the Digital Agency.

One item on its policy agenda was spreading the use of the My Number card system beyond just social security and tax payments.

When the health ministry was pushing to have the My Number card take the place of health insurance cards, ministry officials came up with a plan to pay for equipment to read the cards that would be installed at medical institutions.

It doesn’t take a digital wizard to realize that allowing such institutions to tack on the cost of installation onto medical fees and having patients pay extra would not go down well with the public.

Because those who took the trouble to convert their My Number card to take over the health insurance card functions would end up shouldering a greater burden, Digital Agency officials realized the public would never go for the plan.

Agency officials told the then digital minister, Karen Makishima, that the health ministry plan would negatively impact their plans to spread the use of the My Number card. Makishima passed on those concerns to the prime minister’s office, but health ministry officials chose to ignore them.

When the new program began in April, an uproar arose among the public, finally making health ministry officials realize they had erred and forcing them to revise the program.

And a chronic shortage of personnel has forced the Digital Agency to delay by a year the plan to unify information computer systems developed separately by each ministry under an overall “government cloud” to reduce costs.

While there are about 1,000 different computer systems developed and used by central government ministries, only about 100 or so will initially be included in that government computer cloud.

The Digital Agency has had its successes, such as developing within three months an app to certify the smartphone user was vaccinated against COVID-19.

Suga’s successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has also come up with a new plan to energize rural areas through information technology, moving away from Suga’s emphasis on digitalization of central government ministries.

The Digital Agency now has about 200 projects it is working on. The plan is to establish numerical goals per project, much like the private sector, and redeploy personnel depending on the extent to which the goals are being met.

To provide additional momentum to the agency’s efforts, Taro Kono was named as new digital minister by Kishida in his August Cabinet reshuffle. Kono is known for his maverick ways and his extensive use of social media could generate greater interest in what the Digital Agency does.

One plan that was announced in late August was to review by year-end about 1,900 legal provisions that still stipulate floppy disks must be used for handling administrative procedures.

(This article was written by Yasuyuki Onaya, Akiyoshi Abe and Yusuke Miyata.)