It is a ritual almost as frequent and as fleeting as observing the cherry blossoms each year. A new Japanese government pledges to move more public services online. Almost as soon as the promise is made, it falls to the ground like a sad pink petal. In 2001 the government announced it would digitise all its procedures by 2003—yet almost 20 years later, just 7.5% of all administrative procedures can be completed online (see article). Only 7.3% of Japanese applied for any sort of government service online, well behind not only South Korea and Iceland, but also Mexico and Slovakia. Japan is an e-government failure.
That is a great pity, and not just for hapless Japanese citizens wandering from window to window in bewildering government offices. Japan’s population is shrinking and ageing. With its workforce atrophying, Japan relies even more than other economies on gains in productivity to maintain prosperity. The Daiwa Institute of Research, a think-tank in Tokyo, reckons that putting government online could permanently boost gdp per person by 1%. The failure to do so is a missed opportunity.
The lapse is all the more remarkable given Japan’s wealth and technological sophistication. Indeed, that seems to be part of the problem. Over the years big local technology firms have vied for plum contracts to develop it systems for different, fiercely autonomous, government departments. Most ended up designing bespoke software for each job. The result is a profusion of incompatible systems.