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Why are there so many overlapping and seemingly ineffective gov't systems in Japan?

The smartphone app COCOA, which alerts people who have registered with it whether they have come in contact with people infected with the coronavirus, is pictured on April 16, 2021. (Mainichi)

Why does so much confusion continue to pop up in Japan around various administrative systems related to the coronavirus? There have been a series of mishaps, including the bug with the smartphone app that notified people if they had come in contact with other people who had the coronavirus, and the shutdown of coronavirus vaccine reservation systems.

    What is at the foundation of these problems? In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, Tetsuya Sakashita, who is well-versed in public sector systems, and is an executive managing director at JIPDEC, a general incorporated foundation that works to protect privacy and improve information technologies, explained the systemic problems with the government's systems.

    "There only needs to be one government system per field, but there are a sea of systems in each area. This is a very big problem," Sakashita said at the outset.

    JIPDEC Executive Managing Director Tetsuya Sakashita is pictured in Tokyo's Minato Ward on June 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Goto)

    He referred to the example of two coronavirus vaccine-related systems that are in operation within the government. In February 2021, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare began full-fledged use of V-SYS, meant to facilitate the vaccine rollout by tallying the number of vaccines supplied to medical facilities and the number of vaccinations given, among other things. But there is also a system that makes records of vaccine-related information called VRS (Vaccination Record System) that began operations in April 2021 with the Cabinet Secretariat at its helm. Using a specialized device to scan the 18-digit number printed on vaccination vouchers, it records who has been vaccinated where and when.

    According to the government, it became apparent right before V-SYS went live that it did not have the capacity to instantaneously share individuals' vaccination records among local governments, so the Cabinet Secretariat led the effort to develop VRS. "Under ordinary circumstances, it would be ideal to set up a system that would handle all information from vaccine supply to individual vaccination records. But because there is no government strategy that straddles systems, it appears that various government ministries and agencies are building new systems separately and adding them to already existing systems," Sakashita said.

    A man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

    Furthermore, Sakashita said that the VRS manual is "thick and filled with jargon that not many medical practitioners know, and the specialized device needed to use the system is not user friendly. The system wasn't made with the user in mind." As a result, in some local governments, the inputting of vaccination information has been delayed. The central government therefore has been having a difficult time knowing in real time how much vaccine stocks local governments have and is unable to resolve the uneven distribution of vaccine stocks. Due to fears that there will not be enough vaccine doses to go around, some local governments have stopped taking vaccination reservations.

    There are other examples, according to Sakashita. The 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake prompted the health ministry to establish EMIS (Emergency Medical Information System) to keep track of the state of damage and the lack of medical supplies at hospitals. The lack of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) has become a serious issue amid the coronavirus pandemic, but EMIS did not have anywhere to input such items. Because of this, a system called G-MIS (Gathering Medical Information System) that specializes in medical supplies that are liable to run short due to the pandemic was newly implemented.

    Was there no way to rework EMIS by merely adding more items? Sakashita explained, "With government systems, products and services offered by the company that fulfilled the order to make the original system are incorporated into the core part of the system, so it is difficult for another company to go in and change the system. The government probably thought that it would be faster and cheaper to have a new system made. However, this means that medical institutions must go to the trouble of inputting information into two different systems."

    Cold storage containers with vaccine doses inside are placed in a delivery vehicle on May 12, 2021 in the western Japan city of Okayama. (Mainichi/Hanami Matsumuro)

    There's more. Initially, records on the state of infections had been kept using a system called NESID (National Epidemiological Surveillance of Infectious Diseases). But with the surge in the number of people infected with the coronavirus, public health centers were overloaded with the task of inputting data into the system based on information faxed to them from medical institutions. To combat this increasing burden on public health centers, a new system called HER-SYS (Health Center Real-time Information-Sharing System), into which medical facilities directly input information about COVID-19 patients, was newly implemented. But because medical institutions were already overwhelmed treating coronavirus patients, in many cases, public health centers had to do the inputting anyway.

    Digitization should make tasks more efficient, but there's been an odd phenomenon going around in which digitization has increased the amount of work that must be done on the ground. "There are no people in the government who can draw a complete picture of the systems in place, and each ministry and agency -- in their vertically segmented setup -- place orders for systems with functions only they themselves need, leading to the creation of systems that are not user friendly," Sakashita said. "In other words, functions are added on, one after another, without a complete design. If I were to liken it to a movie, I'd say it looks like it's in a state like 'Howl's Moving Castle.'"

    Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai is seen here in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Goto)

    The Digital Agency, which is set to launch in September this year, will consolidate system order placement rights that are now spread across the various ministries and agencies, hire many experts well-versed in the IT field, and develop core systems on its own. Sakashita said he anticipates that the establishment of the agency will apply the brakes on development and operation of systems that have until now been left entirely up to the companies that created the systems, and increase the possibility of avoiding the simultaneous existence of multiple systems. But "there remain challenges," he added.

    "Will the ministries and agencies be able to bring together in a conciliatory manner generalist bureaucrats whose posts change every two years and handle various tasks, and IT specialists? Will they be able to harness the capacity of the specialists to the fullest? In order to bring in personnel from the private sector and overhaul systems in a flexible manner, there needs to be a mechanism in which budgets can be raised or reduced flexibly, and the programming rights that companies commissioned to make systems hold now must be shifted over to the government from the stage at which they place orders," said Sakashita. Will the government be able to revamp the system that has long controlled personnel assignments and budget allocations as well? It looks like the Digital Agency will serve as a test case for reform.

    (Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Business News Department)

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