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Private sector key to the success of Japan’s digital agency

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Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the FBI started to develop an innovative digital information sharing system based on a report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, an independent investigation body, which pointed to its limited capacity to share information both internally and externally.

Although there were fragments of information that could have helped prevent the attacks — including on the movements of people who could have been watchlisted and suspected terrorists who obtained flight training — the FBI failed to piece them together, share them and take effective action as an organization, something that was hampered by its inadequate information system and paper-based case files.

Based on the lessons learned, the FBI developed Sentinel, a system to share case data electronically.

However, efforts to develop the system failed twice, despite some $400 million paid to the contractor, Lockheed Martin.

After wasting more than 10 years, the FBI took over the final development of Sentinel and, by employing Agile methodology and the Scrum process framework, finally managed to release the system in 2012.

The Japanese government is not alone in struggling with system development, and there are countless cases worldwide of governments facing similar difficulties. For example, the failed launch of the healthcare.gov website — former U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature policy — as well as system procurement failures in the United Kingdom and Australia, which led to reforms of the government’s digital departments in those countries.

Examples of such failures in Japan are the patent system, which was not completed even after eight years and ¥5.5 billion spent since 2004, and more recently, an online system that was introduced amid the COVID-19 pandemic to accept applications for employment subsidies but was suspended immediately after launch.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (right) and digital reform minister Takuya Hirai | KYODO

Various administrative practices have often served as barriers to efficient system development: a single-year budget cycle; a procurement process based on the waterfall methodology, where each development phase must be completed before the next phase can begin; the lack of a competitive environment; vertically segmented ministries and agencies; decision-makers who lack expertise and leaving everything to developers; and the principle of infallibility.

Two decades have passed since the government launched the e-Japan strategy to seriously work on information technology reform.

The government has taken a number of measures to make step-by-step improvements, including splitting orders among multiple contractors to avoid entrusting everything to one entity, creating the post of chief information officer to manage IT-related procurement and hiring deputy CIOs who look into requirement definition documents and offer expert........

© The Japan Times

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