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Public-Sector IT Challenges in Japan, U.S. 'Identical'

Japanese IT managers participating in the National Association of State CIOs conference detail their projects--and problems. They're working on E-learning, managing cell phones, outsourcing, and portals. But like their U.S. counterparts, legislative oversight can slow them down.
Yoshimasa Handa's words elicited a smattering of knowing smiles and chuckles from the headphoned crowd at the National Association of State CIOs' annual meeting. Handa's boss, the director of the information policy division management and planning department for Japan's Toyama prefectural government, was stuck in legislative session and couldn't make the trip to New Orleans. It was one of many similarities Japanese public-sector IT managers share with their U.S. counterparts.

Listening to a real-time translation of Handa's presentation fed into their headphones through a wireless box the size of a card deck, NASCIO members and conference sponsors learned that one of the most technologically advanced nations, though half a world away, shares many of the same IT and policy challenges.

George Newstrom, Virginia's secretary of technology and the only Westerner on the five-member panel, summed up the session: "The problems they face aren't the same as ours, they're identical."

In Handa's home prefecture of Toyama, E-learning and online schooling are a top priority. Teachers in Toyama, one of Japan's 47 prefectures, rely on E-mail and bulletin boards to interact with their students. The region's cable-TV infrastructure plays a critical role because it delivers the high-speed broadband required to keep these interactions flowing in real time, said Handa, assistant director of Toyama's information policy division management and planning department.

Cell-phone use is growing quickly in the Shizuoka prefecture, up from 7.5 million phones in 1999 to 70 million phones a year ago, Shigeru Muramatsu said during Monday's panel. Muramatsu, vice chairman of Japan's Prefectural Government CIO Forum, Japan's counterpart to NASCIO, has dedicated much time and effort toward delivering government services to this increasingly unwired community.

"Cell phones are a way to kill time when waiting for trains," said Muramatsu, who's also managing director of Shizuoka's managing office of information. As a result, Shizuoka's IT team has introduced small-screen-friendly Web sites that promote local services, including travel maps and cooking tips from local restaurateurs, to cell-phone users. By June, he plans to produce digital broadcasts to cell phones that highlight all of the available online government services, which he said are vastly underutilized.

Although the Tottori prefecture is Japan's least populated, it has many of the same concerns as the larger regions. But with fewer resources, the prefecture has since the late 1960s outsourced IT operations, if not IT management. This has created a monopoly outsourcing business for the Tottori Information Center Foundation, which is funded by the prefectural government, local municipalities, and local private industry, said Hiroshi Morimoto, a senior staff member of the new public management division within Tottori's general-affairs department.

Japan's Gifu prefecture may be middling in size, but it's got the largest IT budget of any prefecture in the country. As such, Tanemasa Chiji, senior director of the Gifu governor's IT policy division, has led the launch of an ambitious portal designed to consolidate 85,000 Web pages filled with content developed by the prefecture's local governments. Whereas a previous version of the portal received about 120,000 hits per month, Chiji wants version two of the portal, launched Sept. 1, to handle 300,000 hits monthly. Likewise, his target is for 20% of the prefecture's 700,000 households to use the portal to access government services.

It isn't enough for the public sector to put its information online, Chiji said during Monday's panel. The information has to be easy to find, and people need to know where to look. Said Chiji, "IT strategy should be implemented with a focus on citizens."