Agile Development by Code for Japan and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)
It is 2019, and attention focuses on GovTech in Japan. Several hundreds of people are attending events hosted either by the METI or Kobe City, while GovTech startups such as Graffer,inc are being incubated. Public and private sectors slowly begin cooperation to promote digitization of governmental services, such as the messaging application LINE enabling chatbot services for municipalities and utility payment. Yet, there are issues around digitization in Japan, where many governmental services are still on paper and require sealings.
Code for Japan, since its establishment in 2014, has been playing a key role in the Japanese GovTech scene, for example, by sending fellows to Namie-cho in Fukushima prefecture to develop an application in collaboration with the citizens.  This year, as a challenge, we tried an agile-oriented application development process together with the METI, and it was revolutionary, since Ministries typically follow waterfall processes.
This document explains the application development process followed by Code for Japan, including its key outputs and improvement opportunities for the future.
Project Objective and Agile Development
Code for Japan developed a web application prototype to search for small and medium enterprise (SME) support programs by administrative organizations. Until today, there were over 100,000 SME support programs, scattered around different websites and leaflets. On top of that, the support programs were complicated, and it was difficult for the SME management to know if they were eligible to apply or not. The METI wanted to integrate the support programs information, and to develop a web application where the SME management could search for support programs while receiving push notifications. The METI thought they needed to develop the prototype using agile process, and thus decided to collaborate with Code for Japan on a proposal.
Code for Japan has 2 full time staffs and no application development team. Therefore, we organized the project by hiring engineers from Brigade, while outsourcing to companies with rich experience on agile process development.
Kick-Off and User Interview
On Oct 2018, the METI, Code for Japan and members from the development company gathered to kick-off the development. In the kick-off, we decided on the concept of the application, roles and responsibilities of the members, priorities for decision making, etc.
Concept of the Application
System Navi (name of the application) is an information search system targeted towards small and medium enterprises who are unable to select suitable initiatives and support programs due to having too many options to choose from. With System Navi, users can find the right information at the right time, while getting notified on when the support starts, with consistent granularity of information. This makes the system competitive when compared to existing services.
We interviewed more than 10 SME management, and asked how they are currently obtain information, and what issues they usually have to face.
From the interviews with the users, we decided to develop a web application with the following functions.
● Push notification
● My page
There were no technical difficulties to develop it, however, there were some concerns as described below.
● Finding support programs only is not attractive enough to incentivize the application users.
● It is impossible to prepare data which covers all support programs.
● Duration of development is short and it might be insufficient to ensure a detailed UI.
We allowed users to test the prototype and obtained feedback in Feb 2019.
There were many users who tried the service in different ways from our assumption, so we were able to identify several issues and improve the application.
This kind of activites are not usually performed when following the traditional software development process from the Ministries, and by doing this, we believe we achieved considerable progress.
In this project, we achieved considerable progress by introducing agile development to the Ministries, going as far as getting public attention. On the other hand, we found three major issues with the development of digital services and the Japanese government’s digital transformation.
1. Analog regulation and operation: Law and systems in Japan are not assumed to be digitized. As an example, the definition of “small and middle enterprises” differs depending on the system. Also, because operation is mainly based on paper forms, digitization causes a temporay workload increase, that is perceived as a not very pleasant situation from the staff.
2. Few specialists and less authority is granted: In Japan, bureaucrats are recruited and trained as generalists. So there are few people who actually have IT and design skills. Nowadays, the Japanese govnerment is starting to focus on recruiting people with IT skills, however, authority for decision making is given to bureaucrats who don’t understand IT so much.
3. Procurement and budgeting system: Outsourcing is required by the Ministries in order to develop governmental digital services, and it has been fulfilled by large companies that are well-seasoned in waterfall development processes. On top of that, since it had to be developed with the budget for a year, a large number of people were involved in a short period of time, and no improvement was made from the following year.
We, Code for Japan, want to change government services dramaticlally, collaborating more with the gorvernment itself and private companies in the future.
This article was translated by a volunteer member of Rakuten, Inc.
Thank you, Haruna Tanaka and Tomohito Nakayama, Luis Vidal.