Japanese GovTech was recognised globally this month, with the nation ranked third in Asia; fourth in the world for e-participation; and fourteenth for e-government development in the United Nations 2020 e-Government survey.

One of the nation’s govtech units is in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) – METI DX – and has rapidly pivoted their work to support users during the pandemic.

Hiroki Yoshida, Head of Digital Transformation at METI (METI DX), shared five lessons from Japan’s Covid-19 experience at the GovInsider Live Indonesia summit earlier this month.

1. Speed up with APIs

As a principle, Japan decided to reuse existing systems, rather than build new ones from scratch – speeding up delivery of new services, Yoshida said. For instance, METI has built gBiz, a digital identity system for businesses to access grants and subsidies, which can be reused and connected across the government using APIs. This digital identity system is the backbone of new projects, letting users quickly access new subsidy schemes and forms.

2. Open source to share successes

Japan is making its successful ‘CovTech’ projects open sourced to allow agencies across the country to reuse the code. “This is an innovation for the expansion of digital public services”, said Yoshida.

Prefectures, for instance, were able to quickly launch Covid websites by reusing the code built by Tokyo. “The Tokyo Metropolitan Government opened up the source code of its website for COVID-19 on Github and all prefectures copied the source and created their own sites.”

Opening up the code also allows the wider tech community to contribute to the projects. “We can improve our system continuously and anyone can contribute to the beta services,” he said. “Many information services about COVID-19 emerged from civic tech guys in Japan”.

3. Standards for open data

Japan has opened up Covid-19 data for others to reuse. Standardising this data ensures common terminology, codes and formats are used for data collected from different sources.

For instance, METI collected data from businesses on their free of charge and discounted services during the pandemic and released this in a standardised format. “After that, civic tech group Code for Japan created the search engine for that data.”

METI DX asked companies to fill in forms to share their promotions, pulling together information from across individual websites. “Different companies describe their services differently on their websites, meaning that people face difficulties in selecting the most appropriate services,” METI said in a press release.

“If we can share the data more among the agencies, it will be beneficial for the users, businesses. I think that point is very important from the government’s view,” Yoshida added.

The ministry also released information on government support available during Covid-19. It worked with the IT Strategic Headquarters and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to collect, standardise and release the data on Google Sheets.

4. Work with the private sector

Governments have had to innovate to communicate with citizens, and rather than building new channels, Japan partnered with businesses that already have the tech to get the word out on their initiatives, said Yoshida. “For example, we cooperated with LINE, which is one of the largest messaging services in Japan to provide the information of government support for business.”

METI also partnered with telehealth startup Mediplat to help to provide free telehealth consultations, preventing the need to visit doctors surgeries as a first port of call. METI has said that the doctors do not give prescriptions or diagnoses over the call, but can help give advice, support, and provide a listening ear during a period of turmoil.

5. Build up a GovTech ecosystem

Finally, governments must create stronger partnerships with businesses and the tech community. “We need to create a govtech ecosystem with companies and citizens because governments are typically scarce of IT capabilities,” he said .

“If governments should tackle complex issues, we need to cooperate with the stakeholders who have proper capabilities.” It seems Japan’s new normal will involve closer partnership between local and national governments, private companies and citizens.

Japan’s experience shows the power of pooling resources and partnerships in tackling this pandemic. It opened up data and code, shared platforms across agencies, and tapped on business expertise to support the economy.