November 10, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted various issues in both national and local governments in Japan. To acquire the kind of flexibility and agility required to keep abreast of the hectic pace of change in today’s society, governments need to transform into organizations capable of using the latest digital technologies.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has used Microsoft’s Power Platform to build an online administrative procedure platform aimed at accelerating its digital transformation (DX). A culture of agile, high-speed development is beginning to take root in the Ministry.
Taking myriad administrative procedures online
The launch of the Digital Agency in September 2021 generated a lot of buzz, but even before then, the Japanese government has in recent years been pursuing various measures based on its Digital Government Action Plan designed to create user-friendly services that leave no one behind. As the ministry responsible for supporting DX in industry, METI is also pursuing its own DX.
METI has already launched a number of programs to drive DX, including programs for disbursing grants and subsidies and introducing IT specialists, but applicants for such support need to go through the designated “procedures.” There are an enormous variety of administrative procedures based on laws and regulations, including those required by regulations — a total, in fact, of about 58,000 procedures across the national government’s 24 branches.
“A full 98% of those myriad procedures are relatively small-scale and middle-scale in usage, generally being used less than 100,000 times per year,” says Kaori Hayakawa, a digital transformation manager in METI’s IT Project Office (Policy Planning and Coordination Division, Commerce and Information Policy Bureau) who used to work in the private sector planning and developing IT for manufacturing industries, recalling that the sheer number of different administrative procedures was a barrier to digitization.. “Digital government services need to be ‘ready-to-use’ ‘simple,’ and ‘convenient,’ but bringing each and every one of those administrative procedures online is extremely costly, and we had to figure out how to develop and maintain the services as efficiently as possible.”
Up to now, government system development has generally followed the so-called waterfall model in which processes such as procurement, definition of requirements, planning and development, testing, and release are conducted in clearcut stages, with the deliverables of each stage undergoing strict checks before proceeding to the next stage. Since development using this approach takes from six months to a year, METI knew that it was unsuited to rapidly digitizing masses of administrative procedures, and so in 2018, it began to look at “low-code development.”
Low code is a software development approach that requires little or no source coding to build systems at high speed. Since it doesn’t require a high level of expertise, low-code development allows people with relatively ordinary skills to develop the systems they need by themselves.
“To speed up development, we took the approach of working with the responsible ministry employees to develop and maintain small and middle-sizedadministrative procedures rather than outsourcing such work to IT contractors,” says Toshimitsu Ishii, another digital transformation manager in METI’s IT Project Office regarding the selection of low-code development tools. “METI was already looking to use Microsoft 365 as a cloud-based Office tools option, and given Microsoft ‘Power Platform’s’ affinity with those tools, we decided to use it for low-code development.”
Power Platform is a collective term for services that enable the low-code development of digital solutions. Power Platform tools such as “Microsoft Power Apps” business application development tool and “Microsoft Power Automate” business workflow automation tool enable employees to develop and enhance systems tailored to their work needs. They can also use Microsoft Power BI to visualize and analyze accumulated data to formulate data-driven policies.
METI started building “gBizFORM” as an online administrative procedure platform based on Power Platform.
Building an online platform for administrative procedures using Power Apps low-code development tool
gBizFORM is a service for enabling the online submission of applications and their subsequent rapid screening and processing. Companies that have obtained a common ID (gBizID) for corporations will in time be able to carry out a wide range of administrative procedures on the website, and ministry employees will be able to check and process applications etc. on gBizFORM. “Our goal is to enable Ministry employees with no special IT expertise to digitize the submission and processing of administrative procedures within their jurisdiction,” says Hayakawa regarding gBizFORM’s development concept. “In other words, we want to enable employees to ‘digitize processes as much as possible on their own.’ Since administrative operations can change suddenly due to social conditions and disasters or other contingencies, our underlying aim was also to equip the Ministry with the kind of organizational capabilities to be able to respond flexibly to such eventualities.”
The concept behind gBizFORM development was therefore not only to streamline procedures, but also to enhance the ability of the Ministry to respond to changing circumstances. Masashi Osada, yet another digital transformation manager in the IT Project Office says that identifying the characteristics of diverse administrative procedures was the first step in gBizFORM development.
“Low-code development is amazingly speedy since it requires no coding, but that doesn’t mean to say that you can develop any system with it. It’s good for some systems, but not suited to all, so we set three criteria for identifying administrative procedures with the right characteristics — ‘simple process and data structure,’ ‘rock-solid identity verification,’ and ‘value in utilization of the data collected’,” says Osada.
Since most small-scale and middle-scale procedures were expected to be relatively simple, the development project team anticipated that Power Apps-based low-code development would save time and money. How did the gBizFORM development project differ from previous administrative system development projects?
“The greatest advantage of developing with Power Apps is that you ‘can check the behavior of an app while it is still at a very early stage of development’,” says Ishii. “In the past, we couldn’t see the real thing until very close to delivery date, which means we couldn’t experiment, and since we needed to rigorously finalize specifications and design documentation in advance, any change in specification was expensive. With Power Apps, however, you can, for example, ‘seek the advice of a colleague sitting at the next desk while carrying out adjustments or correcting text inside the actual app.’ People in the Ministry really love the way development can be done so quickly.”
It was through this kind of ‘agile development,’ with constant feedback driving the achievement of an ideal form, that gBizFORM came into being. By September 2021, gBizFORM was able to handle four administrative procedures, including applications for nominal support and for deductions from income under an open innovation promotion tax system for startups.
Development speed slashed from one year to one month with the development of gBizFORM
GBizFORM application pages are created on the Power Apps portal, and screens for Ministry staff to check and accept applications are created by a Power Apps model-driven app. What kind of value is being generated by gBizFORM? Hayakawa says that the change in development speed is key. “Power Apps is enabling much faster development. Basic administrative procedures such as [application submission → receipt → screening → approval (return) → notification of execution] can go live in about one month. This used to take six months to a year in the past, so it’s a huge improvement,” says Hayakawa.
“We’ve only just started using gBizFORM, but it has a very clean and clear application receipt screen that you find you can use intuitively,” says Shion Asami, a Section Chief in METI’s Industrial Creation Policy Division, (Economic and Industrial Policy Bureau), who is in the position of accepting applications from businesses, regarding gBizFORM’s usability. “Its model-driven operation resembles Excel, so it poses almost no problems.”
Ishii says that gBizFORM is fostering an agile development culture within METI. “By agile development, I mean ‘first creating minimum functionality and then completing the project through a process of rapid trial and error, and reduce the time to service.’ I sense that this methodology is beginning to permeate the Ministry. The use of Power Platform enables us to leave almost all infrastructure maintenance and management aspects to Microsoft, and by sharing components, we can cut even more time off system development. I feel that we can now focus on improving the quality of government services, which is our original mission.”
Using gBizFORM to trigger a surge in government DX
Osada and Asami had the following to say about expectations in various quarters for gBizFORM.
“As of the end of August 2021, over 570,000 businesses had signed up for gBizIDs, which I think indicates the high expectations for more and more online procedures,” says Osada. “We’re currently looking at about 400 procedures under the jurisdiction of the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency to see how many can be implemented on gBizFORM. The government has set a goal of ‘taking almost all administrative procedures online by 2025,’ and for this reason too, gBizFORM is attracting a lot of attention both inside and outside METI. Other ministries have also been getting in touch with us for advice on speeding up development to keep up with changes caused by the pandemic.”
“I’ve heard that gBizFORM has a built-in data analysis tool (Power BI),” says Asami. “I’m hoping this means that as data accumulates, we’ll be able to put it to use to formulate policies and improve services by visualizing and analyzing it.”
Hayakawa offers the following three tips to bear in mind when carrying out in-house digitalization and expansion of administrative procedures.
- Quality assurance: You need to have a clear idea of what you can do and what you shouldn’t do in low-code development, and develop your skills accordingly.
- Governance: You need to create a mechanism for centralized oversight to prevent the inadvertent creation of risky apps.
- Horizontal dissemination of success stories: Growing a low-code development culture is not easy, which means that sharing success stories involving employees who are not IT professionals is vital to encouraging others to “take up the challenge themselves.”
“In addition to these tips, I think that driving digitization requires leaders capable of communicating the right vision and goals and creating a positive atmosphere,” says Hayakawa. “If organization leaders themselves are liberal with their praise and encouragement of those driving development at the front line, it will have a positive impact both on individual ways of thinking and on the culture of the organization as a whole.”
Ishii anticipates that gBizFORM will lead to further in-house development. “I use the word ‘in-house’, but I’m not suggesting that METI staff should handle all IT system development and maintenance. We’re aiming to create a system whereby our people acquire sufficient understanding of product development to be able to grip and control the entire project by sharing roles well with external partners.”
Lastly, Osada voiced his hopes that low-code development will “trigger a surge in DX.” “DX is about more than just digitizing procedures. It’s about more than just improving processes. In our mind, DX is a continuing paradigm shift to increase the value of government services to the benefit of the public. We feel that Power Platform will serve as an important trigger to that end. At a time when there is a growing momentum to embark on change with enthusiasm and speed, we digital transformation managers aim to utilize the experience and skills we’ve gained with gBizFORM to trigger a further surge in transformation.”