Japan needs a new policymaking approach for the digital age  California-based RAND Corp. would be a useful model

Article by David J. Farber and Dan Gillmor
This post is originally published on Nikkei AsiaJapan needs a new policymaking approach for the digital age

David J. Farber is a distinguished professor and co-director of the Cyber Civilization Research Center at Keio University in Tokyo. Dan Gillmor is a senior fellow at the center and a professor of practice in the journalism and mass communications program of Arizona State University.

The Japanese government last year recognized the immense challenge it faces in bringing public services and government functions into the digital age by creating its new Digital Agency to support technological transformation.

But Japan needs more than just a new bureau to catch up with technological developments: It needs a new approach. The RAND Corp., originally set up after World War II with support from a U.S. defense contractor that eventually merged into Boeing, offers a potentially useful model.

Since its founding, some of the finest talent from several generations of political, military, economic and social circles have done important research at RAND, creating work that has served as a valuable national resource.

RAND is often called the first modern think tank. Philanthropic foundations began providing transition funding two years after its founding, and its support today comes from a wide variety of governmental, philanthropic and corporate sources.

At RAND, researchers have ample resources not only to think through how their own specialties fit into the nation’s and the world’s development but also, crucially, how their research focuses might fit together into a mosaic of domestic and international relationships.

Japan would similarly benefit from a cross-disciplinary, collaborative organization independent of government and industry alike that could initially focus on digital empowerment.

The new organization could help spread digital awareness and deployment to Japan’s national, regional and local government departments, big industries and small businesses, schools and universities, and the public. It should help create or vet key related policies that would affect the citizenry, such as those for the protection of people’s information, privacy and security.

The envisaged organization need not compete with the Digital Agency launched last year. Rather, it would complement and support the worthy efforts now underway in government.

A well-funded independent entity of this kind would attract top-quality people from around Japan and the world, including researchers, technologists, sociologists, social media experts and more. They, in turn, would become a fountain of knowledge, ideas and context in an ever more complex society and world, and, vitally, an invaluable resource for political and corporate leaders.

The new organization could serve as a training ground for the next generation of senior Japanese government officials, not just elected politicians but the essential mid- to high-level civil service people who carry out policy, as well as for business.

RAND has performed this role from the outset. Its cadres of top-level minds got early career experience, with some of the best ending up in government and business later on.

An initial focus on the implications of digital technology would become broader over time, almost by definition.

Digital technologies are already embedded in so much of what we touch and use each day, far beyond communications. Indeed, you have to look hard to find an arena that is not becoming infused with microprocessors, memory chips and communications. From health care to transportation to education and far beyond, the “cyberization” of everything is accelerating, for good and for bad.

A Japanese RAND-like project should serve as an honest broker, laying out the negatives along with the positives of technological change. Outside the EU, few governments have truly done this in a way that treats the public as anything but subjects of a vast science experiment, particularly in matters of privacy and security.

Japan’s strong community values might well lead to different conclusions than in the U.S., assuming good-faith public consultation, not just meetings with senior executives and government officials, but this would also reinforce Japan’s modern democratic processes.

One of RAND’s most unusual features, given its roots and history in federally funded research, is its location in Santa Monica, California, about as far from Washington as it possibly could be within the contiguous United States. RAND’s location has proved to be an advantage overall because one of the worst features of America’s capital is the ingrown thinking that takes place there.

If a Japanese entity of this kind comes into being, Tokyo may similarly be the wrong place to put it. Of course, the COVID pandemic has taught all of us lessons, given modern communications technology, about how to make physical distance less relevant.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that Japan clone RAND. But Japan does need a major policy think tank of some kind. If it does emerge, we hope it will share some of the characteristics that have given RAND ongoing relevance: nonpartisan, interdisciplinary, empirical research that is characterized by objective scientific rigor and high-quality presentation.

These are fraught times. Japan, like the rest of the world, needs the best possible thinking on the most important issues. An independent research center, focusing first on digital transformation, is the right investment, and now is the right time.

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