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The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) which leads economic policies and provides support for businesses in Japan, has established a Digital Transformation Office to spearhead innovative digital projects for the ministry. They are using Backlog to manage their systems development.
Previously, they were using a combination of email and spreadsheets to work with their IT vendors, but the process was time-consuming and messy. After switching to Backlog, they cut the number of hours they were dedicating to issue management and communication with vendors by 30%!
A member of our Nulab team Miho Inoue interviewed them to find out more about how they’ve been using Backlog.
This article was originally published in Japanese and has been translated and edited here for clarity.
Deputy Director Hiroki Yoshida works in the IT Project Office (Commerce and Information Bureau), a division of METI that handles strategy planning for digitalization, budgeting, and capacity-building. He was involved in founding the organizational structure for the digitization in the METI which has gone on to promote digital administrative procedures and back-office operations for businesses.
Digital Promotion Manager Daisuke Hayashi came from a private corporation before working at the Digital Transformation Office (Small and Medium Enterprise Agency); he leverages his experience to engage in the digital transformation of the METI.
Currently, they manage a development project for Mirasapo, an information-sharing website for SMEs.
What is Digital Transformation as promoted by the METI?
The METI established the Digital Transformation Office to promote change within the ministry. Can you tell us more?
Yoshida: The Digital Transformation Office was started as an interdepartmental unit in July 2018 to drive the digitalization of administrative procedures and back-office operations to improve the quality of administrative services for businesses and corporations. In order to achieve this, we are working actively with other departments responsible for infrastructure systems and business reforms.
Although various departments are involved, one of the pioneers is the DTO’s Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Agency. Specifically, it simplifies administrative procedures for SMEs and builds a platform to share relevant information with SMEs.
With digitalization taking place in every sector across the world, was there pressure for the Japanese government to keep up?
Yoshida: That’s right. Compared to advanced countries like Singapore and Estonia, where more sophisticated government services and private services are digital, Japanese administrative procedures have continued to be paper-based, which makes it inconvenient for users. As the world changes, it is imperative to make improvements.
The METI has many administrative procedures that involve private companies as users, thus it considers it necessary to tackle digitalization first and is undertaking these steps.
To radically promote digital change in the administration, the METI actively hires IT graduates from the private sector as digital promotion managers. Hayashi is one of them. In the past, the lack of IT specialists resulted in IT systems that were difficult to use. We believe that having a digital promotion manager will help to facilitate communication between vendors and government administrators which in turn will help us build better services.
Although the digital promotion managers are working on different projects, their objective is also to reconcile the aims of the government with the aims of the systems that are being developed, by facilitating an environment in which officials and vendors can work together as a team.
Introducing Backlog for project management in METI
How is Backlog being used within the ministry?
Hayashi: Backlog is used by the METI, the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy for managing systems development projects.
I came from a private IT company and was hired by the METI as a digital promotion manager in June 2018. In the following month, the Digital Transformation Office was launched in the ministry, and a project was started with seven external vendors to build an electronic application system for administrative procedures and an information-sharing platform.
Initially, project management was handled differently by each vendor, so the issue management tables and the WBS (work breakdown structure) files were inconsistent. It took a lot of work for the project manager, that is us, to review them. So we introduced Backlog to resolve this and standardize issue management.
Peace of mind with security-compliant Backlog
Were there any security requirements or concerns in using an online tool?
Hayashi: Before using Backlog, we used a security checklist to verify that it complies with the security standards set by the METI. In addition, the rules stipulate that confidential information, such as personal or private data, is not to be handled on Backlog.
Backlog also offers an on-premise Enterprise version, but because it was necessary to share information with external vendors, we chose to use the cloud-based version. Also, METI has a set of guidelines and standards for managing information and using cloud tools.
To learn more about Backlog’s security policy, please refer to our security page.
Before and after Backlog — cutting 30% of time spent on tracking issues and managing files
Before using Backlog for issue management, what problems did you encounter?
Hayashi: There were three major problems. Firstly, the issue management tables submitted by vendors were inconsistent and could not be standardized. We had to ask vendors to confirm the format of the issue management tables many times, which took time.
Second, it was time-consuming to review the multiple project files, e.g. issue management tables and WBSs. Every time a vendor updated an issue management table and emailed it to us for review, there was a lot of back and forth necessary to ensure that the new table was consistent with the previous tables stored in the shared folder. With seven vendors, and each making requests twice a week, this led to a huge number of administrative hours.
The third problem was the number of hours spent decompressing zip files attached in emails and searching for their passwords. This is related to the second problem: vendors will often compress and encrypt the issue management tables in an email and send the password in a separate email. Each time, I had to save the zip file, find the password in another email, unzip the file with the password, and finally save the file in the shared folder. I wanted to simplify this complex process.
What improved after implementing Backlog?
Hayashi: After using Backlog, issue management tables for all vendors were standardized and we saved a lot of time and effort managing files. We saved 90 minutes per week, a 30% reduction from the previous weeks.
Backlog has issue-tracking information such as assignee, issue status, and due date readily available, so there’s no need to check with the vendor. In addition, since the issue-tracking and project Gantt charts are linked, there is no need to prepare a WBS table like before.
Backlog has a file-sharing service that lets you store and share files with vendors without encryption. We know it’s secure because, in addition to login authentication and force 2FA, we can implement additional security such as IP access control, which limits access to only registered IP addresses.
Backlog improved their email communication problems
Did Backlog have an impact on email communication?
Hayashi: Yes. We averaged about five requests a day from vendors to check requirements, and it would take about half a day to respond to these emails.
The email exchanges with vendors were often long, and the subject/title of the email became “Re:Re:Re:Re:” etc. I often couldn’t determine which issue the email was about. Furthermore, it was difficult to track the status of each inquiry and whether it was resolved.
How did Backlog improve communication with vendors?
Hayashi: By using Backlog to communicate with them, we greatly reduced the time spent organizing and searching emails for information. Now, we can see how vendor queries are being addressed in Backlog, and see at a glance which queries have been resolved. Some of our vendors even commented that their work is easier to do, too.
In addition, we were often responsible for relaying communication between vendors and other departments, but with Backlog, we can simply create a project and have the vendor interact directly with other departments. This has helped reduce our communication workload, especially unnecessary email exchanges.
Backlog is becoming a standard tool in the ministry
It seems that Backlog is gaining ground as the project management and communication tool of choice in METI Japan and external bureaus.
Hayashi: Yes. As Backlog is being used as a standard project management tool with vendors for the digital platform project by the METI, the SME Agency, and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, I believe that the next step is to make it a standard alternative to email in other projects within the SME Agency.
With Backlog, even staff who prefer email culture can easily switch to it. They can just subscribe to be notified by email when a comment or issue is added, or they can directly reply to the email to comment on the issue. These features are useful for getting staff who are used to email to gradually switch over to Backlog.
Are you leveraging Backlog for meetings within the ministry?
Yoshida: Yes. There were many times when we could have spent time on phone calls or in face-to-face meetings, but after introducing Backlog, the number of calls and meetings have also reduced. Since information is aggregated in Backlog, the first step is to look at Backlog! It has become a habit.
Besides that, during meetings, it’s a lot easier to share information just by sharing the link of the Backlog issue. Meeting minutes are also managed in Backlog.
Do you think someone can use Backlog even if they are not familiar with IT tools?
Yoshida: Yes. I believe that in the future, it is possible to introduce it to event organizers and education groups. Because if you have multiple stakeholders and you have frequent inquiries and confirmations to handle, using Backlog will help you streamline your operations.
As for project management with IT vendors, I believe that Backlog fits the purpose because it enables collaboration and brings clarity to the process.
Advice for the use of online tools in government agencies
With the digitization of administrative procedures, what does a government need to introduce and fully utilize online tools?
Yoshida: I think it is often difficult to know whether or not the online tool will fit your organization without actually using it.
In our case, it was important to consider whether the tool is easy to use for the work of IT development. So, we hired a digital promotion manager from the private sector who has experience interacting with IT vendors to use the tool before deciding.
Once you have the tools, it’s also important to establish a system that will let you use them effectively. Each project has one Digital Promotion Manager who is responsible for driving the use of Backlog for team members, including government administrators and IT vendors.
In order to spread the use of online tools in government offices, it is important to establish a way of connecting people and tools properly.