‘The essential data infrastructure on which all digital governmental services are built.’ How Italy hired a crack team to turbo-charge digital reform
By Josh Lowe on Thursday, February 20th, 2020
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 32 , Issue 2 - ISSN 1325-2070
(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is a reprint of a February 20, 2020 article in The Mandarin by Josh Lowe, an editor at Apolitcal, based in London. The original is available at https://go.pardot.com/e/272522/ce-newsletter-utm-type-premium/4z1nvh/544882630?h=RedpKjNxxXzv8lhv4VTD0pC9zAVCPnDMkp6EQYCMvgA )
The Italian government’s progress in digital transformation is instructive for countries looking to use a mix of private and public sector digital skills and approaches to kickstart transformation without huge resources, writes Josh Lowe.
Italy’s governing infrastructure is complex — and when a key project to bring municipalities together failed, the team was unafraid to reboot. The nation progressed quickly by building online communities of “early adopters”, focusing their attention on those who were keenest. There was also a cross-government approach, whereby digital project-management skills are considered vital to ensuring all parts of Italy’s public administration reaps the benefits of digital transformation
Diego Piacentini, a former Amazon executive who recently completed a two-year stint in Italy’s government, hasn’t gone soft during his time in the public sector: “Crucial tenet — don’t waste your time with people who do not want to listen, no matter what.”
But then, the Digital Transformation Team (DTT) Piacentini founded didn’t have time to waste. After hiring mostly from the private sector, the DTT brought in a rush of new skills and approaches via its lean, 40-strong staff.
They overhauled existing digital projects and launched new ones. And then they spread the results as fast as they could by building communities of “early adopters”, focusing their attention on those who were keenest.
For countries looking to make the most of private sector digital skills without huge resources, the DTT’s two and a half years of disruption are instructive. The question now is what the government can do to build on the — ongoing — project’s successes, and embed the new approach it promises into the public administration at large.
If talk of “early adopters” and “evangelists” makes you think more of Silicon Valley than government, that’s a feature, not a bug, of DTT’s strategy.
“We haven’t really invented anything,” said Simone Piunno, DTT’s Chief Technology Officer. “This is a typical way of promoting a platform in the 21st century by a big tech company.” All the team did was bring the approach to government.
Much of DTT’s work lies in building platforms and other projects to help Italy’s different public administrations provide digital services, and creating developers’ tools to help government agencies integrate those platforms into their own systems.
DTT is small, while Italy’s public administration is vast. The country’s local and regional governance structure includes 8000 local municipalities.
So DTT has to try and turn its projects into viral successes. To do this, it runs promotional events and fosters communities of developers who use its tools and exchange information, while in turn spreading the news to others.
These communities of digital innovators, littered across the country, live online, chattering and sharing with each other through services like Forum Italia (a “discussion space” for public servants, citizens and technology providers), Developers Italia and Designers Italia (community platforms for digital service designers and developers).
“Good intentions do not work, mechanisms do,” said Piacentini, “For this reason, we began to gradually introduce communication and sharing tools that foster an active involvement not only of public officials but also of technology providers and citizens.” The team didn’t just bring their own skills to government, they linked up pioneers from different sectors across the country.
“From technical people’s point of view, this is a revolution,” said Piunno.
Taking it further
One of DTT’s proudest achievements is turbo-charging Italy’s National Resident Population Register (ANPR) project, a single database intended to house all Italian citizens’ personal information.
The ANPR is, said Piacentini, “complex” — all 8000 municipalities and 40 software houses have some involvement. He called it “the essential data infrastructure on which all digital governmental services are built”.
“The project was launched in 2012,” Piacentini said, “But, due to lack of technological and managerial skills, at the end of 2016, only one municipality had migrated.” Many of these municipalities are tiny, representing under 5000 people, meaning that even though they were mandated to add their data to the database, they simply didn’t have the ability to do so in-house.
So the DTT relaunched the project in 2017. As part of the team’s approach, it established contact with municipalities to provide technical assistance, helped to build a community of developers working on the project through Developers Italia, and created a tool to plan the technical work involved.
In the year and a half since, the number of municipalities using the platform has swelled to nearly 2,500 in June. Some 45 million Italian citizens are should be registered by the end of this year.
Despite stories like this, though, Piunno said that the team’s tools, platforms and communities don’t negate the need to upskill the Italian public service more broadly.
As well as data skills — still necessary to get the most out of infrastructure like the ANPR even if the team has made its implementation easier — Piunno said digital project-management skills are vital to ensuring all parts of Italy’s public administration reaps the benefits of digital transformation.
In a white paper, the DTT has also argued for mandatory training in user-centred service design for the highest levels of the public service, and schemes to attract talented graduates with tech skills into the public service, both calls Piacentini repeated.
DTT shows how a small influx of tech talent can make a colossal difference to a public service by kickstarting tired projects, putting users first, and building communities to spread knowledge and passion across the nation.
Now, for Piacentini, there needs to be a “top-down” effort from government to boost skills and drive the revolution further: “A cultural change of this intensity and level can take place in this way only.”
This article is curated from Apolitical.