The Italian government, after dealing with the financial emergency and market pressures by introducing new austerity measures, has shifted gear, looking into initiatives that can help reignite a much needed economic growth. In this context, it announced a new digital agenda (see here and here, both in Italian) and a new governance structure involving the Ministers for Public Administration and Innovation, for Education and for Economic Development. While the details of the agenda are being worked out, it appears that the main priorities will be broadband, smart cities and open government. This move has been enthusiastically welcomed by the local technology sector, which had been very vocal in the past about the need for a clearer vision.
While putting together three key portfolios for growth and development is a very good start, the new vision is not immune from major risks, and it is key for the new government to deal with them earlier rather than later. Here are a few personal tips.
- Spend better, not more. Although funding is required to improve infrastructures (and indeed almost 70 million euro are already earmarked for broadband development in some of the regions), the government needs to engage the private sector from the very beginning. The development of smart city infrastructures and applications is an expensive endeavor, which is going to benefit commercial enterprises, ICT service providers as well as citizens. It is not fair that only the latter have to pay the bill (through taxes and public spending). The government should pursue he establishment of public-private partnerships, where the private sector demonstrably shares both risks and rewards on most of these investments. Public funding should be focused on improving the performance of government services and operations as well as on transforming them through technology.
- Challenge the previous wisdom. In a cash-constrained environment, the government will be tempted to leverage as much as possible from previous initiatives and services. However, as it is establishing a new, longer term vision, it should also look at some of them critically enough to check whether they are sustainable or if they make sense in the future scheme of things. In particular the so-called “certified email” (PEC in Italian) as well as programs like the identity card may need to be reconsidered, given the modest uptake and the questionable value in a future where people want to have choice rather that being given only one solution.
- Learn from leaders’ mistakes. Being a latecomer to some of these themes is an advantage and not a disadvantage, as many technology providers and consultants keep saying. All areas of concern – broadband deployment, smart cities and open government – are fraught with disillusionment: understanding both the critical risks and the key success factors is of the utmost importance. Learning from the issues with existing smart city programs and better understanding why open government is struggling in many places where it has been adopted early is key to prioritize scarce resources. Unfortunately lobbies from the local technology sector and academia seem to push toward a me-too attitude, trying to mimic what others have been doing, irrespective of whether they have been successful or not. .
- Develop internal skills, without relying too much on vested interests. Over the last few years there has been a gradual loss of competencies through downsizing and transformation of relevant agencies. Such competencies need to be rebuilt, and should not be outsourced. Also, the ministers and officials who have been tasked with the digital agenda should exercise extreme care in listening to the suggestions and proposals coming from organizations that have a vested interest in greater public spending on this sector. Proposals coming with a clear risk-reward sharing component should be looked at more favorably, while the less specific requests for building infrastructure or provide seed funding should be carefully scrutinized.
The government is certainly on the right path by stressing the importance of digital technologies to support growth and dramatically improve government efficiency. However both the strategic objectives and the execution plans need to be bold enough to create a clear fracture with the past, put capable government officials in the driving seat, and push the local technology sector to share risks and opportunities rather than enjoy public funding.