Yesterday I attended ForumPA, the largest government technology conference in Italy, which draws every year a crowd of 30 to 40,000 people from government, industry and academia to discuss how IT can help transform service delivery and operations. Attendees and exhibitors come from all tiers of government (city, provincial, regional and national) and from many IT product and service vendors.
Hot topics this year were open government, open data and smart cities, with a somewhat less strong emphasis on cloud computing – despite Telecom Italia’s advertisement about the “Nuvola Italiana” (or Italian Cloud) all over the place. These are all themes that feature the emerging digital agenda, which was also represented with a shared booth with the three or four ministries that participate in its planning and operation.
My presentation’s title was “Open Government: The Reality Behind the Myth“‘ and its aim was to highlight the dichotomy of open government as a means to increase transparency or to achieve greater efficiency, especially in a context where governments are under severe budgetary constraints.
Although the session was in parallel with four of five others and was being streamed live, I was still disappointed with the low attendance. When addressing similar audiences in other countries I use to have a packed room.
Even more interestingly, before starting I was approached by a university professor who has been for many years and still is a well-known consultant to local and central government and a lobbyist for everything open (source, standards, data, you name it). As we were chatting about our back and forth on social media where she pushes for “open by default” and I call for “open for a reason”, she said that my negativity was probably the consequence of me going through a midlife crisis. I had to remind her that in this case my midlife crisis had started at least a decade ago, when I was younger and still cautioning clients from the over-enthusiastic advice that both she and her colleagues at the time were delivering about e-government, innovation and the likes.
The lack of attendees and the somewhat nasty reaction to criticism makes me believe that, despite the many genuine efforts to innovate, Italy has been stuck with the same innovation patterns and the same players and attitudes for too many years. University professors and other consultants take alleged best practices from other countries, add some flavor that shows how their specialty or position is essential for success, and package this all to public sector executives and political leaders who are eager to do something. Of course mentioning Brussels, Washington DC or London as examples of where something has been done or tried out always helps. On the other hand, there is little effort spent to look at (1) what makes a best practice elsewhere applicable to the Italian situation, and (2) whether all those practices are really as good as they look like or whether they are already showing sustainability problems. After all, also in other, more mature countries the lobby of technocrats, be they vendors, consultants, technology press, bloggers, academics, has a big stake in how open government is being shaped.
It would be great if technologists took a back seat in all his, leaving the front seat to people who know the business problems that need to be solved. Technologists can help understand and select tools, support training, give examples of how innovation can take place, but should not pontificate on open government strategies. Open government, e-government, social media are all tools to meet the strategic goals of a government organization: they are a means, but not the end. What many technologists do instead is to turn this upside down, putting technology (and technology spending) at the center, and often looking for a problem that their pet solution can solve.
I do understand why the usual suspects react so strongly. They are incurring the same risk as their colleagues in communications and public affairs, whose role is more and more perceived as a commodity, due to the pervasiveness of social media that is turning everyone into a potential communicator. Likewise, consumer and commodity IT can help employees become more effective, productive, innovative without expensive consulting and handholding.
In reality neither communications and PR nor IT will ever become a complete commodity, but parts thereof will. It is time for long-time advisors and consultants to realize that they can still provide a lot of value but in different areas of the technology stack. They should help their clients become personally more innovative and capable of making the right technology choices, rather than sell packaged solutions that are often the ill-fated result of copy-pasting from a different country or industry sector.