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Here Comes the Italian Digital (Hidden) Agenda

By Andrea Di Maio | February 01, 2011 | 13 Comments

e-government

On January 31st a group of well known personalities in the Italian IT industry (journalists, vendor CEOs, academics) gave birth to agendadigitale.org, whose purpose is to lobby government for the establishment of a digital agenda similar to those created in other countries. On the same day, the group bought a page on the leading newspaper to publicize the initiative, which was covered by several other media. Bloggers and other social media activists who cover technology issues have been friending, retweeting, sharing this news, showing a rapid uptake of the idea.

Of course the idea of accelerating digital technology adoption in a country that needs to redefine itself after the economic recession and under a gigantic public debt, is a very good one. However the call does not seem to recognize that Italy has the highest mobile device penetration in the world, a rapidly increasing number of household connected to the Internet (ADSL, fiber), tens of millions of social media users. Where Italy has consistently failed, under different governments of different color, is on transforming its public sector. In fact, notwithstanding some good examples in areas like health care or revenue collection, and despite its decent rankings in the online government benchmarks run by the EU, the country still suffers from ineffective and inefficient bureaucratic processes, and subsequent waves of technology investment have not helped.

The call for the agendadigitale.org comes from people who have been actively involved, both personally and through their companies, in advising or implementing previous “digital agendas”. The failure or modest success of some of those earlier projects is not entirely their fault, as the readiness of past administrations to manage and absorb technology-driven transformation was fairly limited. However they do not seem to take this into account, and beg for elevating the digital agenda at the political level, with the desirable effect of getting some funding and launching new programs.

Is there any evidence that those who took part in previous failures are now ready to take the digital agenda to the next level? There is an interesting debate going on in Facebook and other social media about whether agendadigitale.org is really needed. Supporters recognize that technology alone is not enough, but insist that Italy still needs to catch up on infrastructure. Others criticize that the initiative has not been blessed by a sufficient amount of crowdsoucing, and would therefore express the elitist view of the usual suspects in the Italian technology landscape.

My modest opinion is that this agenda is the wrong answer to the wrong question.

I have to admit that translating the objectives into English has been challenging, since some of them are quite cryptic in Italian too, but I hope I captured the essence.

The Digital Agenda should cover the following:

Infrastructures, in order to maximize inclusion, be aligned with main world economies and ensure the continuity of critical services

Services, both for end users and infrastructure, applying the necessary standards

Literacy, to help citizens, entrepreneurs, officials and executives understand and experiment with the benefits of digitalization

Regulations covering digital citizenship as well as transactions between companies and with government, and aiming at reorganizing supply chains

it is quite evident that proponents have a rather skewed view of digital society and economy.

  • Literacy is hardly a problem for Italian citizens and entrepreneurs today: the main challenge is for government as well as parts of industry to better understand how the use of consumer technology and social networking is changing citizen and customer expectations and behaviors. Where is this covered in the proposal?
  • Most regulations transcend the national level, and most topics have been discussed for a long time in Brussels: who is called to do what exactly?
  • What kind of services do proponents have in mind?

Well at the end it is quite clear that what they are looking for is more spending on infrastructure, something they would all benefit from. And there is a lot that can be called infrastructure, isn’t there? New generation networks, computers in schools, standard government applications, reusable software, COTS, cloud-based services: the list goes on and on.

What I find ironic is that, in making the case for the agenda, its supporters list a number of countries that have had such agendas for some time. One example they mention is Spain, with its Plan Avanza. Indeed Spain climbed the EU rankings and made a lot of services available on line, by issuing a law, and spending money on services and infrastructure. Yet, this did not help Spain weather its financial and economic crisis, which is still unfolding, and I wonder how many of the online services they rushed to implement in this self-inflicted competition are actually been used and provide demonstrable value to both citizens and government.

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13 Comments

  • I’m one of the promoters.
    we don’t offer ideas nor solutions.
    we ak politicians to take the digital agenda into account and discuss, push forward ideas and propose solutions.
    indeed, some bits are missing in the texts we put together
    indeed there might be mistakes
    ineed some countries have better perfomances than the others

    the issue is that the UN- ITU says that italy, along withsome othr 9 countries, is not in the group of the 161 countries which have adopted a digital strategy (as recommended by the EU, by the way).

    we ask politics to take on charge this effort (and not only discuss about the same old topics we’ve been listening to in the last 15 years)

    do we miss something in the wordings ? are some examples incomplete or incorrect ?

    well, please tell us and we’ll improve the document.

  • p.s. there’s nothing hidden as the title would suggest but the rest of your post soes not say.

  • @Stefano – thanks for your answer. Let me start with your second comment first. What is hidden – and my post says so, although maybe not explicitly enough – is that the agenda of most promoters is for government to spend money on digital technology. Given the identity of those promoters they would benefit from greater spending through consulting, products, services, exposure, and so forth.
    As far as the text, I am not saying that there is anything missing, but that it is missing the point. Entirely. I gave an example at the end of a post of how having a digital strategy does not make a nation better, and I bet that – being Italy the seventh economy in the world – most countries with a digital strategy are still trailing behind us.
    Digital technology is one among many tools to make our nation more competitive, for sure. However, should I advise about where money and attention should be put, I would certainly mention the (public) education system as well as teaching people (in schools, enterprises, administration) the basis of ethics (e.g. that we all have to pay taxes for public services to be efficient and equitable). As you should know very well, Italy has much greater priorities than a digital agenda.
    The reason why countries like the US or China or Germany are far ahead of us in creativity, growth, productivity is only partially due to digital technology: business ethics, risk-taking and sense of accountability are more important ingredients. Proponents of the Digital Agenda may start leading by example, and invest their own and their companies’ money in starting an agenda, rather than begging for public money.

  • Dear Andrea, this time your post seems to be a bit biased. Quite a big bit, actually.

    As I understand, people are trying to organize and collaborate. Possibly at this very moment they don’t have clear understanding of their goals, – so what? They may fail – so what? Do you prefer them to be passive observers? Isn’t it better for you to “go there the people are” and try to disseminate your views on the subject? 🙂

    Their Agenda is quite typical: it’s far from being brilliant, that’s true, but it’s not outright stupid. Computer literacy and regulations _are_ real challenges. I don’t believe you when you are saying that “literacy is hardly a problem for Italian citizens and entrepreneurs today” (provided your understanding of literacy goes beyond the ability to press buttons on the mobile really quickly). In my country I see that most of people are unable to find the information they need – the information is there, but their search skills are insufficient. School graduates know very little about e-government services and how to use them.

    You are saying that “the agenda of most promoters is for government to spend money on digital technology”. IMHO this is always the case with such agendas. Are _you_ able to suggest an agenda that will be calling for less government IT spending? 🙂

    With my sincere regards, – Natasha

  • Hello Andrea. You have a point: I, too, have distanced myself from the proposal, as I wait to know what exactly is that is going to be proposed. Infrastructures, services, literacy, regulation would be acceptable headings for a very wide range of digital agendas, from John Perry Barlow’s all the way to Darth Vader’s.

    And I beg to disagree with Natasha: it is actually very, very easy to come up with an agenda that calls for less government IT spendindg. With cheap cloud solutions and open software projects all over the place, the IT sector has to deploy considerable smarts to defend the level of their public sector orders. Ciao!

  • @Di Maio: you say we ask for spending ?
    well, you say so.
    we don’t.

    if we did, do you think mr. Giannino, one of the most prominent italian opposers to gov spending would agree to sign an appeal to increas spending ?

    woudl an appeal to give a digital strategy to one of the 10 countries in the world which does not have digital plans, benefit also the digital ecosystem ?

    obviously.

    who can ask for it ? I cannot imagine farmers or chemichal industry asking for a digital agenda…

    @Cottica: what is proposed is there in the home page: nothing.

    we don’t propose. we ask politicians to do their proposals for a digital agenda.

    I, myself, have my proposals, which I wrote on italian press and my blog since about five years. The major one being the separation of TI’s Network at wholesale form the retail arm. Something mr. Bernabe (CEO of TI and one of the signers) is fiercely opposing.

    All of us might have proposals and ideas (we are not farmers), but we are not pushing any, as they may contrast. we just ask politicians to have a digital strategy.

    period.

    too simple to be true ? well, it is.
    it costs us 18000 Euros; each of us will pay 1/100th.
    I think it’s a good investment for my daughters.

  • MAP says:

    Good morning.

    There’s nothing hidden in the agenda digitale because there’s almost nothing to be hidden.
    Indeed, my very first (and lasting) perception was that a big chunk of the so called “proposal” was missing.
    Explanation . The agendadigitale is an honest, idealistic attempt to convoy some of the Country efforts toward the (re)solution of one of the hundreds of critical issues and problems that are slowing down if not stopping at all the nation economical growth (or, better, renaissance).
    The request-for-help is loud and clear but it is not enough.
    Among the list of known and less known names of the first supporters to the initiative, after the claim of a number of generic and understandable statements written in the “manifesto”, in addition to the public request to the Italian politic world (diverted by understandable human survivors instincts) what is really missing is a solid action plan, less stratosphere altitude, that would convert the instances into actionable items.
    Otherwise the risk is that all the good ideas, the collected strengths and the potential financing (let me smile here ) would stay where they are …. somewhere else.
    Being and Italian citizen and looking at what has been done in the remote and recent past and what is now the current politics turmoil I have to say to be very _VERY_ skeptic about the real capability of such initiative to even taxi onto the take off lane ……
    Sorry about that.

    Andrea, as usual, very good points. Thank to bring to us a different, out of the standard schemas, voice.

    M.A.P.

  • @MAP: maybe you’re right.
    I hope not.
    Even though, some battles need to be fought even if you loose them.
    We have a plan to reach 10M+ contacts in the next week or so.
    Even if the politicians don’t act, there will be more information.
    But look at weak signals.
    Italia Oggi on monday had a first page with Min. Brunetta at full page with “my digital plan” (or something like that) . this was a clear reaction to the leak of the informtion we were going to publish the page.
    Il Tempo, another newspaper close to the government, had an article stating that mr. Berlusconi wants a deputy minister for the internet. also this a reaction to our page (we are talking about digital agenda, not internet agenda, as I clearly said @Radio24).
    The Club Della Liberta put our banners on their homepage.
    UDC, PD has started works to propose their digital agenda and I’ve been told others plan to make similar announcements.
    It may not raise to prime time.
    I hope I can say “not yet”.

  • @Stefano – Of course, given the cross section of usual suspects among the signatories it was expected that journalists and politicians will jump on the bandwagon. This is indeed the reason why I decided to voice my criticism.
    I appreciate that the agenda is not really an a agenda but more a call for an agenda. But what I am least comfortable with is exactly the fact that you do not propose anything else than a stratosphere-high categorization of areas for intervention, in order to both get maximum support (who would say no to any of those?) and have ample room for individual agendas, which – as you honestly point out – do coexist among signatories.
    At this late stage, exactly because Italy is lagging behind, I would expect a group of well reputed individuals to come up with something that is less generic, that speaks to the priorities of this country, that addresses the thorniest issues of education, lifelong learning, business and personal ethics, and how digital technology can help or maybe hinder their solution.
    We have very limited resources to spend for the foreseeable future. 100 people should apply their brainware (and invest much more than 180 euro each in terms of their own time) coming up with concrete proposals, a vision for a digital Italy, a roadmap that makes that vision both affordable and sustainable.
    You have taken the path of least resistance, without even trying to discuss proposals withing the group and coming up with priorities.
    As I said somewhere else, all the signatories who enjoyed public funding in a way or another (public salaries, grants, industry subsidies) should invest a fraction of that money to articulate an agenda and get it through as a bipartisan effort. But all the examples you are giving show that various, competing agendas will be developed in various corners, as it is typical in this country.
    While we are witnessing yet another failure of IT in government with the system for filing medical certificates online…

  • @MAP – Thanks for your kind words. You seem to be somewhat politically correct, as your comment suggests that the agenda has good ideas, but it is empty at the same time. I also hope that your and my skepticism will be proven wrong by what this agenda will morph like. However the beginning is hardly encouraging

  • @Natasha – Believe me, there is no bias here. The list of signatories contains people from different political orientation, and as Stefano said,. multiple political entities are already reacting.
    I also believe you are underestimating the “digital literacy” of many European citizens, in your like in my country. I think that most “experts” would have thought that people in Tunisia and Egypt were not as IT literate as their counterparts in the top-ranking digital countries in the recent UNDEP report. And yet leaders had to close access to the Internet because citizens were smarter at using it than government itself.
    What strikes me is that many signatories of the digital agenda are meant to be expert in “2.0” (or at least so they say), but don’t get that “2.0” is not “1.1” or “1.2” for a reason, and the reason is the emergence of unpredictable behaviors (both good and bad) that cannot be planned for with traditional means . The template of this agenda is a “1.0” one, could have been written a decade ago.
    And of course I agree entirely with @Alberto that one of the differences is that transformation c an be achieved much more cheaply than before: but then, would many signatories have any interest in helping government spend less on technology (and related services) to get more out of it? Looking at how the agenda looks like, I doubt it.

  • MAP says:

    @Stefano

    Thanks for the answer.
    As I said, the initiative is a good one but you(we) need to “walk the talks”, to transform ideas into actionable plans.
    The Politics are raising their head up, reacting in the unique way they can , making noise, moving stuff from a place to another one and vice.-versa in a tipical schema adopted to keep things as they are (move everything to change nothing, Il Gattopardo). The only way to get off this vicious circle game is to have your(our) plan A that is a solid, written, sponsored set of actionable points, supporters, financing entities that will put the politics counterparts in a corner, obliging toward a decision.
    Otherwise we’ll always have a minister to the Innovation that would move in a direction, another “digital authority” moving in another direction, newspaper saying that is a good idea but car-plating the fatherhood according to the political parties (?!?!), the agendadigitale one standing by trying to understand who’s the “winner” and …. the rest of the world moving up at the maximum speed and power.

    By the way, I subscribed the agendadigitale initiative (I was arounf at the 5 or 6K rank) because, as Andrea intuited, I do believe it is a good one.

    have a nice day.

    MAP

  • @MAP – “plan A that is a solid, written, sponsored set of actionable points, supporters, financing entities that will put the politics counterparts in a corner, obliging toward a decision” – well this sounds like science fiction, but certainly a noble goal. Not one they can achieve though, given how they started and who they happen to be.