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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