Blog post

Digital Government Strategies Should Focus on What to Do and Not How to Do It

By Andrea Di Maio | June 18, 2012 | 5 Comments

web 2.0 in governmente-government

I do live in Italy and I do work for a US company, spending most of my professional time with US colleagues and clients. They are very different countries, with very different histories, attitudes, weight on the international scene, entrepreneurship, levels of corruption and tax evasion, efficiency of machinery of government, and so forth.

Yet, I found remarkable similarities between the Digital Government Strategy that the US published a few weeks ago, and the Measures for Sustainable Growth (text in Italian) issued at the end of last week by the Italian government.

The former covers four main areas (information-centricity, customer-centricity, shared platform, security and privacy) and lays the foundation for a radically different way in which government applications and services will be developed, focusing on leveraging data through web API, on building reusable and interoperable web services, on separating a data, a platform and a presentation layer to allow services to be deployed through the most convenient channel to their consumers. What is better, It does not look just at citizens as consumers of government services, but also at employees, finally venturing in the employee-centric space that I have been advocating for for quite some time.

The latter covers a much broader ground than just technology, by introducing measures for employment, family support, boosting the construction sector, enterprise access to capital, infrastructure investments, energy, urban development, and more. One of the measures is the creation of the Agezia Italia Digital (Digital Italy Agency), resulting from the consolidation of three previously distinct entities. the agency is tasked with (1) coordinating policies and strategies for the deployment of innovative technologies in government, (2) optimizing government IT spending across tiers of government. After the intense discussions about a Digital Agenda and with the extraordinary challenges that the country is facing, the outcome is rather underwhelming.

Although the US Digital Strategy is a well-rounded, 36-page document while the Italian reference to the Digital Italy Agency takes only four paragraphs, they share a focus on tools, processes and organizations, rather than clear and concrete objectives.

The US strategy establishes a long-awaited Digital Services Innovation Center as a branch of GSA, as well as a Digital Services Advisory Group. Many of the actions listed in the document, which has a remarkably short time horizon of just one year, have to do with roles of support organizations, be they the Federal CIO Council, NIST, GSA or the likes. Agencies are requested to identify customer-centric services to be developed with the new approach, which may arguably trigger a compliance effect, not dissimilar from what happened with the Open Government DIrective and the Cloud-First Policy.

The newly-established Italian Agency will be most likely fighting for a budget, and I guess that quite a few consultants and local service providers are already queuing to provide their advice and possibly steering spending. The lack of an explicit objective about what the Agency should accomplish, which major problems it should help tackle, and how it would sort through priorities, already cast doubt about its effectiveness. Of course such level of detail would not be possible in such a broad decree. but I would have expected at least a few words giving the Agency some better sense of direction than “get your acts together”.

Despite the profound differences in breadth and depth of these two initiatives, they reveal an inclination to focus on how to do things rather than on what things need to be done. One could argue that, without clearly establishing support structures and methods, sustainable change would not be possible. My answer is that without a clear target, support structures and methods are hardly sustainable.

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  • Barbara Dossetter says:

    So many of our IT strategies start with tools, this is not a surprising approach. Quite often as an industry we develop the solution before we have a clear definition of the problem.
    A clear objective of a government digital strategy should be that all services should be available to all stakeholders in the easiest way possible including through the internet. Also that the digital landscape is developed to support business and government growth going forward.
    What do you think the objectives should be?
    Have you reviewed the UK Government’s digital strategy?
    Do you have a comparison of that strategy with the US and Italian one?

  • Craig says:

    People see tools, they don’t see goals.

    It is historic and very human to take the approach that “when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail” and modernise it to current technologies.

    Andrea, what you’re asking is how do we change human nature?

    The answer, as always, is that we need to use incentives to encourage change and penalties to discourage repetition of the same mistakes.

    The larger and more complex the organisation, the more difficult it is to impose appropriate incentives and penalties. Small organisations are more agile than larger ones – they have more to lose from mistakes and more to gain from positive changes. Large organisations tends to often absorb mistakes or successes without amending their overall behaviour.

  • @Barbara – Thanks for your comments. Indeed I looked at the Digital Britain report – which was much broader in scope than just “Digital Government” – and also looked at subsequent ICT strategies, Open Services white paper and so forth. I do feel there is a clearer sense of purpose, although also the UK strategies suffer from some of the same shortcomings. Maybe, as you say, this is just hardwired in the way the IT industry and its professionals think and work: I would argue that this needs to change if they want to remain relevant in the future.

  • Owen Ambur says:

    It would be good practice to publish digital government strategies in an open, standard, machine-readable format, like Strategy Markup Language (StratML, ANSI/AIIM 21:2009 & 22:2011).

    The purposes of the standard are outlined at

  • Salma Alderazi says:

    It is is interesting article that covers and focus on what versus how..

    In my text book which is based on my doctoral research . I have also highlighted the attention to “why” so that we develop strategies that ensure maximum benefits to stakeholders.