Blog post

Italy’s Digital Strategy: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Andrea Di Maio | October 05, 2012 | 6 Comments

open government dataEurope and ITe-government

On October 4th, after great anticipation and endless debates, the Italian Digital Agenda has been approved (see presentation in Italian here). It is part of a Decree about Growth tackling a number of areas that are key to economic development at a critical juncture in the country’s history, with record-high public debt, a deep recession and unsolved problems in areas like tax evasion and corruption.  The decree covers infrastructure investments, support for easier creation and development of startup companies, financing schemes for small and medium sized enterprises, broadband deployment in specific areas.

As far as the government is concerned, it addresses Open Data, Digital Identities, Electronic Health record, Electronic Student Record and measures to make Justice more efficient by increasing the use of electronic communications and online notifications.

All the areas addressed by the decree are in desperate need of improvement and the very fact that political attention is being focused is good. Aiming at a faster judicial system and a more modern education, promoting a greater use of online services and electronic transactions and payments, and building on the good initiatives that some regions have already deployed in the health domain are all important objectives.

However the decree misses the opportunity of truly modernizing some of the foundations of the old Italian e-government framework. In fact it is supporting the legacy of decisions taken in earlier versions of the national e-government program rather than taking a fresh look at technology trends and citizen behaviors to reassess and redevelop those foundations.

Here are two examples.

Single Digital Identity

While the UK government announces an innovative and pragmatic approach to identity management, relying on assuring non-government identities – such as those issues by banks, mobile operators or social media platforms, Italy decides to further centralize its own identity management system.

Today there are both Electronic Identity Cards and National (ort Regional) Service Cards. The former carries a chip and a picture, the latter carries a chip and the tax number, which is the actual single identifier for all Italian citizens and residents. The latter has enjoyed a good success in regions like Lombardy, where doctors, hospitals, pharmacies are connected through a system that relies on the Service Card. Citizens can actually use the card to look at their own records and reserve visits on line. To do so they need to get a pincode and a card reader that very few have found to be particularly compelling, although registering for the card use would allow to access a variety of other online services from other government agencies. The Electronic Identity Card is more conceived for a public safety and law enforcement use, and most local authorities cannot even issue it (I recently renewed my paper ID and got another paper ID).

The problem with both is that people need to find their use compelling enough to get the smart card reader and really use it. In many cases (including mine)  people forget the pin code (which must be requested separately) due to the very rare use of the card. On the other hand, most people use their online bank id and password, dial their PIN code every day to activate their SIM card, and use all sorts of social media platforms (yesterday I read that almost half Italians are on Facebook ).

So, wouldn’t it make more sense to take the British approach, accepting the importance of non-government-issued identity credentials and building on those, rather than a more backward-looking approach aimed at controlling and consolidating credentials?

Single Digital Home Address

Several years ago Italy introduced the Certified Email as a way to provide certainty in the electronic communication between (mostly) businesses or professionals and the government. Certified E-mail works like registered mail, and can be provided by a number of providers for a yearly fee (see an earlier post on this).

The new agenda extends this to citizens, assuming that they should get a certified e-mail inbox as their single point of contact with the administration. Other countries, such as Denmark or Germany, are exploring a similar avenue, but aim at providing citizens with a single point to access all the information they need about the status of interactions and transactions with multiple government entities, like a logical extension of the electronic health record toward a citizen record. But this is not what Italy does: there is no plan or longer-term vision suggesting that this certified e-mail inbox would then evolve into a citizen data vault.

However in a world where citizens have personal email addresses of choice to interact with service providers as well as friends, what’s the point of imposing them a certified email? This is another side of the problem above: an obsession to control channels and services and a complete denial of how people behaviors are changing on line. When the certified email was conceived, the term social media did not even exist: today the majority of Italians is on social media.

The Way Forward

Despite the flaws above, it is good to see that technology takes the front seat in reigniting the economy. There will be numerous challenges with funding, governance, turf wars between different government tiers, technology Talibans pushing in certain directions and lobbyists pushing in other directions, old-time consultants and new-kids-on-the-block providing contrasting advice. But at least the journey has started.

Comments are closed


  • Fabio says:

    I wouldn’t consider a publicly issued digital ID as a step backwards: quite the opposite, I consider digital ID management a cornerstone of online citizenship rights and I would hardly trust a private stakeholder more than the public – especially a foreign one, with different regulations and security standards.

  • Thanks for your comment, Fabio. I never said that identities would be managed by private third parties. I said that schemes where government assures third party identity credebtials are the way to go (see the UK example). So if there is certainty of identification when a private provider issues a credential (e.g. they ask you a paper ID card and have auditable ways to discern your identity), then there is no way why that credential should not be used by government as well. I would argue that today getting an online bank account as well as a SIM card require people to identify themselves, providing their ID card and tax number. This is certainly not the case yet with Facebook and the likes, but it might, once the rules for assurance are known to them.
    In my original title I had “one step forward and two steps back”, and maybe I should have kept that to make the point even stronger. Some people may interpret your comment as an encouragement to insource even more aspects of our digital agenda, whereas the only way to make it succeed is to leverage as much as possible existing behavioral dynamics, existing infrastructures and existing services. Otherwise we will find ourselves- say – building an Italian Government Cloud, when there will be enough compliant infrastructure available from service providers in Italy and beyond.

  • andrea says:

    I do agree that this is the first relevant boost of Information Technology sponsored by italian government. I would expect a lot of positive side effects both for the italian economy as well as for the IT industry.

  • Roberto Pizzicannella says:

    Thanks for the analysis.
    I think you really get the point. The Italiana Digital Agenda (ADI) lacks of vision and strategy, so the only thing that remains is to \adjust\ the current legislation (lots of modification of the Digital Administration Code).
    I think the ADI is there only because there is an European Digital Agenda (something similar happened with the egovernment action plan in the late ’90s). Despite the big discussions I think there isn’t yet a deep understanding of the disruptive potential of IT in the public sector among our politicians.
    I want to highlight another point. Lots of people say: \how can you innovate if there are no financial resources\. I disagree. The public sector in Italy spend each year a large amount of money. A good strategic approach (the one missing in the ADI), should be able to direct the use of those resources.

  • @Roberto, you make a great point here. As I pointed in earlier posts, it was the supply side (IT service providers, consultants and researchers) who pushed for a Digital Agenda. I doubt they are willing to participate pro bono, as a way to contribute to the greater good. If the ADI gets too much money to spend, we’ll have wasted a good crisis, as it is always during tough times that people become more creative and truly explore the disruptive potential you mention.

  • Fabio says:

    @Andrea, thanks for answering my comment – yet, I’m not convinced. The distinction about providing identification services (which are recognized by a govt. entity) and managing citizens’ identities is rather thin. Again, I believe that one of the main tools in governments’ hands to enable growth is by building infrastructure. Digital identity management is, in my view, a great infrastructural investment: just think of valuable google and facebook ids have been for new online services – removing the burden of providing identification from small startups and letting them concentrate all their efforts on what’s truly new and characteristic.