On July 10th the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that new Director general of the Italian Digital Agency would be Alessandra Poggiani. This announcement came after over 150 people applied for the position, made vacant after the previous DG, Agostino Ragosa, resigned. This is the first time a woman has been appointed for the topmost IT position in Italy, and her resume is very encouraging. She won the competition among a bunch of high caliber individuals, including global CIOs of multinational companies, CEOs of prestigious research centers, experienced professionals who held IT executive roles in previous governments, and several top-notch consultants and experts in the field.
Despite her strengths and achievements so far, Alessandra is faced with an incredibly tough challenge, as there are huge expectations driven by a new and ambitious prime minister and an assumption that this particular government will succeed where most previous governments have repeatedly failed. The context is certainly more favorable: there is a plan to reform and streamline the public administration, which is one of the most complex and large in the world. Such complexity mostly due to the structure and the history of the country and partly due to the inability of governments to realize any significant change over the last several years. However the context is not enough for her to sail toward successful impact and transformation.
As I have relatively little exposure to the intricacies of what happens in my country, and have the pleasure of leading an international team of analysts who advise clients worldwide on similar challenges on a daily basis, I would like to offer my unbiased, and indeed totally personal, perspective about what she may wish to do and not to do as she takes on this humongous task.
Here are five things not to do
- Do not decide by committee. In government, and certainly in Italy, there is a tendency to involve too many people in making a decision. Task forces, experts, “tables” (Italian politicians use this term to indicate the need for all stakeholders to sit around a table to discuss and decide about different matters) can be useful tools to inform her decisions but not to decide on her behalf. While this is not the private sector, managerial courage is required at this critical point in time.
- Do not assume that people outside government know better than people inside. When I was in government, I should often call in an external expert to tell my political masters something that one of my colleagues could have easily (and more cheaply) said. This is often because of a combination of objectivity, independence and plain mistrust. There are plenty of great people, with experience, passion and skills in the public sector, and they just need an environment that is conducive to them taking initiatives. At the same time, the Italian landscape is full of self-proclaimed digital experts, many of which have gained visibility through a smart use of social media, and often have little understanding of the peculiarities and intricacies of the public sector.
- Do not focus on making the whole country digital. One of the traditional ambiguities for somebody in such a role is that there is an expectation that his or her actions will also aim at increasing the adoption of digital technology in all industry sectors. Whether schools adopt digital learning platforms, small and medium sized manufacturers move into 3D printing, or the hospitality sector makes a much smarter use of mobile technology should not be her concern. Digital policies should be an integral part of all ministries’ agendas, and they should be leading from their specific portfolio’s perspective. Alessandra’s remit should be limited to helping transform government processes through digital technology, and she should operate at a level that allows all other ministries to leverage her achievements in their respective digital tasks. Also, she should not be influenced by the worry that the Italian (and European) IT industry may be lagging behind: while she will have an impact by pulling the procurement lever, any positive action favoring national or European players should not be her concern.
- Do not pick the low-hanging fruits. I understand that the temptation for somebody facing such a great challenge is to focus on the simplest things that lead to the fastest outcomes. I also suspect that this particular government is looking for something quick to show to citizens before the next elections. But Alessandra should market internally that this is not a sprint but a marathon, and in order for transformation to be sustainable, we need to change principles and foundations, arguably not the easiest and fastest task to tackle.
- Do not drink your EU colleagues’ kool-aid. Holding the EU presidency for the second half of the year means that Italy will be even more exposed than usual to what other countries do in many areas, including government IT. While learning what the Government Digital Service in the UK is doing or knowing more about the French or Dutch approaches to a national cloud is certainly helpful, it is imperative to put all these in perspective. It is important to distinguish PR from reality, to be able to get insights from those in the trenches who are supposed to comply with what her European colleagues are proposing, to look beyond the EU as well as at state&local rather than national levels, in order to get a number of stimuli and inspirations to choose from. We should not forget that over 15 years of e-government, with all their ranking,s benchmarks and best practice exchanges, have shown that there are fundamental differences in regulations, procedures, culture that may make the greatest success somewhere an embarrassing failure somewhere else.
And here are five things to consider
- Do pick one battle at a time. Alessandra will be given a long list of objectives, but she needs to be clear about what she can realistically accomplish by when. Of course it is not possible to do only one thing, but I would suggest to focus on winning one battle at a time. Focus is of the utmost importance.
- Do focus where you can make a difference. Part of being focused includes understanding the perimeter of her influence. Her predecessor spent considerable energies dealing with regional and local authorities, in order to rationalize infrastructure and help spend EU money available for infrastructure modernization at the same time. While he did arguably do a good job, he did not accomplish much at the national level, which was where this role actually sit. So Alessandra may consider to make a greater impact on national government while playing an advisory role only for regional and local, and possibly rely on others to make that happen. Incidentally this is one example of not picking a low-hanging fruit. Of course I get that there has to be continuity with what her predecessor did, but I would definitely advocate for a different balance, probably a challenge since Alessandra’s current role is in local government IT.
- Do choose who to work with. Apparently her predecessor had a difficult time at hiring the right people and surrounded himself with some collaborators who hadn’t been officially employed. I would argue that while this was one of the reasons why he had to resign, he was right in trying to get the right people on board. It might just take longer than hoped, but Alessandra should not give up picking her closer collaborators.
- Do use scenario planning. The future is increasingly uncertain and betting on any given approach is hardly sustainable. A good example is the effort that her predecessor put on building some form of national cloud. Whether this is a sustainable approach and makes sense depends on a number of factors like the availability and usability of EU-based cloud resources from international vendors, investments planned by local vendors, likelihood that local governments and even small-and-medium sized business will adopt a government-sponsored cloud service. Since all these are highly uncertain, it would be helpful to use approaches that deal with uncertainty, such as scenario planning.
- Do liaise with other great women in IT. Finally, there are several great woman on the IT scene, as I have pointed out in previous posts. I am intimately convinced that women can handle complex challenges like this better than man and I am sure that having a forum to exchange experiences and tips with female current and former national CIOs and digital leaders would be a great complement to Alessandra’s weaponry.
I wish Alessandra the best of luck and I hope that she will get the support she needs and deserves to be successful in tackling a challenging but potentially rewarding task.