Exclusive: Italy’s first Digital Commissioner on leading change

By Medha Basu

Diego Piacentini shares lessons from setting up and leading Italy’s first digital government team.

“I believe that the most important achievement actually is the fact that my job continues,” says Italy’s first Digital Commissioner.

At the end of 2018, Diego Piacentini wrapped up a two-year stint in the Italian Government. He founded and led the country’s first digital government team, while on sabbatical from his 16-year career at Amazon as one of its top executives. “You're actually catching me on my last day in Milan,” he tells GovInsider.

As he hands over the baton at the Italian Government to a new Digital Commissioner, his next steps are uncertain. “I'm going to take two or three months off, and I will think about what to do next.” But he’s clear about the lessons learnt from setting up Italy’s first centrally-led digital team, and what it must do next.

Pretty much everything on the smartphone

Piacentini joined the Italian government in 2016 with a vision to simplify how the government serves citizens and businesses. “That’s the ultimate plan; governments are here to make our lives easier,” he told GovInsider in 2017. He brought with him a great deal of expertise in building organisations and platforms that must constantly adapt to new technologies and serve demanding customers.

The project he is most proud of is the io.italia.it app. “This, within a few years, will allow all Italian citizens to interact with the government on the smartphone for doing pretty much everything,” he says. The project is in the beta phase, and is being tested with local and central agencies.

To get here, Piacentini first set out fixing foundational and core platforms in the Italian government. The team fixed the unified national registry, a database of information on all Italian citizens. He introduced more agile and iterative procurement, guiding suppliers to gather feedback from cities and amending the system.

The team is redesigning the national digital payments system by improving the user interface, making it mobile friendly, and linking up with other payment systems. By 2018, the total payments made through PagoPA amounted to 6% of total payments, up from 1% the previous year, he says.

Third, the team launched a digital identity system, which provides all citizens with a single credential to access all government services. They will also be able to use it for bank and insurance services.

There is an immense amount to learn from Piacentini’s two years at the forefront of a massive national experiment in reforming the way the government works. He shares four pieces of advice for digital government leaders everywhere.

1. Find your tribe

First, carefully pick your allies: “You have to learn not to try to convince everybody in government, local or public, but work with that handful of administrations that want the change.” Build, what he calls, the “virtuous circle”. “Don't waste your time to work with those that offer a lot of resistance.”

Over time, they will influence others who will join in and the circle will grow. “The good administration that starts digitising will show over time to the other administrations that it can be done,” he adds.

In Italy, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Interior and the local government of Milan were among the members of Piacentini’s virtuous circle. He used the strengths of these powerful allies to influence others who were more resistant. “The Ministry of Economics and Finance is incredibly important because they own everybody's wallet. Finance could be a good ally, to create incentives or to introduce penalties for the administrations that do not want to transform themselves,” he says.

2. Nudging is the best approach

That’s not to say that being tough is the best way to drive change. Instead, leaders must use a combination of incentives and penalties - a carrot-and-stick approach, according to him. “Nudging in government, for me, is the most effective approach by far,” he says. “Start with the carrot approach; make the carrot work for two or three years, and then eventually use the stick.”

Digital leaders must give organisations the support and tools they need to change. “Give them documentations, create webinars, create seminars”, he says. In some cases, the more basic incentives have the widest reach. For instance, one of the most successful webinars created by the Italian Digital Transformation Team is on how to build an effective website.

But if these positive incentives don’t work, Piacentini doesn’t shy away from harsher steps. “If by the end of 2019, the nudging has not worked, at that point, with the remaining administration, you should be implementing some penalties,” he says.

3. Work with the smaller companies

His third piece of advice is to “create an environment where you can have smaller-sized companies, start-ups, to innovate”. Working with a diverse range of GovTech companies can help governments innovate, he says. “If you keep buying technology from the same vendors, you're going to get stuck with the same technology and the same legacy systems.”

Instead, governments should create programmes for small and medium enterprises to flourish, innovate and serve their countries, alongside larger corporations.

4. No political labels

And fourth, digital transformation must have support from the highest levels of the public service. “The highest government official must embrace digital transformation. It cannot be just an effort of the technology people,” he says. “If you look at Estonia, the president herself is a very competent digital person.”

And this support cuts across political divides. The leaders of successful digital governments understand that it’s a long-term project that must survive the test of political changes. “They're going to be benefiting the next government, even if it's a different color. That's what you need to do,” he says. “What I said and wrote from the beginning is that digital transformation has no political label”.

The very existence of Italy’s Digital Government Team today is a testament to this principle. In the 2018 general elections, anti-establishment and right-wing leaders ran against Piacentini’s former boss and recruiter, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The elections ended with a hung parliament, with no political party or group winning a clear majority.

After three months without a cabinet, a coalition was agreed: an independent professor of law Giuseppe Conte as Prime Minister, with right-wing Matteo Salvini and anti-establishment Luigi Di Maio both serving as his deputies. “The new government, which is very different from the government that I came with, has really appreciated the work that we have done,” he says.

The new administration has appointed Piacentini’s successor as Luca Attias, the former CIO at the Italian Court of Audit. “He is a person that has been working with my team for many, many months and therefore most of the team members are staying and they actually would increase the size of the team by 30%,” he adds.

The Commissioner’s recommendations

Piacentini outlines four key things Italy needs to do next, but they could just as well apply to other digital governments. This first one concerns everyone: “Start moving government services to the cloud”.

Piacentini is possibly a little biased, coming from the company that dominates more than a third of the cloud market. But the technology’s benefits in cutting costs and improving efficiency are widely known in the private sector.

Governments should “get organised” because moving to the cloud is “unavoidable”, he says, but also extremely challenging. “This is going to be the most difficult, most time and energy intensive effort that the government will take,” he adds. “You need to change your applications, you need to change your processes.”

Cloud infrastructure is a part of the three-year digital government plan Piacentini had set out. Agencies should be given incentives to progressively adopt a cloud-first strategy, a team member wrote in a blog post. Italy plans to create a marketplace or catalogue of services, similar to the UK Government’s G-Cloud initiative, where agencies can start from.

The next three recommendations for the Italian Digital Team are all to do with talent and recruitment. While the government already plans to expand the team, it needs to “create a much larger digital transformation department of more than 500 people”, he says.

The department should be relocated to Milan from the capital Rome, he suggests. “Milan is a much more modern city that can attract talent that want to work as civil servants,” he says. There is also the culture and aesthetics: “Today, we're in the old government buildings whereas I suggest it goes into more modern, more efficient, more open space.”

And his fourth recommendation is to build a digital service scheme for young graduates and end-of-career professionals. “Once they finish with university, go work for your country and government for three years to help with digital administration,” he says.

“At the same time, for people like me, if you are at the end of your work career, spend time in the government and give back to your government to help them develop digital transformation.”

Piacentini has now moved back to the US to figure out his next project, and has left the Amazon team. It’s not yet clear what he plans to do next, but “I want to do something that will have a positive impact for generations, that my children and the children of my children will get some benefit from”, he says. One thing's for sure: he will continue to be an influential figure on the global GovTech scene.

Additional reporting by Chia Jie Lin and Varissara Charassangsomboon.