Plan in place, tangible results next, says Italy’s digital agency head

By Luke Cavanaugh

Mario Nobile, Director General of the Agency for Digital Italy (AgID), tells Luke Cavanaugh about the blueprint for Italy’s digital transformation, finding a responsible middle ground for AI, and the work to help public administrations produce tangible results in 2024 and beyond.

Italy's new Triennial Plan, published by the Agency for Digital Italy (AgID), sets out the digital transformation for the country, as well as the digitalisation plans for the country's public administrations. Image: Canva

When I speak with Mario Nobile, the head of Italy’s digital agency, also known as AgID, he is in between meetings at the country’s Department for Digital Transformation in Rome.

In the background of our video call, the building’s grandeur is striking - high ceilings, ornately decorated walls, and heavy wooden doors… everything one might expect from an Italian government building.

But if the building calls back to hundreds of years of Italian history, it soon becomes clear that the work that Nobile and his team is doing to modernise the country is set to be pivotal to the country’s future.

It is just a couple of weeks before the publication of a new Triennial Plan for Italy’s Digital Transformation, a document “intended for use by about 23,000 public administrations… regions and municipalities, public companies and those that manage public services, such as local public transport”.

Writing the plan in a way that gives strategic direction to all these stakeholders was a mammoth task, Nobile tells me.

Its key themes – interoperability, accessibility, and greater attention to monitoring services – will be familiar to any digital government practitioner.

But framed in the context of a decade-long hiring freeze in the Italian Civil Service that requires four public servants to retire before hiring a new one, the subtext for the new plan is firmly about doing more with less.

Finding a responsible middle ground for AI

Mario Nobile, Director General of AgID, highlights the crucial role that the European Union plays in Italy's digital plans, and how the country is contributing to several EU initiatives. Image:

As is the case for so many governments across the globe, this includes having to wrestle with AI for the first time. Italy is known for a cautious approach to AI to say the least - imposing a stop to OpenAI’s collection of data from Italian users in March 2023 – but Nobile is convinced that a cautiously optimistic approach remains the right one at a national and European level.

“The regulation may seem burdensome and limit innovation,” he says, “but it is always designed to protect citizens and workers. The new European challenge is to accompany regulation with the preparation of tools capable of making our continent competitive on the global stage”.

It is a challenge that Nobile and his agency is beginning to rise to as he marks the end of his first year in the role. AgID’s role – as Wired Italy wrote in an interview with Nobile – is not just to write the Triennial Plan, but to facilitate its adoption.

“If the Department for Digital Transformation expresses the political direction… AgID is responsible for translating it into rules, standards, user manuals and practical applications”.

Nobile gives me a couple of examples of how this is working in an AI context. Already, the country’s Revenue Agency is using a machine learning algorithm to analyse patterns of suspicious behaviour to identify potential fraud.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Social Services (INPS) is using AI to automate the reading and sorting of certified emails received from users (ultimately shortening response times), and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies is using chatbots to communicate with citizens about minimum social income and social welfare programmes.

The Revenue Agency’s algorithm is perhaps the clearest indicator of the relative maturity of Italy’s approach to AI. Social Welfare has long been treacherous terrain for digital government, with often tragic consequences (one needs only look at the Dutch government’s Child Welfare scandal).

But in a country that has traditionally struggled with high tax rates, Italy has worked to find a responsible middle ground for AI use.

Through data-sharing powers, the algorithm cross-references citizens’ income declarations with other known assets through bank accounts, insurance companies, and asset management registries.

Personally identifiable data is replaced with pseudonymic data, and any potential fraud is flagged for a “human in the loop” follow-up investigation mandated by legislation.

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Keeping digital at the top of the political agenda

It is likely that the success of Italy’s digital strategy will be determined in large part by its success at managing data and service interoperability, at a national and European level.

After all, as Nobile tells me, “the EU plays a crucial role in Italy’s digital plan [and] we are contributing to several EU initiatives, including the Single Digital Gateway, Citizen Inclusion and Accessibility Act, and Open Data”.

Interoperability has sometimes been the thorn in the side of digital transformation efforts in Italy. The country has two different digital IDs under different management, for example – the CIE issued by the Ministry of the Interior and SPID managed by several private companies.

In a renewed effort to ensure interoperability, AgID has been working on guidelines on high-value and open data alongside the Triennial Plan.

Nobile explains to me how the guidelines provide public institutions with support in preparing for new regulations that will enter into force on 9 June requiring that these bodies make high-value data available free of charge through APIs and bulk downloads.

The hope, says Nobile, is that the introduction of these rules will allow more agencies to follow the example of the ANIS information system that is used to verify university degrees and enrolment.

Recognising that it is unnecessary for these systems to retain information on personal data, the system cross-checks diploma details against data from the national register of resident population.

Rolling out this kind of approach across government will prevent data being asked for by the government more than once, another facet of its approach to minimise the load placed on citizens and civil servants in communicating with each other.

Collaboration is key to success

Looking ahead, it is also clear that success will also be determined by the relationship between the Department for Digital Transformation and AgID. Nobile details how they “collaborate daily, work[ing] on tools such as guidance” through “working groups, and periodic meetings”.

The “political direction” that Wired mentioned is important: though AgID’s role as translator and catalyst for digital transformation has helped to give a concrete set of actions to this political vision, the Ministry will be responsible for making sure that it remains top of the national agenda.

As we come to the end of the interview, it is clear that it has been a busy first year in post for Nobile.

He has held managerial roles in the Civil Service since 2001, joining AgID from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, but he tells me that this role is unique in its combination of political, technical and administrative tasks, demanding oversight over all the activities carried out by the agency.

It makes determining priorities for the year ahead as difficult as it is important. In a press release surrounding the Triennial Plan, Nobile announced that the time for planning is over and that 2024 “must be the year in which… public administrations produce tangible results”.

Looking back on the sheer range of examples discussed in our time together, it seems too early to tell what this might look like.

But in the field of emerging technologies at least, Nobile leaves me with a note of ambition: “Our key priorities for the year include artificial intelligence, guidelines, and analysis regarding edge computing.”

The proof of these – and the Triennial Plan’s – ambitions will be in their results and, as we look ahead at 2024, it is clear that Nobile’s year will be just as busy.

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