“Once you are in government, you get used to things that don’t work,” warns Diego Piacentini, Italy’s Digital Commissioner. Officials must counter this, and “never accept the status quo.”
Piacentini has come from Seattle to shake up the system. He is on sabbatical from Amazon, where he is one of its top executives. Prior to that, he headed up retail for Apple, creating a network that spread right across Europe.
His comfortable career was jolted when former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sought him out on a trip to the US, making him think about how he could serve his nation. “That bug started in the back of my head”, Piacentini says, so he discussed his thinking with Jeff Bezos, his boss. “He was very proud of the idea that an Amazon person would go and help his country, he really liked that.”
The only condition was that Piacentini is on a Leave of Absence for just two years – and that was a year ago. Piacentini caught up with GovInsider to discuss his progress so far, and his plans to shake up Italian government.
The Three Year Plan
Piacentini has set out his aims in a Three Year Plan, which was published on github in June. “The vision is to simplify the relationship between government and citizens, and government and businesses,” he says. “That’s the ultimate plan; governments are here to make our lives easier.”
The plan was signed off by the Italian Prime Minister, and approved by the Legislature. But it isn’t set in stone, Piacentini notes. The plan will continually be amended as technology evolves, setting out key principles to work on, rather than the tech that will underpin government.
This is the approach that Amazon uses, Piacentini adds. “That is the nature of companies that innovate: never get stuck to a plan. You need to get stuck into the vision, but you need to be really flexible with the plan.”
“You need to get stuck into the vision, but you need to be flexible with the plan.”
The original plan is, naturally, in Italian. But Piacentini used a local startup to apply advanced machine learning that translated the technical document into English. This sets out the ultimate goal of a mobile-first, responsive government, powered by APIs and with advanced levels of security.
Building on data
First, Piacentini’s Digital Transformation Team fixed up the unique national registry, called ANPR, which pools all citizen data into one place. This “was considered finished, but nobody was using it”. Instead, municipalities had stuck with their own data systems, causing chaos where they didn’t communicate with one another.
For example, when a citizen moved from Rome to Milan, all of the paperwork had to be done manually, and then checked by a clerk. “It’s not a machine-to-machine discussion”, and takes much, much longer, says Piacentini.
The registry was built by a government-owned supplier, which was using old-fashioned techniques to develop its software. This meant that the system was not user-friendly, and so unpopular with local governments.
Piacentini helped this supplier work with municipalities to gather their feedback and amend the system. Users appreciated the difference, and the new approach has already brought 20 cities on board, with 10% of the population now covered by ANPR. “By the end of 2018, at least 80% of the population will be on this unique database,” Piacentini adds.
Second, his unit wants to improve payments like taxation and traffic fines. Italy has a national payments system – PagoPA – which was originally built for administrative processes. Piacentini’s team is regearing this to work for citizen transactions.
Piacentini’s team redesigned the system and started to get citizens onboard. “We worked on making the user interface incrementally better,” he says. They made it mobile friendly and opened up the APIs so that it would interact with other payment systems.
The system has been deployed in Milan to help citizens pay their garbage taxes in the city. “Obviously there was some criticism, because any technology projects will have some bugs in the beginning, but the payment transaction volumes were 42% higher than the previous year.” This success is attracting other agencies and municipalities to test it out.
Third, his team is spearheading a new digital identity system, SPID. This gives citizens a single log-in that can be used across the public sector, and they will also be able to use it for bank and insurance services.
SPID is a federated system. This means that a series of approved private sector suppliers can give citizens identities,rather than the state building a single system. Government instead sets criteria for identity verification and security.
“You can imagine how much easier things get,” Piacentini says. Citizens won’t have to fill in applications anymore because the government will have their information, he points out. The system will also sync up with EU plans to share digital identity data across the European Union, allowing a citizen to work and travel seamlessly across the 27-country bloc.
How they work
Piacentini’s approach is simple: find agencies that want to make a change, and use them to showcase the value of digital. “You want to work with municipalities and administrations that really want it. You don’t want to spend time convincing someone. That’s our principle. ”
“You don’t want to spend time convincing someone”
The Digital Transformation Team looks for easy wins, such as the PagoPA system, which was already built but was languishing unused. As you would expect in the land of Zonda and Zegna, good design matters, so they are redesigning systems to bring users on board. Of course, Piacentini reports directly to the Prime Minister, so he does have a hefty amount of influence to bear if needs be.
The objective is to procure as much from Italian startups as possible. “There should be enough competence within government to design the architecture and have the product in mind, but then have the market code and write the products,” he says.
Entire departments in Italy’s government do not have a CTO, he notes, outsourcing all of their services to external vendors. “Some departments are totally locked-in”. He wants to ensure that there is greater capability to procure services and understand the design of digital systems.
To do this, Piacentini hired a crack team from tech companies across the world. He has around 25 people who took sabbaticals from Google in Mountain View, California; Rocket in Berlin; UBS in Zurich and plenty of startup types taking a short term break to serve their nation.
“If you come to people like me and say: ‘Hey, would you like to work for the government for the rest of your life?’ The answer is probably ‘no’,” Piacentini says. But when asked to work for two years, with a salary cut, many engineers will say yes so that they can give back to their nation, he says.
Piacentini has another year to go before he heads back to Amazon. He is optimistic about what he can achieve, and is hoping to fundamentally change how government approaches tech projects.
Leaders should say: “Here are the tools to do it, this is the budget,” Piacentini believes. “You shouldn’t say: this is how it is supposed to be built, but that was the way it was.”
“That’s the way it is with many things in Italy,” he adds. But not anymore.