Digital transformation in Public Administration is good for a country and its citizens. In fact, implementing digital technology within government institutions is an opportunity that must be seized as soon as possible.
On the one hand, Italians are becoming more and more connected to the internet.
According to the annual report Digital 2019 from by We Are Social and Hootsuite, about 55 million Italians access the internet, and 35 million are active on social media, an increase of 2.9% over the previous year.
On the other hand, companies are also undertaking a digital transformation, having understood that any delay in doing so would put them at a competitive disadvantage and could result in being left out of the market altogether. For this reason, they have started to make the most of digital innovations such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, social networks, etc.
However, while citizens have begun to speak the new language of digital, Public Administrations have fallen short of expectations of digitally savvy customer-citizens who look for the same level of speed and quality that they are accustomed to from digital majors like Google, Facebook, Amazon.
However, the overall situation is far from meeting these expectations.
The digital transformation of Public Administrations in Italy in 2019
According to Eurostat data for 2018 on the Digital Economy and Society in Europe, the situation of the Italian Public Administration is anything but rosy.
There have been no significant improvements or, at least, none that could be considered real progress. On the contrary, the scenario appears to be stationary, lacking a real transformation.
Speaking of digital growth, Italy is 25th in the ranking of European countries, with a score of 44.3, or about 30 points lower than Denmark, which is at the top. This result is justified by structural problems (Italy is also 25th in the ranking of connectivity, with a score of 52 compared to a European average of around 62) and professional skills with the Human Capital parameter scoring 40.8 compared to the European average of 56.5.
These technological delays are reflected in the digitalization of the Public Administration, which while showing positive results in some areas, such as in open data, is hampered by the low level of digital competence.
This also affects the quality of the services provided and results in distancing citizens from the Public Administration, feeding what has been defined by the BEM research 2017 report on E-Government as ”The Italian paradox in digital: so much social but little e-gov.”
On the one hand, there is a steady growth in the use of social media by Italians, who navigate on it for about 2 hours a day, mainly from mobile phones. In addition, in general, Italians are in favour of digitalization in the Public Administration because they know that they will benefit from the transformation of services: nearly 30% of Italians expect procedures to be simplified, while 25.5% would like to see faster response times.
Despite this, e-gov services are infrequently used by citizens. Only one in four people say that they have tried them or have benefited from them in any way.
This means that if demand is constantly increasing, supply is often inadequate, or even absent. From this, a sense of distrust and frustration may naturally develop on the part of users who continue to see the Public Administration as a structure of inefficient and obsolete procedures.
However, it is not too late to embrace digital transformation. To do so, public administration offices must face five challenges.
1. To raise the level of professionalism
Like the private sector, the public sector also needs to integrate its workforce with professionals who can provide the skills needed to deal with digital transformation.
The Public Administration will require technological, organizational, and managerial skills to manage this transformation, but in 2018 only 6 out of 10 public employees received appropriate professional training. In particular, the most in-depth issues were legal regulations and IT, while managerial, communication and foreign-language skills were ignored.
As far as the competences of individuals are concerned, the majority of Public Administration operators believe they have an acceptable level of skills, if not higher than that required, which can be increased through self-training (48.5%), learning on the job (31.2%), while actual training only accounts for 9.5%.
From this data, we can deduce that, at least for now, more training will be required in order to acquire the skills needed to allow citizens and companies to benefit from faster, simpler, and more efficient services.
If we look at the essential roles that will be required for digital transformation, one of the most important is that of the Social Media Manager.
Many public bodies are beginning to be present on social networks and to use them to communicate with the public. This transition will require a dedicated role to manage these channels.
The role of the social media manager in public administration will allow the office to execute a strategic communication plan to ensure clear, functional, and relevant communication with citizens. In Italy, this would require modification of the outdated communicative structure regulation as outlined in Law 150/2000.
Another key figure for the digitalization of the Public Administration is the Head of the Transition to the Digital, which according to Article 17, paragraph 1, of the Italian Digital Administration code, should be the professional tasked with achieving a transition to the digital mode of operation and the resulting reorganization processes aimed at achieving a digital administration that is open, provides high-quality, easy to use services that are efficient and cost-effective through adequate technological skills, legal, and managerial information technology.
Minister Giulia Bongiorno issued Circular No. 3/2018 to encourage public administrations to fill these roles with qualified professionals.
2. Change the idea of communication
Another challenge for the Public Administration is to update its communication, making it more digital and more in line with the expectations of its increasingly connected citizens.
To do so will require monitoring social networks through the adoption of a communication strategy that can exploit each channel in an integrated manner, giving each a different role in communication depending on how citizens use it.
A particularly virtuous case is that of the seat of the Italian government, the Quirinale, which launched its own social channels, starting with Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, in 2016. It has a different use for each channel, distinguishing them by content and purpose.
This approach is expressed in the website, where the role of each channel is specified: “Twitter for constantly updated information on the activities of the President and the Presidency of the Republic; Instagram for the official photographs of the President’s activities; Youtube for video content produced by the Press Office; Google+ where news about the Presidency is reported in English for the international public.”
The advantages of having a public communication that is digital are many.
However, it is worth underlining the fact that social networks allow communication of the most important information in a fast and immediate way and they provide all citizens with a customer experience up to their expectations, thus regaining their trust and improving their reputation.
To do this, we need a real change of mentality. The Public Administration must accept the fact that institutional communication is no longer sustainable if only of a broadcasting type, i.e. passive, in which the public authority speaks and the citizens themselves are limited to listening.
In this sense, it is necessary to welcome a more equal and two-way confrontation with citizens-users, even if this is difficult; this must not prevent the “rejuvenation” of the Public Administration and the elimination of those attitudes linked to a logic of command and control.
3. Safety first
With the advent of digitalization, a major security issue opens up in terms of how processes are conducted, in the management of sensitive data, and their storage.
In recent months, there have already been several cases of hacker attacks on public bodies, including courts, universities, and the SIAE. This suggests that the Public Administration still needs to do a lot and quickly.
For example, research carried out by CERT-PA (a organization operating within the Agency for Digital Italy) in July 2018 shows that 67% of public administration sites are at risk of hacker attacks due to failure to update the content management systems used, i.e. those software tools installed on a web server, whose task is to facilitate the management of website content.
In a press release on this topic, CERT-PA states: “[…] there are daily cyber attacks on sites that expose software versions that are no longer up to date […]. A secondary website can also arouse the interest of criminals who, for profit, hit unsafe sites for illegal activities ranging from undermining crypto-currency (cryptomining) to the spread of malware. Based on a recent report received by CERT-PA, it has emerged that many municipal sites are based on outdated versions of CMSs, often not updated for months.”
In general, the challenge is twofold: on the one hand, not to let these risks, although real, slow down the race to digital transformation and, on the other hand, to prepare to deal with this risk.
To do so, it is necessary to invest in the preparation and training of the staff responsible for data management and the development and maintenance of IT systems.
Secondly, it is necessary to plan for strategic investments in cutting-edge software to ensure a high level of cybersecurity of the services offered at all times.
Finally, it is essential to invest in a certain digital education, which sensitizes users to the possible risks of the network, so as to reduce the distraction or inattention of those who surf and perhaps, inadvertently, provide access to agents harmful to their computer systems.
Another fundamental challenge that the Public Administration must face in order to achieve a full and complete transformation is networking.
Digital transformation must become the object of a widespread implementation strategy, involving all levels of the PA, avoiding sporadic development.
There is no shortage of regulatory instruments to do this; indeed, in some respects, regulatory hypertrophy hinders digital transformation.
In fact, the various legislative interventions over time have been affected by the lack of a unified strategy, which took into account the technical and IT issues and the complexity associated with the legal and archival aspects of the processes of the Public Administrations.
But by networking, we also mean something more, namely to create a match between the demand for innovation that all citizens have, individually or in social training, and the supply of digital solutions available.
The challenge for the Public Administration is to become a facilitator of this, implementing a digital transformation that allows it to provide pragmatic and sustainable services (also from the economic point of view).
5. Open up to new technologies
One of the most important challenges is to correctly integrate the new technologies made available by digital innovation into administrative procedures.
For example, Blockchain can have interesting applications among public bodies, above all for the maintenance of public registers. The same is true of other types of registers, such as automotive or business registers, where Blockchain can be used to streamline registrations of transfers of ownership of shares.
Another particularly interesting application of this technology is that concerning the management and conservation of documents, which, as it can become more widespread, could also be made safer and more transparent as more organizations and government agencies participate.
The same applies to other technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, already the subject of the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, which outlined some guidelines and which underlined how AI is especially promising because it could make bureaucratic procedures more efficient, improve medical and health care treatments, speed up the machine of justice, and stimulate active citizenship.
In general, what is fundamental for these and other innovations is not only the implementation of a state-of-the-art infrastructure system, but also the change of mentality that tends to focus more on risks than on the benefits of digitization.
It is necessary to work on the trust of all those involved, and for this reason, it is necessary to devise accompanying models for these technologies, which favour integrated development, which is as homogeneous as possible, at all levels.
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