When we talk about the dematerialization of the Public Administration in Italy, we are referring to a promise that has long been unfulfilled. Over the last 20 years, the goal has been to make the Italian Public Administration more efficient through the implementation of a series of technological innovations. Dematerialization is one of those innovations.

However, what was supposed to be a formidable driving force for the creation of a citizen-friendly public administration turned out to be, in the end, only half of a project.  


The difference between dematerialization and digitization

Before continuing, let’s get clear on the terminology. Often we tend to talk about dematerialization by putting the term alongside that of digitization, but on closer inspection, the concepts are very different.

Dematerialization refers to the process of eliminating paper for the management and storage of documents. In other words, dematerialization is defined as a series of activities aimed at combating the use of paper and aimed at converting a paper document into an electronic or computer document, while preserving its legal and evidential value.

This is also indicated in the European Regulation eIDAS 910/2014/EU, which, among other things, establishes a legal framework for many electronic tools: signatures, seals, time stamps, documents, delivery services and website authentication services. In other words, dematerialization is not limited to simply replacing paper with electronic media, but a more articulated and complex functional rethinking of the document and the methods of storage and preservation.

Digitization, on the other hand, concerns the reorganization of internal PA processes with the goal of making them more efficient and high-performing. For this to be possible it is necessary to exploit all available digital tools (for example, the cloud, but also blockchain or Artificial Intelligence) and to make sure that the document flows are already made up of electronic documents. Only in this way, the Public Administration could develop a series of innovative services for citizens, for whom dematerialization is a necessary component of the user experience.  


Where dematerialization in Public Administration starts 

The project to dematerialize the PA began in the 1990s with Italian law no. 59 of 15 March 1997, the famous “Bassanini Law” which, while it doesn’t directly address dematerialization, it confirmed the legal value of the IT document and referred, among its principles, to the simplification of administrative procedures and bureaucratic constraints on private activities.

However, it was only in the early 2000s, and specifically with the publication of Legislative Decree no. 82 of 7 March 2005, that the so-called Digital Administration Code (abbreviated as CAD), dematerialization and, more generally, the digitalization of the Public Administration will be given a coherent and organic regulatory framework. The importance of this code is denoted by some of the principles it contains and on which the Italian Digital Public Administration is (and should be) based. It established that:

1. Citizens and businesses have the right to use IT tools to carry out their business with the Public Administration. This means that counters can no longer be the only “portal” available, and that, on the contrary, it must provide secure technologies and channels to carry out digital operations. If such technologies are not available, the same right can be claimed through collective action, proving that dematerialization also aims to place the citizen at the center of everything and no longer just referring to documents or administrative fulfilment.

2. The savings achieved thanks to the new processes derived from dematerialization and from technological evolution, in general, must be measured in a way as to be comparable and, above all, must be distributed and used to encourage the training of PA staff. In this way, thanks to this “efficiency dividend,” a virtuous circle should be triggered in which innovation contributes to savings that supports operator training, who in turn contribute to maintaining a high level of innovation.

3. The Code expressly states that all appropriate measures must be taken to ensure maximum coordination in innovation. The same technological and organizational innovations must be developed and spread throughout the country, so that all citizens, wherever they may be, can benefit from the same services. To do this, different “roles” are identified within the administration. For example, the State must coordinate dematerialization and the general organizational system, while the Regions must carry out the digitization process in concert with local authorities and in harmony with the other Regions.

4. Another fundamental principle is the validity of electronic procedures and documents. This is clearly a prerequisite for the effective removal of paper from bureaucratic processes, since dematerialization does not only affect future documents but also existing documents that are to be dematerialized and therefore replaced by electronic copies. To ensure that this is done as effectively as possible and without inconvenience to citizens, the Code identifies the requirements of validity of an electronic document, introducing an electronically generated marking system that serves to establish the compliance of the electronic document with the rules of law.

5. The Code then affirms the principle of sustainability in the organization of Public Administrations to achieve. In this sense, it is necessary that all central administrations establish a role, such as a manager, who is responsible for the entire process of digitization and the Code itself also advises Regions and local authorities to do so. The next step should be to create a Conference in such a way that all these actors confront each other at all levels, allowing the harmonious implementation of new technologies. 6. Finally, the entire organizational structure outlined by the DAC provides for a complex of incentives and sanctions. It also establishes the principle that such measures are granted based on whether the administration has fulfilled its dematerialization obligations and, consequently, on the basis of savings achieved. To do so, performance must be measurable and standards and targets must be established. Applying this principle to the overall PA, it will be possible to evaluate the different types of performance, encouraging operators to implement behaviours that will ensure a high and constant level of efficiency.  


A paper-based Administration

The Digital Administration Code outlines an organizational model that is not always reflected in reality. In most public administrations with an acceptable level of digitization, the fundamental conditions for implementing an effective dematerialization process have been met: that is, a computerized protocol has been adopted, digital signatures are utilized, and the necessary storage measures have been implemented. However, it is precisely at this point that you notice a paradox: there is still a lot (and perhaps even too much) paper. It’s natural to wonder why.

As always there are no simple answers or single factors that are causing this. However, a possible reason could be better understood by looking back on the distinction between the terms digitization and dematerialization. As we mentioned, digitization indicates a much broader and in some ways complex, organizational and “radical” intervention. It almost implies a “re-engineering” of the internal processes of the Public Administration so as to change both internal management and the nature of the service provided to the citizen.

The Italian Public Administration seems to lack precisely this organizational revolution. It is true that many public administrations have applied the legislation, fulfilling the various obligations of protocol, preservation, and digital signature systems, but have slowed down when it comes to further progress. Obligations for digital process management have mostly been neglected and the digitization of processes has been omitted or left to the goodwill of the individual offices because it is too complex, too costly, or takes too long to implement. This means that there has never been a real innovation in the management of processes, which have remained unsuitable to handle electronic transactions and documents.

Data related to digitization and investment in the ICT sector in Italy corroborate this situation. While the Italian digital market showed 2.3% growth in 2017, then was stable in 2018, the level is far from European standards. This is also confirmed by a report by Anitec-Assinform, which shows that the country has actually started to invest in digital, but the signals are still very weak. It is no coincidence that Anitec-Assinform stresses that by 2019, the main challenge for the whole country will be to launch new programs on the ground to bridge the gap with other countries when it comes to digital skills.

Therefore, it can be said that what the Public Administration lacks, among other things, to effectively implement dematerialization is an organizational framework equal to the digital solutions already implemented by some administrations or by private individuals. In this sense, working alongside professionals experienced in digital transformation and dematerialization solutions to get advice or to set up process digitization could be a key to overcome many critical issues.

It is no coincidence that Doxee, a company that has been involved in digital transformation for more than a decade and contributes to the progress of the state of the art in dematerialized archiving and communication, already has numerous collaborations with various public administrations, the results of which have benefited both the PA as a whole and individual citizens, which could be extended throughout the country. In addition to the practical difficulties mentioned above, there is another problem noted by several commentators that is considered equally relevant: the Digital Administration Code is not a text that really lives up to the task it is meant to perform. It has, in fact, appeared inadequate from the outset, to the point that some propose its repeal. Perhaps it would not be entirely incorrect, given the number of times this legislation has been rewritten, amended, and supplemented. To get an idea of the situation, a total of 29 updates were made to the original 2006 text, including that of December 2017, which occurred through Legislative Decree no. 217 of 13 December 2017.

This is part of a broader intervention of administrative simplification that favor, at least on paper, the citizen. This longstanding dripping of material risks confusing operators and citizens. Also because the lack of clear and stable regulation does not allow the processes and tools provided to become a reality and also prevents the evaluation of the PA organization in regard to efficiency and compliance with the legal requirements according to reliable parameters.  


But which solution for dematerialization? 

So, how can this be addressed? Trying to reform the legislation is one route, but it won’t be enough. Instead, we need a real change of mentality. Dematerialization only makes sense if it is accompanied by a profound internal reorganization of public administrations, so that they are open to digital innovation. For this to be possible, it is necessary to focus on training, not only for operators but also for an entire political class of administrators.

The perspective must therefore change, one that increasingly puts citizens at the center of things. It is necessary to study new habits, new devices, and new touchpoints and then build an effective customer experience that lives up to expectations. Only in this way can dematerialization be definitively acquired and become part of the DNA of the new Public Administration. In this sense, a key role will be played by professionals in the sector, such as Doxee, who can contribute, through their experience and solutions, to foster this revolution.


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