Digital Public Communication: the way communication will change for Public Administration after Covid-19

Digital communication in Public Administration: the Covid-19 emergency has resulted in human and economic losses that will affect our society for years to come. However, many of our governmental services, both local and national, have passed the test and paved the way for innovation. Their ability to offer new services to citizens quickly demonstrates what is possible through digital when it comes to the relationship between the Public Administration and citizens. 

 

The new guidelines adopted by the Italian Public Administration post Covid-19

Because of the growth of Covid-19 cases in Italy, on March 9, 2020, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered the closure of public offices, including schools and universities, as well as for those activities considered non-essential. The deeply restrictive rules established in the so-called phase 1 were only loosened on May 4, 2020, where the country was able to start gradually reopening for certain activities.  

 The guidelines issued by the Italian Public Administration included rules that (source: temi.camera.it): 

  • limit the presence of personnel in offices to ensure only those activities that they consider essential and that necessarily require presence in the workplace, also due to the management of the emergency;
  • disregard the individual agreements and information obligations provided for by current legislation on agile work (as per Articles 18 to 23 of Law no. 81 of 2017; normattiva.it);
  • allow the performance of agile work to also be carried out through IT tools at the employee’s disposal if they are not provided by the administration itself. In such cases, Article 18, paragraph 2, of law no. 81 of 2017, according to which the employer is responsible for the safety and proper functioning of the technology tools assigned to the employee for the performance of work activities, does not apply.

 After the partial reopening as dictated by phase two, the PA continues to keep as many people as possible in smart working mode. Some municipal offices are working in shifts, with no plans for 100% of staff to return, at least in the short term.  

According to the latest statements from the Ministry of Public Administration, municipal offices reopened to the public on July 31. However, about one million civil servants will remain in smart working mode until 2021 (money.it). 

These figures are just a symbol of the sudden and necessary changes that the PA has experienced in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency. Given the adoption of digital tools and the ways that the PA has been experimenting with digitization, there is no doubt that a renewal process was already underway. 

Can a context of such uncertainty be an opportunity to realize the idea of open government? How can we avoid a back-to-normal, where digital skills development and the rate of digitization in the PA digitization places Italy at the lowest levels among OECD countries? If the public sector can be an important vector of social change, the digitization of the country can be considered at the same level as industrial policies. 

How? Identifying the tools to overcome the limits of access to physical facilities determined by the lockdown condition can give a clear picture and perspectives to be achieved and maintained not only until the definitive reopening of public offices, but also to kickstart a digital breakthrough for the years to come. 

 

A new dual perspective of digital communication in Public Administration

In situations of risk and crisis, the State and the Public Administration have a fundamental role in the management of communication and information flows. They represent fundamental reference points to be followed in order to have a system of certified sources. Managing the proper dissemination of information in such a delicate situation is of strategic importance.

The 2019-2021 Three-Year Plan by AgID provides for the accompaniment of Administrations in the creation of communication ecosystems that will benefit citizens and businesses in the operations they commonly carry out in contact with the Administration. 

The plan promotes measures such as the Electronic Identity Card, Public Digital Identity System (spid), ANPR, and pagoPA. What is the goal of digital communication in Public Administration? The objective of creating a single digital identity for all private individuals is to have increasingly digital-oriented interactions, as well as a guarantee of uniqueness and security for each interaction and related transaction. 

 

Smart working extended until October 15, 2020 

As we know, remote working was necessary to implement during the months of lockdown. The application of so-called “agile work” has made it possible to limit the impact of COVID-19 on many categories of workers, limiting unnecessary opportunities for contact in the workplace, while ensuring continuity in economic activity for many.

With a resolution adopted in the session of 29 July, the Council of Ministers ordered the extension of the state of emergency until 15 October 2020, and at the same time issued a new decree-law to extend the effects of part of the measures previously adopted (altalex.com).

In this context are the projects proposed by the Digital Solidarity initiative, an initiative promoted by the Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization. The AgID portal describes the objectives as “helping people, professionals, and companies to continue their activities and maintain their habits in full compliance with the provisions of the Government to contain and combat the spread of Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) throughout the country.” 

Through the AgID portal, a series of services exclusively provided in digital form for citizens has been published, with the following characteristics: 

  • the proposers are companies, bodies or associations, therefore not individuals or professionals;
  • they are free services or rendered free of charge for the emergency (not discounted), without any commitment or obligation to renew at the end of the offer period;
  • the duration of the offer is explicit;
  • they fall into the categories proposed in the form; 
  • they are valid for the whole national territory or for one or more regions; 
  • the description is not written in a promotional tone;
  • preferably, there is a channel dedicated to the coronavirus emergency initiative. 

This initiative was sold out at the end of the first phase of Digital Solidarity, on June 30, and the service collection form was deactivated. However, the initiatives promoted thanks to Digital Solidarity are still present on the website. 

Beyond the current initiatives (both active and inactive), the state of things that emerged during the Covid-19 emergency has revealed some strong organizational and communication needs on the part of the Public Administration.

 

Participation and involvement of private actors and associations in direct PA communication 

The state of emergency gave a new impetus to the PA’s intervention in economic and social issues, even those that were not present in the emergency period. Proof of the effectiveness of the online channels, which are also recognized by private individuals, are the lists of open activities and the readjustment of many activities from in-person to take-away, from catering to the purchase of clothing, advertised on the institutional and social websites of the Municipalities. The mutual benefits enjoyed by municipalities and locally based activities are quite clear. It would therefore be desirable that this interaction should not stop with the end of the emergency period. 

 

Organization of PA activities: a new level of efficiency 

In this current situation, offices are closed (and no employees working at the office, in person), certain processes are digitized, and virtual desks and an online platform are used to schedule appointments. According to statistics collected on PA staff, smart working was considered a positive experience according to around 88% of respondents. For 69%, it improved the organization of work activities, allowing for more autonomy (35%). Also in this case, the advantages of smart working are shown, beyond the disadvantages related to the lack of social interaction and the reorganization of home lives. 

“The primary objective of agile work in the immediate future is to improve the organization of Public Administration, in order to achieve a balance between more efficient services rendered to the community and the internal organizational well-being, which, as already noted, can contribute to greater savings on the part of administrations and better sustainability in terms of environmental impact”, stressed the Minister of Public Administration, Fabiana Dadone. Smart working is one of the pillars emerging from the revolution made necessary by the pandemic. It implies a structural change that needs to be encouraged, followed, and monitored carefully (agi.it).

 

A smart Public Administration

Accelerating the transition to digital, especially in the face of the Covid-19 emergency, is even more necessary. The Public Administration, faced with the progressive increase in the use of technological devices by citizens to cultivate virtual interactions and retrieve information, has adopted a change of strategy to meet these new needs. The solution lies in placing the communication process with the citizen at the center of its action, intercepting him/her in social network environments. 

In order to interact with citizens, the PA requires practical websites and dedicated apps. In the age of disintermediation and information overload, even institutions, as companies are already doing, must equip themselves with risk management plans that provide clear and shared communication procedures. Especially in risk, emergency, and crisis situations — we could also add in the fight against misinformation — it is essential that the information that reaches citizens is certified, punctual, and widespread.

What could be an ad hoc strategy? Some administrations have based their actions on the dynamics of the Customer Experience in the private sector, emulating its best practices, especially on the digital side. Basically, this process — in order to establish a dialog with citizens, get to know them better online in order to provide services in line with their needs — involves a number of factors to be adopted:

  • transparent, accessible, and user-friendly digital services;
  • omnichannel channels;
  • tools for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting user-citizen personal data;
  • ad hoc professional figures, collaborations, with specialized companies, acquisition of know-how.

From a one-to-one point of view, replacing the traditional communication strategy — essentially passive, i.e. broadcasting — with a new method of communication that sees the predominant use of social channels, would allow PA to deliver relevant information quickly and immediately, providing all citizens with a customer experience that meets their expectations, thus regaining their trust and improving their reputation.