Communication in Public Administration: it is digital? Today’s citizens have embraced digital, and as a result, are increasingly demanding when it comes to services and customer experience. For public administration offices who may be late to embrace digital, they will need new tools and new regulatory frameworks to keep up.


Public Administration in Italy

In Italy, Public Administration communication involves not one, but three entities, each with a distinct role.

The first are legislators who set the “rules of the game.” Public administration offices are subject to codes of conduct and laws that inform their actions and communications. However, legislators are not expected to be merely regulators. They must be able to anticipate changes and provide all the necessary tools and protections to citizens to embrace those changes.

Next, the public administration office itself is a public entity which must comply within the regulatory framework and according to certain laws (such as law number 142 of 1990) that dictate how it must communicate with citizens, in a way that is both accessible and transparent.

The availability of new digital tools and the way that citizens are using those tools has driven the public sector to open up new channels of communication that also serve to bring it closer to citizens. Citizens themselves are the final point on the triangle, those who use public services and who turn to the government for information. Today, the role of the citizen has changed radically and it is for this reason that the public sector is becoming more citizen-centric than ever before.


Citizens in the digital age

When it comes to digital communication, Italians are “hungry” for digitization.

The number of Italians connected to the Internet is constantly increasing. The Digital 2019 annual report by We Are Social and Hootsuite shows that there are about 55 million Italians who have access to the internet, or more than 9 out of 10. And the trend is on the rise. At the same time, there has been strong growth in social platform usage, where the number of users has grown to 35 million, +2.9% compared to the previous year. Mobile devices are most used to access social platforms.

This data is in keeping with research that found that Italians spend about 6 hours a day connected to the internet, where a third of this time is spent on social media (and mostly on Facebook ). The report also highlights the importance and relevance of mobile device use. In Italy there are about 86 million active mobile connections and up to 31 million access the internet from a mobile device.

These figures tell us that, on average, Italians are learning to appreciate the benefits of digital transformation, and they particularly want to see it in the government. In general, Italians are in favor of digitalization, provided that the services offered are up to the task since it is no longer sufficient to provide only basic actions: about 29% expect digital to simplify procedures, while 25.5% would like to see it speed up response times.

The problem is that these expectations have not always been met, since among those who have benefited from digital services, as many as 1 in 3 Italians stated that they had not gained any significant advantage using services provided through traditional (non-digital) channels.

In essence, the Italian digital citizen is ready for a digital public sector. However, the current state of digitization in government hasn’t quite caught up to these expectations.


Legislative delay

Part of the delay in embracing digitization undoubtedly stems from the need to update the regulatory framework.

The first law that regulates institutional communication, Law 150/2000, which generally concerns the “regulation of information and communication activities of public administrations,” dates back to 2000. This law differentiates between the three main communication activities, assigning the obligation of informing the public through the mass media to the press office, and external and internal communication to the public relations office (URP). The law also differentiates information from communication. Information is considered to be the transfer of the content of public interest in a transparent way. Communication, on the other hand, is considered a two-way relationship between citizens and the government.

The administration itself has the aim of supporting the identity and image of the institution and thus promoting the consensus of the public on topics of collective interest. This legislation provided for citizens’ right to access to information, and it promoted the simplification of procedures and the modernization of equipment employed for these purposes.

In order to pursue these objectives operationally, the text of the law establishes three fundamental structures: the spokesperson, the press office and the aforementioned office of public relations.

  • The official spokesperson represents the government and is seen as speaking for it to the public and the media.
  • The press office is responsible for continuously maintaining relations between the institution and the media.
  • Finally, the public relations office is designed to interface directly with citizens, allowing them to exercise their right to information.

Despite Law 150/200, some of the old habits of communication have been difficult to change; while citizens have embraced digitization, the government has been slow to fully modernize, with digital transformation happening only in pockets of the public sector.


Communication in Public Administration in the digital age 

However, while the Italian public sector has been slow to fully embrace digitization, social media has been the exception.

As more Italians have turned to social media, public entities are following suit. Out of 106 municipalities in Italy, 94 have at least one active social media profile (especially a Facebook profile, followed by Twitter, YouTube and Instagram). Government ministries have also begun to embrace social media, such as the ministry of education, which opened its Instagram account on January 30, 2017, or the Ministry of Agriculture, which launched its Messenger account in 2017.

The city of Trieste and its use of social media is a model for other local governments to follow. It is active on six different social networks, and it has built an effective and efficient internal and external flow of information to citizens and visitors, making diverse types of content available in a variety of languages.

Under Trieste’s social media strategy, each channel has a specific strategic function and a clear communication identity, targeting different targets with specific KPIs. The clarity, effectiveness, and coherence in Trieste’s communication have resulted in a large number of followers and the initiative has been greatly appreciated by its citizens. However, being present on social networks is not enough.


Requirements for institutional digital communication

While there are positive examples, there is still a long way to go before the new digital tools can be fully integrated into public institutional communication in Italy.

Fully embracing digital will require renewed legislation, and it will require new skill sets, such as those typical of a social media manager. This will be essential in building a strategic communication plan that meets the needs of digital citizens.

The need for a digital communication strategy has emerged both in cases of emergency, when social networks were used a tool to disseminate important information to affected areas of the population in the case of natural disasters, but also for routine issues of maintenance or office closures. With the web and social media now second only to television in terms of where Italians prefer to receive information, it is essential that the public sector must use these channels to connect and communicate with its citizens.

After all, it is now established that for Italians, the web and social networks are second only to television as the preferred source of information. In fact, one out of two citizens expects to find the information they are looking for related to government services on the Internet; this is even higher for users between the ages of 18 and 54. In addition, 4 out of 10 Italians consider the information they find on the web from public administrations to be reliable and, even in this case, the figure exceeds 50% for those in the 18-54 age group.

Another important aspect of communication between the government and citizens is the access to content. A study carried out by the Digital Innovation Observatory in 2016 found that, in Italy, public administration services were accessible via mobile only 36% of the time, compared to 54% for other European government offices.

Today’s public sector must consider not only what is communicated but how it is communicated. A comprehensive digital strategy must also take into account the digital habits of users in order to offer a quality experience that puts the customer—citizens—at the center of the relationship.


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