The head of the government’s digital strategy is halfway through his mandate and explains how to carry out an impossible reform.
TRANSLATION OF THE INTERVIEW “SONO DIEGO, RISOLVO PROBLEMI” PUBLISHED BY THE ITALIAN NEWSPAPER IL FOGLIO
“I’m trying not to say ‘politics.’ The word politics is like the word ‘thing,’ you can use it for anything. I prefer to be more specific.” Diego Piacentini, vice president of Amazon, has, in the last year, experienced a contradiction in terms. Nominated a year ago as Special Commissioner for the realization of the Digital Agenda for decidedly political reasons, the front man of the most dynamic and disruptive phase of Renzi’s government has realized that if he wants to have even a remote chance of success, he must fly higher than any attempt to give him a label, especially a political one. In the top ranks of one of the most innovative private companies in the world, he has volunteered to put his hands in the most unwieldy facet of our system, public administration. Endowed with the illustrious charge of Special Commissioner, his principle task is to bring Italy as close as possible to a European standard. Here from America to be the Mr. Wolf of the Italian system, the man who solves problems has been swimming against the current for months to avoid getting dragged into the slime, and, he says, “to not get used to the system, because to do disruption, to change the rules, you can’t get used to things that don’t work, you can’t think they are immovable and incapable of change.”
Diego Piacentini speaks with a northern Italian accent, rolling his r’s heavily as he speaks. He pauses frequently between one sentence and the next. Sometimes it’s so he can be sure of what he’s saying, other times it’s because he doesn’t have the Italian equivalent of the English word that’s passing through his mind. When this happens, he turns to his team of twenty-thirty year-olds. “Can I say this in Italian?” They answer in the affirmative, because, despite his doubts, he doesn’t make a mistake. When his doubts are too many, however, he uses the English directly and it’s obvious that after many decades spent in America, part of his brain has stayed back in Seattle at Amazon.
It’s because of his Martian nature, because of his “coming from the outside” that Piacentini was chosen, a symbol of a government able to recall excellence on a global level back to the homeland and put them to work changing things, even if it’s only on a two-year mandate and with marginal expectation of success. At the time of his appointment, Piacentini was brandished like a flag, undergoing a few months of intense media exposure. There were also the inevitable arguments: somebody said he would be helping Amazon to conquer Italy, others pointed out that Amazon does enough conquering on its own without needing any help. By then, Piacentini had already distanced himself from the spotlight and had sunk himself in his work, doing “plumbing work” as he calls it. The government fell, another one took over, and he rarely resurfaces, preferring instead to remain in the basement, laying the foundations. In the meantime, he has had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Italian system and its digital future, about the role of technology in the PA and the possibilities for reforming the things that seem resistant to change, up to and including the scarecrow of direct democracy.
Today, Piacentini is at the halfway point of his mandate and knows that he’ll be leaving an open construction site (he knew it from the beginning: a project that requires an entire genesis doesn’t take two years to complete), but he works as if his project were to last for twenty years after his time. “Time, time, time, it takes time,” he repeats. Time to gather skills and capabilities, time to create infrastructure, time to change the attitude of the political class.
“The risk that our work will be completely eliminated once we leave is there, look at what Trump is doing,” he says. “But any new leadership that arrives will be able to evaluate what we have done (from the Three Year Plan for the digital transformation of the PA to the other initiatives), will be given our clearly written proposals and will be able to decide what to do. This will be our legacy, a model that can be developed. Whatever the outcome, there’s a need for a central Digital Transformation Agency that’s strong, competent, with a large budget, and has the authority and the skills for intervention. Italy needs it.”
The next question is tricky: If I had to explain to my mother what the Digital Agency does, what should I tell her? He plays along and says, “I had the same problem with my mother. I decided to use the metaphor of the plumber. Right now we are working on those elements of house construction that are absolutely necessary to the function of the house but are not immediately visible to those who live there. Installing pipes means working hard to create enabling platforms that last so we can change standards and rules.” Enabling platform is a term that Piacentini uses often. It refers to a central platform that allows a service to be used by an entire ecosystem. It’s from this initial work on standards and rules that the Three Year Plan was created – the great digitization manual of the Italian PA, containing the rules to follow and the practices to be inspired by, useful to any administrator who wants to start changing things. It was written by Agid, the Agency for Digital Italy, in collaboration with Piacentini’s digital team. A colossal undertaking, but detailed and clear, to be updated every year by a specially assigned team because, in fact, innovation never stops. Piacentini continues to talk about our mothers: “Seeing as how we are not just plumbers, but artists as well, there are two or three things we would like to keep visible.” Let’s see them. “In my view, the most obvious, even in the short term, are digital payments.” In this arena, Piacentini’s project is called PagoPA, an enabling platform (see above) that allows people to pay for all public administration services (taxes, bills, fines) through a single system, whether it be physical or online. Even though PagoPA already existed before Piacentini’s arrival, it lay practically unused. The digital team picked it up again and made it graphically enjoyable and usable, integrated it with easy-to-access technologies like PayPal, and is actively supporting its growth and diffusion. “PagoPA is important because, aside from helping citizens make payments, it makes the state more efficient. Payments made through this system have the advantage of automatic account reconciliation, with significant savings as a result.”
Another visible project that will bring benefits in the medium-short term, says Piacentini, is the national register of the resident population, ANPR. It’s a huge job because it means unifying the different portfolios of the eight thousand Italian municipalities under the same system. “Once ANPR is fully executed, we will have created all the conditions necessary for the administration to change the processes it works with. There will no longer be a need for three different offices to request the same information from the same user three different times.” Tied to ANPR is SPID, the digital identity system (another already existing project that was brought back to life by the Piacentini team) whose final objective is that of giving every citizen a unique set of credentials for accessing all PA sites. “We’re communicating with INPS to make SPID the unique recognition system for entering their site. As services increase, SPID will become more and more convenient.”
So far, the tangible improvements aren’t bad at all. To pay the PA using a single digital system and be able to access its services with a simple and unique credential (no passwords sent partially by mail and partially through email, no office queues with piles of printed identification papers) is an appreciable taste of European normality.
At this point, however, it’s time to ask Piacentini a strange question: “Why are you here?” Here is Palazzo Chigi, in an office not too far away from the office of Prime Minister Gentiloni, the office that comes with the title of Special Commissioner. The “why” we are having trouble comprehending is: when it comes to paying taxes online, does it really take the vice president of Amazon to give Italy a taste of European normality? Did we really need to bring a VIP from America and give him the esteemed title of Special Commissioner to do what competent bureaucrats have managed to do in other places? Answering this question means entering into the depths of Piacentini’s philosophy.
On Twitter and Medium, the two social media platforms he most often uses to share the activities of his team, Piacentini defines himself as, “worried but optimist.” It’s a practically perfect state of mind, one that any stoic philosopher would applaud. It would, however, be understandable if, after a year spent intent on the digital transformation of the PA, worry outrivals optimism. “Optimism remains, but it’s of a different degree, in the sense that before, I thought that some things could be done in a certain way, but now I’m more familiar with the nature of the obstacles.” Worry, however, remains the central point. “To confront the complexity of the problems, you have to be worried. I can’t measure whether or not the complexity I had in mind when I began is more or less high than what I’m dealing with now. Now I know a lot more about what the individual obstacles are, the individual blocks, the individual defects in the process.” For example? “Before stepping into this role, I hadn’t considered, because I simply didn’t know about them, the complexities derived from the procurement, hence, the purchasing, of technological solutions. It’s not just an issue faced by the Italian administration, but by all the PAs in the world. What do I mean, buy? Not only do you have to refine the technology and design the architecture, but you also have to deal with the complexity of making the purchase. This is one of the biggest obstacles.” The issue of how the state acquires technology helps to understand how much work there is to do. “In comparison to other countries, Italy is more complex because the rules of acquisition are governed by the anti-bribery agency, Anac. This issue is less relevant in other European countries and therefore the process is easier to simplify – I mean this objectively, without passing judgment on the role of Anac.” Then there are the purchasing methodologies. Italy and very few other countries around the world use a system of “functional points.” That is, once a project is launched, it must reach target x within a year, target y within two years, and target z within five years. “But that’s not how technological innovation works,” says Piacentini. “Setting the goals of a project is already complicated enough when you’re building a highway, let alone a technological reality where everything changes in the course of a few months.”
And here is the first of what Piacentini calls “bottlenecks”: excessive formalism. “When evaluating the outcomes of a project in Italy, you don’t assess the outcome. You assess the adherence to functional points. Let’s take the example of ANPR. After creating the product and satisfying the requirements of the contract, Sogei, the government-owned technology company that built the program, considered the job complete. They were technically right. But no municipality was using the product! That’s the difference between acting on the basis of formalism vs. assessing the outcome. Technology companies make a product, and then they have to make it grow. It’s a constant evolutionary process, whereas in the PA, the project ends when the contract requirements are met. This is anti-technology.”
“There’s a certain tendency to get used to poor conditions that supposedly cannot be changed and stay within those boundaries. Let’s take, for example, the blocking of recruitment freeze in the PA. How are you supposed to digitally transform the administration if you can’t hire people with the skills necessary to do it? Everyone says: we can’t do anything about it. No. The Prime Minister office is down our hall, obviously he doesn’t do everything we tell him to but at least we have the ability to describe the bottlenecks, the defects in the process.We must build the conditions for bringing in technological talents, also from the private sector, even if it’s just for one or two years like what we’ve done, in order to try having an impact and changing things. “
Another unplanned complexity has to do with “personalism”, with strong personalities. “Many politicians don’t have the courage to agree on an opinion even when it’s right. Many would rather assert their own ideas even when they know they’re wrong, just to assert their own position. There are few people with whom we work who say: ok, this is the right road, let’s follow it. Instead, many must impose their opinions because otherwise they would lose their role and lose their value. This attitude is very prevalent in Italy. Working for Amazon, I’ve been exposed to dozens of countries. I’ve been to China fifty times, to India thirty times, and among the countries I’ve been exposed to, Italy is the one that has the least sense of common good, of a common purpose, of doing something good for the community. It’s not in our instincts, it’s not in our DNA.”
And so we go back to the initial conversation, and to that terrible and too-generic word: “politics”. Because everything we’ve talked about so far could safely be categorized in the enormous cauldron of what is “political”, of that which concerns the management of the “polis”. Among the complexities, is there also the issue of having to deal with a political class that considers Uber a threat, Flixbus an aberration, Amazon a company that is too big and dangerous to attack with an antitrust? In short, a political class that has a serious problem with innovation?
“This is an issue that goes beyond the political class. It has to do with how much politics in general has the capacity to adapt to social and technological change. Take artificial intelligence: to the politicians, it’s mainly something that will only take away jobs, while the focus should be on how artificial intelligence can be used to improve the relationship between governments and citizens. There are obviously many reasonable people in the Italian political class. I’m thinking, for example, of Minister Calenda, who is managing to a modern and effective activity to foster the start-up environment.
There’s also the fact that the reluctance to innovate is not just Italian. Web taxesexist in all Western countries. A while ago, the technological advisor to Michael Bloomberg, the then mayor of New York City, was telling me that knowledge of MS-DOS (an obsolete system, out of use for at least twenty years, ndr) was among the requirements for joining the New York City’s technology team! City officials were still adhering to this requirement.” Piacentini pauses. “The problem is governments. Governments are static and have a hard time evolving. This is why there’s a need for change in the political class, for the development of a new education system. It will take many, many years.”
“Paradoxically, developing countries could be the ones who are able to change the political class the fastest.” Maybe because they have fewer democratic hang ups typical of Western countries? “Also. In India I saw excellent technological projects come easily to life, projects that would never have been accepted in the Western countries for reasons of privacy – and certainly, I don’t contest this. But there’s also the fact that the concept of problem solving is a lot stronger in developing countries. Politicians have to get it into their heads that they’re there to solve problems,” whereas, from what Piacentini says, we can surmise that at home,“politics” frequently risks turning into obstacles.
Okay, so how do you implement effective decision-making systems while remaining democratic? Is “policy making” also going to be digitized?”Technology helps us to find simple solutions for solving complex problems. Let’s take our Three Year Plan as an example. It’s updated every year to keep it current. But this wouldn’t be possible using the normal methods of democracy, the old-style roundtables and consultations, hearing the opinion of multiple layers of representation, holding meetings with twelve thousand people who all need to have an opinion.
This is why we’ve installed a direct forum that allows us to have immediate access to all adminstrators, those coming from the big and small municipalities, as well as from their technical experts. Thanks to technology we can update our Plan much faster. This can be a new way of doing democracy, that is, communicating directly and receiving input without intermediaries. Technology allows you to eliminate the brokers, the layers. Brokers and layers exist and they wouldn’t know what else to do, and that it’s difficult to skip them. But technology allows you to do it.”
Are we not perhaps entering the slippery slope of direct democracy? “Direct democracy is an abstraction. Technology can provide platforms that collect opinions and communicate directly with as many citizens as possible. But it’s the rules of the relationship that determine the model. Technology can help representative democracy to evolve, but it does not replace it.”
Are you a proponent of “small government” a la Thatcher? “No, because in the end, states are necessary. Certainly, digitizing a small state is easier, look at Estonia, Singapore, Norway. But that’s only a question of population.” Piacentini smiles at our attempt and says, “It’s not easy to label me. The only label you can give me is that of Inter FC fan.”
And so we begin to understand why this Inter FC fan VIP has had to fly all the way from Seattle to do something that has already been done in other countries. He’s come to help implant a new culture. Piacentini rebels against this definition that risks turning him from a technician into a symbol: “I don’t want to be just a symbol, otherwise I won’t last at all. As soon as I go they’ll say: he was there for a year and he didn’t do anything.” His attention to problem solving, to the necessity of applying careful project management, is obsessive. Piacentini uses the words, “operational excellence” to explain how his job is taking dead projects and transforming them into a European vanguard. And certainly, the projects are there, you can touch them. But Piacentini’s work is a kind of genesis, and he’s only got two years. It’s clear that aside from things, his legacy will also be one ofculture. “We are here to solve problems, but we want to communicate that it’s time to leave the mentality of those who say that in Italy, nothing works.”