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Unmasked! Italy's digital government agenda and the woman who's leading it

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 14, 2014
Italy's just appointed Allesandra Poggiani to its most senior government IT role, just as European Commissioner Neelie Kroes urges the Italians to drive through Europe-wide digital change.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250"]NOG Brussel: Neelie Kroes Neelie Kroes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption]

As well as being a compulsory stop on the grand tour when American tourist 'do Europe', last week Venice was the setting for the Italian government’s hosting of a digital innovation week, coinciding with its presidency of the European Union (EU).

(The Presidency is taken in turn by each of the 27 countries of the EU, according to a rotation system for a pre-determined period of six months. Italy’s in the chair until Christmas.)

Now to be honest, when thinking about the digital leaders in the EU, the Italians haven’t been top of mind compared to, for example, the Germans, the Swedes or the British.

But in fact there’s a lot going on in Italy , although as Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, pointed out, it’s not always been the case:

Italy is a leading industrial economy. It has a proud tradition in technology – and future ambitions to stay competitive. Yet more action is needed to stay in synch with those ambitions. Past Italian governments have often committed to staying ahead in digital developments – but the structural investments need to match the rhetoric.

That said, Kroes went to the Digital Venice conference to praise, not to criticise:

Italy has long been a country of ICT innovation. From Meucci's telephone and Marconi's radio; to Olivetti's desktop PC, the first in the world.

That triumph did not come from being conservative. It came from embracing innovation, change and opportunity.

Today, innovation relies on digital. I'm not talking about the digital economy, or expanding this or that sector. I am talking about the whole economy. An economy which is all going digital.

As Tomasi di Lampedusa put it: "if you want things to stay the same, things are going to have to change". He was talking about 19th century Italy. But it applies just as much today. For Italy, for all of Europe.

Kroes was there however to pitch her own agenda, which includes three areas for improvement and some action points she’d proposed:

just in time for the Italian Presidency to take it forward at full steam.

These are :

  • Human capital in the form of the right skills.
  • Physical infrastructure in the form of broadband. (Four out of five Italian homes don’t have fast internet access, noted Kroes.)
  • Tougher legislation around security and data protection.

That third point is of course a familiar post-Snowden refrain from Kroes, but with her time in office running out, she urged the Italian government to help push through some wider changes:

Italy can show leadership. On the table are two pieces of legislation waiting to be agreed: to make our network and information systems secure and resilient, and to build a telecoms single market. Taken together they would protect our citizens and businesses against hacks and attacks. End roaming charges. Ensure net neutrality. And bring down other barriers in our single market. Barriers that hold back innovation, cut off investment, prevent Europe from embracing a connected, competitive future.

This presidency is a powerful opportunity – it makes a bridge to the next Commission. Lots of people are talking about digital; now we need to turn our rhetoric into reality, our ambition into action and achievement. Here in Italy and across the EU.

There's a chance to change history. To make Europe fully prosper in the digital age. To become a continent that is connected, open and secure. I hope it is an opportunity the Italian government will grab hold of with both hands.


In Venice, Kroes chaired a meeting with executives from ICT firms to discuss a draft policy document proposing some radical changes, including setting up a single digital council of ministers to oversee policy across the EU. In the policy document it’s argued:

The commission should, for the future of digital policy making, focus on a few big digital challenges with clear targets and monitoring provisions, for instance through a single Europe 2020 headline target measuring the weight of the digital economy in the EU’s GDP.

The most powerful woman in Italian IT

Alessandra Poggiani

While Kroes was the most influential European Commission representative at Digital Venice, she was in danger of being upstaged by the announcement from the Italian government of the appointment of Alessandra Poggiani as the new director of Italy's digital agency AGID, the first woman to hold what is the most senior public sector IT role in the country.

Poggiani has worked as a senior advisor for leading consulting firms and is currently director of Venis, the in-house IT agency for the city of Venice. In her new role, she’ll be responsible for supervising Italy's implementation of the Digital Agenda for Europe.

As Gartner’s managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research Andrea Di Maio - himself an Italian native - points out, that will be no mean feat:

Despite her strengths and achievements so far, Alessandra is faced with an incredibly tough challenge, as there are huge expectations driven by a new and ambitious prime minister and an assumption that this particular government will succeed where most previous governments have repeatedly failed.

The context is certainly more favorable: there is a plan to reform and streamline the public administration, which is one of the most complex and large in the world. Such complexity mostly due to the structure and the history of the country and partly due to the inability of governments to realize any significant change over the last several years. However the context is not enough for her to sail toward successful impact and transformation.

Di Maio offers up some advice for Poggiani in the form of some dos and don’ts:

Do not decide by committee. This is something that Di Maio notes there is a predilection for in Italian government. He urges:

While this is not the private sector, managerial courage is required at this critical point in time.

Do not assume that people outside government know better than people inside.  Di Maio argues that there are plenty of people with skills and passion in the public sector who an deliver if they are working in the right environment, but he adds:

At the same time, the Italian landscape is full of self-proclaimed digital experts, many of which have gained visibility through a smart use of social media, and often have little understanding of the peculiarities and intricacies of the public sector.

Do not focus on making the whole country digital. Basically, don’t try to do everything, but rather choose your battles. Di Maio proposes:

Digital policies should be an integral part of all ministries’ agendas, and they should be leading from their specific portfolio’s perspective. Alessandra’s remit should be limited to helping transform government processes through digital technology, and she should operate at a level that allows all other ministries to leverage her achievements in their respective digital tasks.

Do not pick the low-hanging fruits. In other words, don’t reach for the quick wins in order to get publicity for success, something that Di Maio fears might result in political pressure:

I suspect that this particular government is looking for something quick to show to citizens before the next elections. But Alessandra should market internally that this is not a sprint but a marathon, and in order for transformation to be sustainable, we need to change principles and foundations, arguably not the easiest and fastest task to tackle.

Do not drink your EU colleagues’ kook-aid. Don’t be too influenced by what other countries are doing in pursuit of a Euro-solution. This isn’t likely to be the kind of advice Kroes and her colleagues in pursuit of standardization want to hear, but Di Maio makes the pragmatic point:

It is important to distinguish PR from reality, to be able to get insights from those in the trenches who are supposed to comply with what her European colleagues are proposing, to look beyond the EU as well as at state and local rather than national levels, in order to get a number of stimuli and inspirations to choose from.

We should not forget that over 15 years of e-government, with all their ranking,s benchmarks and best practice exchanges, have shown that there are fundamental differences in regulations, procedures, culture that may make the greatest success somewhere an embarrassing failure somewhere else.

Do pick one battle at a time. Di Maio acknowledges that Poggiani will be given a long list of objectives, but argues that she needs to be clear about what she can realistically accomplish:

I would suggest to focus on winning one battle at a time. Focus is of the utmost importance.

Do focus where you can make a difference. Di Maio suggests that Poggiani’s predecessor Agostino Ragosa did not make as much impact at national level as he did at regional and local:

 Alessandra may consider to make a greater impact on national government while playing an advisory role only for regional and local, and possibly rely on others to make that happen. Incidentally this is one example of not picking a low-hanging fruit.

Do choose who to work with. Again Di Maio urges a break with her predecessor’s practice of surrounding himself with:

 some collaborators who hadn’t been officially employed. I would argue that while this was one of the reasons why he had to resign, he was right in trying to get the right people on board. It might just take longer than hoped, but Alessandra should not give up picking her closer collaborators.

Do use scenario planning. In other words, the only certainty is uncertainty so plan accordingly. Di Maio cites Ragosa’s drive to create an Italian national cloud. Such a drive is dependent on a number of factors, he noted, such as:

 the availability and usability of EU-based cloud resources from international vendors, investments planned by local vendors, likelihood that local governments and even small-and-medium sized business will adopt a government-sponsored cloud service. Since all these are highly uncertain, it would be helpful to use approaches that deal with uncertainty, such as scenario planning.

Do liaise with other great women in IT. AKA, tap into the sisterhood. Di Maio concludes:

I am intimately convinced that women can handle complex challenges like this better than men and I am sure that having a forum to exchange experiences and tips with female current and former national CIOs and digital leaders would be a great complement to Alessandra’s weaponry.

My take

Digital Venice was an impressive event with some important topics debated and aired. The Italian government hopes that this will become an annual event in the European and global public sector ICT calendar and that certainly sounds like a plan.

In the meantime, all eyes will be on Poggiani, who beat off 150 others to secure her new role, including the global CIOs of some multi-national firms as well as people with executive ICT experience in government.

At a time when so many government ICT conferences, particularly at local level, remain pale, male and stale, the rise of more and more talented women to the top roles is encouraging, even if there’s still a hell of a long way to go.


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