The COVID pandemic, which is hitting particularly hard in Italy, is accelerating the digital transformation in the country’s public administration as well. More and more services and transactions are being handled online. However, the progress of digitalisation varies greatly from region to region, as the software consulting firm FPA finds in its 2020 city ranking. The south is lagging behind, as it is usually the case. But there is a good chance that Italy’s public administration will emerge from the COVID crisis more efficient and (perhaps) leaner.

 

COVID drives digitalisation in Italy

The COVID pandemic has claimed over 80 000 lives in Italy so far. The health system is at breaking point, public life is paralysed and the economy is suffering. Political leaders have had to make decisions for which there were no instructions.

Public life is shifting to the virtual field. COVID-19 has accelerated digitalisation not only in the private sector, but also in the citizen-facing sectors of Italy’s public administrations. Homeoffice have become fashionable, pizza and pasta are ordered online and delivered to the home. The number of transactions via the internet is increasing significantly. Italy, until now a classic country of cash payers, is (inevitably) discovering the credit card and other electronic payment options.

 

Florence is in the lead

However, digitalisation is not uniform. As is often the case, the south of the country is lagging behind, with a few exceptions. The metropolises of the north are ahead. According to findings of the IT company FPA in Rome, which advises public administrations on digitalisation and which compiles a city ranking every year, Florence is the digital capital of Italy (with 872 out of a possible 1000 points), ahead of Bologna (866) and Milan (855). It is followed by Rome (847), Modena (830), Bergamo (809), Turin (787), Trento (783), Cagliari with 752 points the only representative of the South in the top ten, and in tenth place Venice (748).

Overall, FPA analysed the main cities of the 107 Italian provinces in its ICity Ranking 2020.

They were evaluated according to eight indicators:

‣ Internet access to the range of services offered by the public administration

‣ Availability of publicly usable applications

‣ Applicability of approved digital platforms

‣ Use of social media

‣ Availability of freely usable data (open data)

‣ Transparency

‣ Availability of public wifi networks

‣ Technical requirements for the development of smart grids

According to the FPA, the processes of digital transformation are generally accelerating in all eight areas considered – although not in a linear fashion, but to varying degrees.

Behind the top ten ranks a group of 15 municipalities at an “advanced” level of digitalisation: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Palermo, Pavia, Brescia, Genoa, Lecce, Cremona, Prato, Bari, Pisa, Verona, Vicenza, Bozen and Forlì. Rimini, Mantua, Livorno, Monza, Piacenza, Siena, Ravenna, Treviso, Udine, Perugia, La Spezia, Naples, Ferrara, Novara, Pordenone, Padua, Triest, Lodi, Arezzo, Pesaro, Ancona, Verbania and Lecco follow with a digitisation level classified as “discreet”. In the midfield of the ranking, 24 provincial capitals appear at a “mediocre” level of quality and another 27 where digitisation has only just begun. FPA rates the state of digitisation at the bottom of the ranking as “critically backward”: Taranto, Avellino, Caserta, Carbonia, Nuoro, Enna, Chieti and Agrigento, which just collected 168 points.

 

Cultural and organisational resistance

FPA Director General Gianni Dominici summarises the result of the study as follows: “The process of digital transformation of Italian cities and their administrations has not slowed down in this terrible year of 2020; on the contrary, it has accelerated in many cases and made it possible to overcome organisational and cultural resistance”.

However, there is still much to be done in various areas: Apart from regional differences, the “digital culture” is far from being internalised everywhere and by everyone involved, neither within the public administration nor among individual citizens. “When it comes to implementing and connecting smart grids, we are still in the “embrional phase”, not only in effective application, but also in understanding the opportunities that arise”, FPA notes. But the learning process that is underway is necessary to pave the way for municipalities to become advanced smart cities, those “responsive and adaptive cities” that are able to pool and use information and allow all stakeholders to participate in the services and decisions of public administration.

 

Innovation potential

Italy’s public administration will emerge from the COVID crisis more “digital”, efficient and modern. There will be a broader online offering of public services. Digital innovation will increase, not least due to the rise of the homeoffice. FPA has found this in two representative surveys among public servants and the population. According to the survey, 57% of respondents already see an improvement in the efficiency of public administration thanks to increased digitalisation. Access to services has become easier and faster. 21% see digitalisation as a negative development because they either lack the tools to access or simply the competence to use them. The remaining survey participants either have no opinion or see no improvement in the quality of services.

53% see further innovation potential through flexibilisation of working conditions in the homeoffice. While 13% of respondents do not see digitalisation as having any substantial impact on improving the quality of administration, a considerable 29% see it as a risk because it would promote the well-known “assenteismo” – the absence of public employees from the workplace – and “opportunistic behaviour” on the part of this group of people.

 

Still much to do

Most of the public servants interviewed also think that smart working is a good thing, but that there is still a need for a qualitative leap towards better results orientation as well as more internal communication. Above all, Italy’s public administration must prepare itself to use and allocate the approximately 300 billion euros in EU aid from the Recovery Fund sensibly and properly in the coming years. A mammoth task, at which the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has just failed, because the smallest coalition partner has obviously withdrawn its support out of political opportunism.

The majority of respondents (50% of users, 60% of public servants) believe that EU funds should be centralised and managed under unified direction. 27% would prefer regions to be given allocation competence and 13% would prefer local authorities to be responsible for allocation.

Regardless of competence, Italy has a need for new professional skills to drive the recovery projects to be financed with Recovery Fund money. According to insiders, public administrations lack financial professionals such as fund managers, project managers and IT specialists. Last but not least, demands for qualified improvements also call for a “radical normative simplification” of the bloated and crippling bureaucracy.

Clear priority, according to 53% of respondents, is given to projects in the health sector (53%), well ahead of education, ecology, improving competitiveness, digitalisation, social equality, and infrastructure and mobility.

 

This post was automatically translated.


Manred Kröller
Financial journalist