• Q&A
  • November 12, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

What a big tech executive learned transforming Italy’s government

Diego Piacentini, of Amazon, spent two years working in government digital transformation

Diego Piacentini, the Amazon executive who spearheaded a digital transformation push for the Italian government, was hired by a prime minister of the centre-left establishment and ended his two-year stint working for a coalition of populists. But, he said, he remains convinced that government digitisation has “no political colour”.

Piacentini was appointed “Government Commissioner for the Digital Agenda” and began work in August 2016 under then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the mainstream Democratic Party. The aim was to build an “operating system” for the country by overhauling a series of key digital platforms and projects that would underpin efficient services, and encouraging the whole of government to use them.

Since then, Piacentini’s homeland has undergone a total political overhaul. First came Renzi’s resignation four months after Piacentini’s work began, following a catastrophic defeat in a constitutional reform referendum. Then followed March 2018’s general election, where an alliance of insurgent populist parties took power.

But Piacentini said in an interview he was happy not only to be completing the role at full term — it was always a two-year brief — but to be handing the project over to a chosen successor, who will oversee a doubling of the size of the team Piacentini set up.

Across the divide

Asked whether his progress in Italy demonstrates that the nuts and bolts of digital transformation are relevant to all political shades, from the new breed of populist politicians to their more moderate predecessors, Piacentini said: “Correct.”

“The most emblematic example… is universal income,” Piacentini continued.

The new government plans to introduce a citizens’ income. The policy is politically charged, and relatively radical. But, Piacentini said, while “you might agree or not agree in the abstract” the policy raises practical, technical questions aside from the political debate: “Who gets it? How is the money received? How is the money spent? How is the policy assessed?”

Answering those questions by putting in robust digital systems that allow the government to implement and monitor the policy will not only let this government deliver on this initiative, but benefit any future government that wants to tweak what money the state gives to its citizens.

“Governments give money to people in one form or another, [so] let’s make it efficient and measurable,” Piacentini said. “Any government wants to have that in place.”

Technical work undertaken during Piacentini’s tenure included improvements to PagoPA, a digital platform that lets citizens make payments to government, co-ordinating SPID, a single digital identity for citizens to access different government services, and accelerating the consolidation of data from Italy’s 8,000 municipal registers into one digital registry.

Private to public

Piacentini moved back to his homeland to take up the pro-bono role from Seattle, where he has spent 16 years as a senior vice president at Amazon. He previously worked for Apple.

In Rome, he was supported by the “Digital Transformation Team” he set up — 90% of his staff were recruited from outside the public sector, but the team is now to be led by a public servant, Luca Attias, CIO of the Italian Court of Audit.

Piacentini said skepticism of people who join government from the private sector had to be challenged head-on. “Don’t see me as an Amazon executive. See me as an executive who’s worked for 30 years in a very large corporation, and had to manage very complex situations, including scaling,” he said. “Those complex situations in many aspects resembled the same situations I’m finding in government.”

His biggest contributions were not in introducing new tech, but in instituting best practice around how large-scale technology projects should be run. “I didn’t bring artificial intelligence and blockchain to government. I brought some basic, highly scalable project management processes,” he said.

Now, he said, a “very high critical mass” of the administration is committed to implementing the digitisation projects his team has been pushing. But, he warned, in two to three years: “we’ll have to intervene with the [sections of the public administration] that are resistant to change”.

The best talent

Piacentini would like, he said, for governments including Italy’s to make it easier for others to follow his lead. He’d like them to put in place schemes allowing people to join their ranks for short periods, perhaps two to three years.

Doing this would, Piacentini said, not only allow public-spirited people to serve their country more easily, but also build vital expertise in government to manage outsourcing to, and regulation of, innovative technology companies. “In a generation I think you [would] build something really powerful and really strong,” he said.

Building such expertise one way or another is crucial as governments begin to procure more from technology firms — including large companies like Amazon.

In Britain, the recent fate of the outsourcing giant Carillion, which went into liquidation leaving services from construction to school lunches to be picked up by government, showed the danger of procuring too many analogue services from a few super-providers. Now, there could be a risk that a few large tech companies could take on similarly outsize amounts of public work.

“The point is that there is this tendency of solving problems with one [size] fits all solutions,” Piacentini said. He emphasised the importance of building a digital approach based not only on grand vision — though that is necessary — but on carefully planned and managed individual projects.

As Piacentini returns to Seattle to spend time with his family — he does not yet know his future plans — he leaves Rome with much done and much still to do. But if his team continues to succeed in pushing for change in the coming years, it could hold lessons for governments everywhere about how to best combine private expertise with public service. — Josh Lowe

(Picture credit: EU 2017 Estonia Presidency/Flickr)

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