“I must take a half day leave to pay a telephone bill,” complains Matteo Magnone, who lives in the suburbs of Rome.
In many European countries, a wide range of basic public services are now accessible online, allowing for a smoother interaction between citizens and public administration.
The idea behind this development, which brings services straight into citizens’ homes and eliminates long queues at public offices, was initially shaped at European level in the 2000 Lisbon Strategy. The plan formulated measures aimed at improving Internet connectivity and making the Web more secure so that key services can be shifted from physical offices to online platforms.
Toward a digital public administration
The Italian government has committed to achieving full online availability, by the end of 2012, of the 20 basic public services, such as online tax declaration, delivery of permits, schools registration.
A dossier explaining the projects, the funding process and the time schedule to reach this goal can be consulted online.
In February 2011, the Italian Minister for Public Administration Renato Brunetta praised Italy as one of the “top countries [in Europe] for e-government readiness in 2010” according to the 2010 European Benchmark.
Brunetta failed however to comment on the lack of actual user experience among Italian citizens and the lack of information available around the new digital services, which both constitute the real challenges preventing a successful implementation of e-government policy in Italy.
E-government, a public ghost
Even if on paper Italy seems to be on schedule as far as the actualisation of e-government policy is concerned, the situation on the ground as experienced by Italian citizens is quite different.
When asked if she could name an advertising campaign about the new public digital services, pensioner Anna Conio had to stop to think for a moment before replying: “No, maybe I saw a television ad once, about the possibility to pay the road tax at the tobacco shop instead of the post office.” She could not recall any other examples.
Over the last few years, a number of digital services have been made available to the layers of society who are less familiar with new media practices. The Reti Amiche project, launched in November 2008, allowed users to renew their passports, request visas, and pay their retirement contributions through terminals at post offices or tobacco shops.
In February 2009 the consumers’ website www.ilsalvagente.it however called the project a failure in view of the fact that three months after the opening of the service only 35 percent of the shops listed as part of the network were actually operative. Customers also complained about the lack of assistance and knowledge from shopkeepers.
If technical issues are to be expected in every modernisation process, the real concern for Italy is that the majority of its population is not even aware of the new online services due to an almost nonexistent information campaign in the mainstream media, in a country where television is still the main source of news.
“The IT structures are in place and work well, the websites are easy to access and the information is clear, but not many people are familiar with them,” says 25-year old Veronica Terragno, who works for a marketing company in Milan. In her view, a possible explanation for the lack of information about the public digital services is that since they do not generate any income, the government did not make it a priority to invest in informational campaigns.
Stefania Gessi, a 25 year old woman living and working as an intern in the capital city of Lombardy does not share Terragno’s positive view on the performance of the public administration websites: “I wanted to pay my retirement contributions online. It all sounded very simple. I just needed to enter my fiscal code and register, but when I tried to do so either the page would freeze or the website would be ‘under construction’” she said as she described her first experience as a web citizen.
Pensioner Fausto Conio tried to pay his electricity and gas bills online but was not successful either: “When I contacted the call-centre I found out they were not able to support me and I was back to square one.”
A unilateral approach
In its race toward e-government, Italy overlooked a crucial element to improve the efficiency of its digital services. In most cases, it omitted to ask for users’ feedback.
An attempt at gathering feedback is found on the website www.accessibile.gov.it, where customers can express their level of satisfaction in browsing Public Administration sites, but once again, the portal was not advertised and only a minority of the population is aware of its existence.
Italian citizens seem to be regarded as passive recipients of decisions imposed on them from above.
By failing to realise the importance of active citizen participation, is Italy not jeopardising the success of the entire e-government project?
The Italian authorities underestimated another important factor, namely that some social categories, such as the elderly, foreigners, the disabled and people without access to the Internet, might experience great difficulties in using the new online resources if they are not able to count on some form of support or guidance. Educational campaigns promoting the use of the new media can play a critical role in minimising the risk of digital discrimination.
In this respect, it is worth mentioning an interesting project created by the non-governmental organisation Eldy and aiming at offering the elderly and disabled community a combination of technological tools and human support to reduce their isolation and loneliness”. The association cooperates with the public administration authorities and regions to facilitate the access to e-welfare and E-government.
One last step Italy will need to take is to acknowledge the presence of foreign citizens and expatriates in the country. Italy will need to make sure that they too can benefit from the new digital services. At the moment most public administration websites are available in Italian only, a typical sign of Italy’s self-centred view of society.