PEOPLE | Sep 17, 2019

Innovation? It only makes sense if it solves people’s problems

An interview with Dario Buttitta on the role of digital innovation, and more besides, in the Public Administration.

Hope is the word that Dario Buttitta, director of the Public Administration and Health division of Engineering, currently associates with the digital transformation of the Italian PA. “Hope and an optimistic vision for innovation in the PA – he states – are today linked to the fact that this Government has recognized and given value to the topic thanks to the establishment of a Ministry and to the appointment of a Minister of reference. This seems to me to be a very important decision, even if at the moment nothing can be said about the real effects that it will produce. We will have to wait, but this is a strong, important signal”.

What is the current situation of the PA, beyond the DESI index which draws the situation as at a standstill and with our country in fourth from last place?


“In my view, there are virtuous Municipalities and Regions, which have not only introduced technology, but have created process innovation, i.e. they have changed the way they do things thanks to digital tools. Which is in fact what we ask for from innovation. The central public administration, on the other hand, with its heavy bureaucratic apparatus, as usual moves more slowly, is still too distant from the citizens and still doesn’t use technology enough as a means to get closer and listen”.

What limits innovation in PA?

“The greatest limit of our Public Administration lies in the way innovation is purchased through procurement methods which are not suitable for acquiring a service in the same way as purchasing reams of paper, and which cannot be tied to the long periods of time which instead characterize public tenders. When, as Administration, I need to acquire a consultation for an innovative project, I can’t wait two years because after all that time the project will no longer have any meaning. The issue is well-known and we have been dragging it along with us for years. The solution can only lie in completely rewriting the procurement code, which should be different for services and for public works and should lead to rules which do not tend to slow down the purchasing processes, but to make them more flexible and therefore suitable for having support services for innovative projects. You can’t build a system full of rules designed for a too rigid control and forget that tenders occur to “do things” and to do them well and quickly. Another limit, more cultural than regulatory, is that of the PA’s difficulty in dealing with the market. A government that asks for advice, speaks, receives, listens to major market players who create innovation in a country, is now perceived as “biased” and the contact as inappropriate, while this openness is absolutely necessary. Several companies would like to share experiences and points of view with public administrations. There is a lot of talk about open innovation, which, in reality, is not implemented”.

What are the emerging drivers to monitor more closely for change in the PA?

“I would definitely say Cloud ComputingArtificial IntelligenceMachine Learning and Cybersecurity. The first, mature and widespread, through its various implementation procedures between public, private and hybrid, has changed the type of approach to services and this is the reason it has achieved true innovation, that of thought. Cybersecurity, transversal to all sectors, is of great importance as it represents a guarantee and creates a solid trust with the citizens. The other topics are fundamental to provide value to the immense pool of information held by the PA. Other technological drivers, I am thinking for example of Blockchain, are very frequently cited, but are still in the fashionable phase, where there is much discussion but little is done”.

Should you need to choose 3 projects among those you followed and which show how innovation is possible in the PA, which would you mention?

“Starting from the assumption that innovation is not an end in itself, but only makes sense when it solves people’s problems, I would certainly say the RETE per la Procreazione Medicalmente Assistita (NETWORK for Medically Assisted Procreation) project of the Tuscany Region, thanks to which people can enjoy quality services without having to move from the places where they live.

In addition to Health, as an example of interesting digitalization of the Central Public Administration, I would say INPS and INAIL which we have been following since 2015 with a project that allows exchanging pension programs data throughout Europe. Last but not least, if we talk about local authorities, a project for the Sardinia Region which, by dematerializing the administrative procedures through digitization, has dismantled the complexity of the bureaucratic procedures so that the citizen simply needs to log on in order to find out the outcome of a procedure”.

If you were to convince a PA to make the most of the digital world, what would you say?

“I would say: do not fall in love with technology. Always try to understand the problem that it can solve and, once the opportunity has been identified, invest in it and actually put new services into practice. Only then does technological innovation find its true reason to exist”.