Data-driven governance as a tool to act and exert a positive influence in the administration of public affairs and as a tool for institutional transparency and accountability: these are the two main dimensions when we think in terms of adoption and implementation of strategic and operational policies guided by data evidence in the public administration according to Antonio Palmieri, member of Forza Italia and Coordinator of the Parliamentary Intergroup for subsidiarity: “The first possible use of data in the PA calls into question the possibility of going beyond the media excitement of the moment: eye-catching events often hitting the media headlines, so much so as to influence public opinion. As a result the response of decision makers is often based on emotion or worse, rather than actual knowledge of the reality, being unwilling to pay the political price and demonstrating indifference due to an issue which in that moment, with manipulative media power, is placed center-stage in the public eye.” Adopting data-driven decisional policies could essentially reduce the temptation to react to facts in the public eye, to the benefit of structured action based on data evidence.
The second aspect is no less important: according to Palmieri date-driven governance is one of the tools that can effectively strengthen the citizens’ view of the transparency and accountability of Italian institutions, principles that are often disregarded or less respected . “Being able to count on the data and thus give reasons why certain decisions are taken where, for example, tax money is used, would, I think, be a further step towards recovering the reputation of politics in the eyes of citizens; politics that doesn’t continue to make the news due to scandals or for things that simply do not work.”
This is certainly not a totally innovative approach in the landscape of regional governance: Rudolph Giuliani, explains Palmieri, renowned mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, took the same approach years ago when “he used what we now call big data gathered on crime and economic factors and concentrated his administrative actions by cooperating public and private financial resources in order to achieve objectives that were defined and visible to citizens.”
This shows that data-driven governance is possible and perhaps even a duty, especially now that current technologies enable the definition and outline of a more complex and accurate overview of reality. This implies an expansion of the range of good opportunities for a PA that wants to improve its governance. “Attention must however be paid to the issue of skills: data-driven governance has at its base a cultural knowledge factor and capacity to involve decision-makers, who should provide input to individual administrations, in addition to the existing professionals within the PA or related to the PA, thus enabling an effective capacity to actually understand the data.”
The Italian political and administrative situation on the subject is still unclear. Palmieri recognizes that we have moved a lot over the years with the open data portal of the Italian PA , which is “experiencing a progressive evolution that goes hand in hand with becoming aware of the country’s needs“. But there are many aspects which can and must continue to be worked upon. “What we can still work on is pooling good practices, replacing the established habit of everyone doing their own thing ‘at home’ but being unwilling to share these experiences.”
In the movement taking place at governmental level, Palmieri also recalls the FOIA that “ is an anchor within a philosophy of government that originates with data and the fact that all data is public, except of course that which must remain confidential for the common good.” In this sense the authority of implementing decrees will be much more revealing, those that will enable the movement “from paper to reality“, or rather from saying to doing, on the digital age and its corollaries. “An argument which also applies to the new Digital Administration Code, because we have a situation where it is put on paper that the digital age would produce certain results.”
What can be done to favor the development of a data-driven approach?
According to the Hon. Palmieri a significant step forward could be enjoyed if popular pressure were to develop and “be expressed primarily through associations and other organizations of or related to the PA, like for example, the ForumPA. There is in fact a lack of media attention that could attract interest in data and turn it into a political question, to which a lack of response would expose the government to an actual political sanction, namely, not being rewarded in the elections.”
This is because all innovation-related themes are complicated issues, often difficult to communicate in a captivating way so they become, wrongly, considered as issues to be addressed only by a few experts in the field “while in the era that we live, the digital society, they become the foundation of our actions.”
Beware however the Minority Report effect. Antonio Palmieri refers to the story by Philip K. Dick and the Steven Spielberg science fiction film, in which data and information are used to arrest people in advance for crimes they might commit with no possibility of mitigation, to warn that careful use must be made of data-driven decision-making: “we can renounce our freedom and creativity by attributing data with a sacred power that in itself it cannot have. The ability to interpret data, the ability to make a decision contrary to the data because this choice is part of a political decision respecting the privacy of citizens, should be absolutely preserved. Respect is needed in the use of data, caution that helps us not to fall prey to the contradictions in Minority Report, so as not to attribute it with a predictive capacity based on analysis of past data that is likely to affect the freedom of the present.”