Why the Italian government should not create an open government unit

Apparently the new Italian government is determined to move to adopt open government practices. It is plausible: several ministers are curious enough to investigate new ways, and smart enough to live out this space as protagonists. Regional cohesion minister Fabrizio Barca has written a review of my book of open government that shows a deep and sophisticated understanding of the topic. The most determined in this is probably Education minister Francesco Profumo, who in 2011 – as the newly appointed CEO of the National Research Council, was taking steps to open up its governance. Not by chance, Profumo requested and got the competence on innovation.

The interesting problem is how to open up the Italian public administration, overcoming its inevitable resistances. To keep it simple, consider two possibities: a top-down strategy, focused on the production of regulation and guidelines, and a bottom-up one, focused on building capacity in the various agencies of the central State, but also – and mainly – of the Regions.

The top-down strategy consists in building a strong open government unit in the Innovation department. This unit writes regulations that mandate the adoption of radical transparency and citizen engagement practices; and it produces tools for the various government agencies to do so (for example guidelines, definitions, technical documents). If it works, this strategy results in a new central institution that can do open government.

The bottom-up strategy consists of infiltrating the various state and regional agencies with open and transparent policies and projects. The goal is not to concentrate competences, but to distribute them; and not to set up transparency and openness as add-ons to the policy process, but rather embedding them in each phase of the policy cycle, from design to ex-post evaluation. If it works, such a strategy builds new capacity in the existing agencies to whatever it is they do (education, health care, infrastructures and so on).

Clearly, the two strategies are not alternative but complementary. Nationwide regulation is needed: for example, we need a Freedom of Information Act as a legal tool of last resort, and you can only do this top-down. But I believe that the bottom-up strategy should be the main one. Here’s the reason: a technical unit that owns open government risks to be considered as a nuisance by the frontline agencies; and the latter can jeopardize open government policies simply by not cooperating, or treating them as more red tape, another bureaucratic requirement. It would be a disaster. Contrived open government is very likely to turn into a sad charade.

Some unsolicited advice to Profumo: minister, resist the temptation to gather the best and the brightest around you. Promote, rather, a community of practice of the Italian civil servants engaged in open government practices; set up an annual conference, reboot Innovatori PA, open channels of cooperation with the world’s leading administrations; use the authoritativeness of your role to reward those who perform well, at any level of the hierarchy; open up spaces of dialogue with the civil society. Don’t create another silo; rather, let open government’s women and the men work from the trenches, were public policies are deployed. Do this to stimulate the agencies’ demand for openness rather than push it down their throat. We risk the emergence of a typically Italian uneven situation, with some agencies performing much better than others. Well – that beats an evenly dismal situation.

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