From codes to code

How to make the digital administration Code easy to use for citizens

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano

Where we are

The rolling surface of the wheel must be cylindrical, without sharp edges, protrusions or discontinuities.”

So reads paragraph 3 of Article 66 of the Highway Code. In other words, for a wheel to be a wheel, it must be round. (1)

A law to regulate the obvious.

This is not an isolated case, unfortunately. The Italian legal system is suffering from chronic legislative hypertrophy.

Every day, our legal system grows by 21 pages of regulatory measures. If collected into a single file, the legislative output of 2014 alone would contain 14.2 million characters. (2)

Citizens and enterprises are powerless in the face of this influx.

It would seem that regulation constitutes a panacea for all the socio-economic problems of the country. It’s almost as if there was an algebraic equation somewhere stating that more regulation means more democracy, more rights, more social equality and more productivity for enterprises.

The exact opposite is true.

“An excessive, or otherwise poor use of regulation determines a number of negative consequences. It produces unnecessary costs for enterprises, citizens, and public institutions. It fuels corruption. Allows injustices. Favors social conflict. Pours cement over economic activities. It weighs down the action of the public administrations.
Too many rules, or rules that are confused and contradictory, are often equivalent to no rules at all. The legislative jungle almost always produces legal uncertainty, the antechamber of lawlessness.” (3)

And yet, decades after the first lucid diagnosis of the disease and the first attempts at healing it (rigorously, through bursts of legislation), little or nothing seems to have actually changed. A context of regulatory pollution surrounds nearly every facet of life in the country. The main perpetrator: bureaucracy.

For every rule, there are dozens of administrative proceedings and for every administrative procedure there are hundreds of formalities and requirements. These are slathered in a variety of sauces, depending on which administration is called upon by law to manage them.

We are lost in a Stygian swamp that prevents citizens and businesses from exercising their rights and seems to resist every attempt at reconciliation.

“The Administration supports itself on habits and established practices that have been consolidated by tens, sometimes hundreds, of years. To do as little as possible and avoid taking any responsibility, one should never leave the traditionally marked groove. Over time, a foundational rule of not deciding and not innovating was established. A rule that gives everyone permission to avoid the responsibility of making decisions (and the related liability). This is how, in every practice, previous decisions are thoroughly consulted, verified and copied as much as possible. Dr. Amendola noted that the habit of attaching oneself to the decisions of the past (from which everything was copied) served to justify one’s own decision by shifting responsibility to those that came before. By doing this, one could feel at ease: any error in practice was to be blamed on the ancestors!” (4)

But, as Massimo Severo Giannini, then Minister of Public Service, wrote in the conclusion of his, “Report on the main problems of the State Administration,” forwarded to the Chambers in November 1979: “The situation is very serious but it is not irreversible.”

Credit: Davide Greco

Where we would like to go

We at the Digital Transformation Team — Italian Government are convinced that the time has come to change pace, reverse trends, stop copying (especially if we’re only doing it to have an alibi when things go wrong) and start innovating. Innovation is the only way to declare real war on bureaucracy and change the interface of the country by rewriting the operating system.

Naturally, we are aware that this will require much more than being super-experts in technology. Simply designing the digital infrastructure of the country won’t be enough. We have to change the rules and lay new regulatory foundations so that digital and innovation can cease being an occasional practice of this or that government and become part of the very DNA of our nation.

Diego Piacentini has already made our intentions clear in one of his first posts when he wrote: “My main objective will be, paradoxically, to make sure that my own role of “special commissioner” ceases to exist.

This is not a vainglorious attempt to defeat, on our own, the bureaucracy that many (before us, better than us and with tools and strategies more powerful than ours) have already tried to eradicate. We are driven, rather, by the profound conviction — or lucid madness, if you prefer — that when it comes to innovation, technology and digital, the rules can and must be written and rewritten in a different way from the very beginning. Simply using these innovations and technologies in a systematized way will be enough to deliver a heavy blow to the culture of “those who copy make no mistakes.”

There’s nothing wrong with copying what’s already been done if it actually represents the best way of solving a problem.

We have to start writing fewer laws and more software [less codes and more code] and, above all, we must ensure that the laws themselves — which are, by definition, both general and abstract — depict only those principles capable of resisting the passage of time and incapable of burdening us with the innovations and technologies of the past that only serve to keep the country from stepping into the future.

“We will lay out a long term vision, but also identify intermediate milestones that allow us to quickly deliver value to Italian citizens,” is one of the main tenets of our manifesto.

Detailed, rule-based regulations are to be translated into bit. Conventions for data exchange between administrations in API [Application Programming Interface] and administrative processes in which discretionary activity is either absent or modest are to be transformed into machine to machine processes, making them more efficient and democratic.

It will be important not to digitize inefficiencies but to redesign and reengineer processes so that today’s technology can find solutions that yesterday only dreamed of.

As part of a team whose DNA contains a genuine obsession for the ones and zeroes of binary language and a fierce aversion towards every abstraction, not even a lawyer can afford to talk about general and abstract propositions without translating them into concrete examples, putting them within arm’s reach of the citizen.

For example, administrative procedures that require no discretion should be standardized and automated by translating the modules into bit and entrusting their management to machines so that all citizens and enterprises, regardless of where they live or to which administration they turn to, can count on exact response times and equitable results: opening a shop in Bolzano or in Rionero in Vulture will require the same amount of time, the same documents and equality of treatment. Unfortunately, this is not how things work right now.

Setting questions of merit aside for the moment, we would also like the correction of the digital administration Code to be an occasion for rethinking the processes that give life to law: no pieces of paper, no stamps, ink signatures, or scanned images. Just a single digital text to be shared amongst the relevant offices, in which people with responsibility and expertise can be recognized by the system and annotate, comment, suggest changes and make edits.

A law to transform the country into digital cannot be brought to life by a piece of paper and a modern country is recognized, first and foremost, by how it writes its laws.
Credit: Davide Greco

Where do we start?

There are many challenges we must face as we put these principles into practice.

First of all, we have to correct and integrate — as provided for in the enabling act — the Digital Administration Code.

Some people use the Code — acronym, CAD — as an everyday working tool. Some people use it so often that they can even recite its articles from memory. To most people, however, the CAD is just one of hundreds of thousands of laws currently in force in the Italian legal system.

Because we in the Digital Transformation Team have decided to share our weekly activities with citizens — in whose interests we are working to make Italy a more modern country — it is worth taking a bit more time to talk about what CAD is and to go over the road map of the transformation we intend to achieve.

The Digital Administration Code came into force exactly eleven years ago, on January 1, 2006, with the ambition of being a single text containing all laws relating to digital administration. It was also meant as a modern implementation of the principle outlined in article 97 of our Constitution, which states that, “Public offices are organized according to the law so as to ensure the good conduct and impartiality of the administration.”

Even then, the idea was that the good conduct and impartiality of a public office should have, as its unavoidable prerequisite, an adequate level of digitization of the processes and services provided to citizens and enterprises. This was the first time in Italy that the Code recognized in citizens the right to use digital technologies in their relations with the public administration. It addressed the issue of using judicial IT tools to support administrative action — also useful in the private sector — like electronic documents, digital signatures, information protocol or storage systems.

However, laws — even the most well written ones — must be regarded as tools in a continual state of growth. This ensures that they can keep up with the pace of the times.

Even CAD did not manage to escape this unwritten law and has, since its entry into force, become the subject of dozens of reform measures. The layering of these interventions in combination with the hundreds of pens that have worked on it have, over time, inevitably compromised the original structure of the text.

It should come as no surprise then, that just as an avalanche gets larger and more unwieldy as it rolls down a mountain slope, the Code has grown enormously over the years, engulfing dozens of provisions, in an often cluttered and disorganized way.

In order to streamline the dozens of provisions and make them more modern and consistent with the European matrix, which has, in the meantime, seen the light, Parliament — by means of a delegating law (5) — gave the responsibility of monitoring the Code during the twelve months after its implementations.

The goal is to make the Code a genuine “Charter of digital citizenship,” as suggested by the title of Article 1 of the law itself.

A Code more like a bill of rights than our highway code.

We are not starting from scratch and have no intention of changing what already works simply for the sake of change. As stated in our manifesto, “We will value existing technological assets; we will not rebuild what already works in the Italian PA and will also be inspired by functional international models.”

The three guidelines we intend to follow remain faithful to the principle “never abstract.” Each includes an example that translates the words into images:

1 . A more accessible Code

We would like to make the code more accessible and its text easier to read by deleting provisions that only serve to reaffirm the obvious [i.e. the wheel must not have sharp edges], simplifying the language whenever possible without sacrificing its rigor, and streamlining the structure [only principles and digital citizenship rights in the first part and only the implementation of rules in the second].

Example: the first ten articles of the Code consist of principles and digital citizenship rights. After this there will be a lighter code of at least a dozen articles destined for repeal.

2 . Time to deregulate

We want to deregulate as much as possible by making technologically neutral legal provisions and easing up on technical regulations. Nobody in 2017 can predict what the best technology for solving a particular problem will be two months from now and we cannot afford the luxury of keeping the country anchored to the past just because a law or a technical regulation made a decision that has since become outdated. The implementation of the Code’s provisions must, as far as possible, be entrusted to constantly evolving guidelines and policies that are frequently updated through processes of consultation and sharing of objectives and solutions.

Example: the dozens of technical regulations in the current text and the actualization of the many provisions contained in the Code will give way, in many cases, to guidelines adopted by the Agency for Digital Italy. These will be determined in the outcome of a public consultation. The guidelines will be published on the agency’s corporate website so they can be periodically updated without cumbersome regulatory processes.

3 . A sustainable regulatory ecosystem

For every provision in the Code and every obligation to be borne by citizens, enterprises and administrations, we would like to identify one or more technological solutions that are easy to use, accessible, and understandable. This will ensure that the Code actually works to solve problems, making the administration more effective and the rights of digital citizenship more serviceable without limiting solutions to the multiplication of rights and obligations without putting them into practice.

Example: the creation of a digital home for each enterprise, professional or citizen is an indispensable presupposition for the digital transformation of the country. Instead of limiting ourselves to principles — already provided for in the current code — we are going to put forth a clear, modern solution that is technologically neutral, open, easy to use and designed to withstand the passage of time. We have already started working with the Department of Public Service, without which this small revolution would be totally impossible, as well as the Agency for Digital Italy, which will take on the responsibility of transforming the Code into a “living” entity: effective rights and respected duties.

Credit: Davide Greco

Where are we heading?

Even though we don’t have much time to launch the legislative decree for correction of the Code, we are proceeding in an open, transparent and consensual manner, involving stakeholders and experts. We are staying away from the old and usual tables, committees, hearings, and consultations in stucco halls: we want to hunt bugs and correct them in the same way we correct source code in the developer community. We are interested in everyone’s suggestions, criticisms and concerns and invite you to share them with us by writing to info@teamdigitale.governo.it.

But, the Digital Administration Code isn’t the only code that needs correcting and integrating.

We must also write and coordinate the technical regulations provided for by the Code currently in force, or at least those regulations that are likely to survive the correction of the CAD.

Even technical regulations, like laws, can risk hampering technology and slowing down the evolution of systems and services.

They need to be rewritten in a modern way, made agile, accessible and comprehensible to those who are called to translate them into bit. Like a good instruction manual, technical regulations should be able to offer private and public administrations (big or small) step-by-step explanations for how to proceed in a way that respects the laws and, more importantly, can provide citizens and enterprises with the best possible service.

This is an uphill journey we have embarked upon. Our travel companions are the Department of Public Service and, of course, the Agency for Digital Italy. To quote Diego’s first post: “One thing we need to make clear, however, is that innovation is not a point of arrival but a continuous journey. We can never permit ourselves the luxury of feeling that we have arrived: tomorrow we will always have to do better than today.”

There’s a genuine cultural revolution to unleash.

Imagine a near future or, at least one that’s not too far away, in which artificial intelligence algorithms analyze the laws and suggest which regulations to keep, which ones to abolish, and which provisions need to be simplified or eliminated. They might even, as has been hypothesized for decades even in our country, advise judges on how to solve this or that question, thereby enabling a more predictable and equal justice system that is truly just for everyone.

This isn’t science fiction. It’s a matter of strong technological expertise, bold political choices, good will and a change of cultural pace.

We can’t, however, undertake this revolution alone. Write and tell us your thoughts. Even if they are critical, they are in the best interest of our country. We are simply passing through — but Italy has a future that awaits!


(1) Remembered by Gian Antonio Stella in his book, “Bolli, sempre bolli, fortissimamente bolli” [Feltrinelli, 2014].

(2) According to the Observatory’s latest report on the legislative activities of the Chamber of Deputies [2014] and reported on by Il Sole 24 ORE.

(3) Written so clearly by Franco Bassanini, Silvia Paparo and Giulia Tiberi in their article, “Qualità della regolazione: una risorsa per competere” [Quality of regulation: a resource to be competitive] that no paraphrasing or synthesis is necessary.

(4) A swamp admirably described by Ciro Amendola in “Non ci credo ma è vero — Storie di ordinaria burocrazia” [I don’t believe it but it’s true — stories of ordinary bureaucracy]. It’s worth citing at least the opening statements of a paragraph with the illuminating title: “Those who copy make no mistakes” [editor’s note: in the Public Administration, naturally].

(5) Law 7 August 2015, n. 124 [editor’s note: the so-called Madia reform].