Innovation in Government services: a framework of principles for technology procurement

An agreement with technology suppliers for a more modern and effective Public Administration

by Diego Piacentini and Paolo De Rosa

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano

Dealing with public services that don’t respond to our needs is unfortunately a very common experience in our daily lives as citizens. We are often forced to rely on inefficient and complicated services built around administrative processes and laws rather than our needs. It is also common to encounter misguided Public Administration officials and executives who think they are implementing digital strategy when in reality they are simply applying digital technologies to old processes. Instead of things becoming simpler, they become more complicated.

Technology providers (from multi-billion-dollar global companies to small local software houses) play a vital role in the digital transformation process of the Public Administration.

Public procurement is one of the most burdensome and complicated activities carried out by public administrations. It is the primary challenge in the digitization of all governments, not just the Italian one.

Due to their complexity, procurement procedures require a significant amount of time, technical skills and financial resources that public administrations often do not have. As a result, the purchasing of digital products and services generally struggles to keep pace with the evolution of technological solutions.

Rethinking digital services so that they can better meet the specific needs of citizens requires a general rethinking of the relationship between technology providers and public administrations.

At present, this relationship frequently favors suppliers with better sales skills rather than those with the greatest capacity for innovation. As a result, the supplied goods and services do not actually meet the needs of either the Public Administration or its citizens.

The Digital Transformation Team at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers has proposed a new approach: the adoption of a new technology framework of principles and practices, a document that defines the relationship between technology providers and public administrations and is agreed upon and accepted by the suppliers themselves. A kind of gentlemen’s agreement.

Source: Giphy — From “My Girl” movie

If included in the Public Administration’s tender specifications for technology services (in particular, Consip’s* tender specifications), the framework of principles and practices can improve the relationship between public administrations and suppliers.

We can already imagine the reaction. “Nonsense! These things don’t work in Italy! Italians aren’t capable of self-regulation! We need laws.”

But we already have the Digital Administration Code. It is one of the most regularly updated yet least enforced laws and, not surprisingly, public administrations themselves are the least compliant. The fact that countries that are way more advanced than Italy have not felt the need to introduce a set of laws regulating all digital administration processes and guidelines is the evidence that digital transformation does not take place by law.

So let’s switch gears and try something new. Instead of introducing more laws, let’s complement the existing laws by introducing a set of practices, which suppliers and administrations can commit to on a voluntary basis.

We encourage stakeholders to contribute to the framework of principles and practices by commenting on the text available on Docs Italia. We extend this invitation to providers as well as to the numerous central and regional in-house facilities, including Consip and all public procurement entities. Let the Public Administration be the first to set a good example!

Source: Giphy — From “Space Jam” movie

The framework of principles for technology procurement

The framework of principles for technology procurement defines the minimum criteria necessary for public sector digital services that:

  • meet the needs of users/citizens;
  • are easy to maintain;
  • are able to evolve alongside user needs and technological progress;
  • are independent of individual third-party architectural components;
  • reduce dependence on a limited number of suppliers (lock-in).

The framework of principles for technology procurement incorporates and extends the guidelines defined by the Digital Administration Code and the Three-Year Plan. It also, at times, refers to already existing laws so as to provide an organic vision of the principles that the Public Administration and its suppliers should respect as they develop new digital services and manage the life cycles of these services.

1. Start with the users’ needs. The tender should include specific requirements for applying the design guidelines as well as the protocol indicated by Designers Italia: User Research, Service Design, User Interface Design and Content Design. If deemed appropriate, administrations may conduct a preliminary User Research phase to assist in drafting the tender.

2. Design and develop digital services by adopting incremental release processes and taking advantage of short and frequent interactions wherever possible. The first release of the service must provide a minimum number of essential functionalities, useful for gathering information from users so as to adjust the outputs of successive releases. Their length and number must be planned so as to obtain a roadmap with periodic re-releases. Each release must be tested by real users and documented. The tender specifications should include this principle.

3. Ensure that technology and services are accessible to users. The specifications should include requirements to use the tools provided by designers.italia.it in order to ensure that services comply with usability and inclusiveness criteria so that services are available to people with disabilities.

4. Publish the software code with open source licenses to improve transparency, flexibility and accountability. The guidelines for the acquisition and reuse of the software should be included in the tender specifications. In addition, the tender should specify that the intellectual property of the software and whatever is connected with it should be transferred to the contracting public administrations. Furthermore, the software should be published under open license and registered on Developers Italia, following the procedure indicated in the guidelines.

5. Use open standards to ensure that the developed technology works and communicates with other technologies and can easily be updated and expanded. The specifications should provide for the obligation to use open source standards and open formats for files and communication protocols. The developed services should implement API following the interoperability guidelines; all data should be exported in open source format; any future migration process to an alternative product should be documented.

6. Cloud First. Always use Public Administration Cloud resources, as outlined by the Three Year Plan. The specifications should provide for the use of resources made available by the Public Administration Cloud and SaaS services, offered by qualified suppliers, whenever a new service is developed. If SaaS services are not available or suitable, Public Administration Cloud’s IaaS and PaaS infrastructure services should be considered as a valid alternative. Furthermore, the specifications should include the IPv6 network protocol support requirement.

7. Maintain the system and data while respecting minimum security levels. The specifications should include the obligation to comply with the Minimum Security Measures, as indicated in the safety guidelines of the Three Year Plan; maintenance and upgrade clauses should also be included in the contract in order to commit the supplier to release security patches that may be used even after the contract has ended.

8. Ensure that citizens’ rights are protected by making privacy an essential part of the system. The specifications should include the obligation to comply with the Italian and European legislation regarding the protection of personal data (GDPR).

9. Promote good practices and avoid unnecessary work by sharing and reusing services, software components and data. The specifications should include the obligation to integrate enabling platforms like SPID, pagoPA and ANPR, including the shared platforms typical of the domain in which the service operates, for instance, the Electronic Health Record (Fascicolo Sanitario Elettronico — FSE), as in the case of the national healthcare ecosystem. The obligation to re-use software, services and APIs, which were made available by the other public administrations, should also be included in order to avoid, whenever possible, the re-development of functionalities that have already been implemented. Furthermore, when developing new services, technology providers should be aware that the application may be used by different public administrations.

10. Technology that is developed or purchased must function alongside the organization’s already existing technologies, processes and infrastructures and must be able to adapt to future needs. An assessment of the organization’s technological debt [1] should be performed; the replacement of obsolete technologies, for which the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of replacement should be planned. The specifications should include the obligation to use market-established open technologies that are supported by the presence of a large community of developers and users.

11. Study and implement solutions for minimizing data collection and facilitating data reuse by avoiding the duplication of data. The specifications should include the obligation to use the datasets released in open data by other public administration and the controlled vocabularies and ontologies described by the Three Year Plan.

12. Redesign processes by automating repetitive work. In order to become digital by default, processes must be redesigned. Repetitive and unskilled activities (data entry, etc.) should be automated while using human intervention for quality-control and monitoring.

13. Establish service levels for services provided. Objective and measurable indicators (SLI, Service Level Indicators) should be used to establish specific objectives (Service Level Objectives) for reliability and quality of service; fines should be exacted in case of failure to achieve the objectives (SLA, Service Level Agreement).

14. Define the profiles and skills necessary for the development of digital services.The professional skills already available in the Public Administration should be enhanced with the help of the guidelines for the quality of digital skills in ICT professionals.

15. Introduce evaluation systems for ex-post projects. Project evaluation systems must be provided in contract clauses so that public administrations can make informed decisions by taking into account other administrations’ reviews on specific suppliers.

16. Publish postmortem documents when a disservice occurs, highlighting the root causes and measures undertaken to prevent it from happening again. In the field of technology, accidents and errors are quite frequent. In order to prevent them from reoccurring, contracts should include the obligation for suppliers to provide timely and transparent communications in the form of ‘postmortem’ documents, to explain the causes of any disruption that may have occurred.

Let’s all work together, step by step, to help the Public Administration to improve the quality of services for citizens.


Notes

*Consip is the Italian National Procurement Agency providing central procurement services to central public administrations. Consip is in charge of standardising public procurement processes to reduce processing costs and legal risks http://www.consip.it/

[1] The term, technological debt, refers to the sum of all inefficiencies produced by the duplicated processes and unnecessary work caused by an obsolete or inadequate technological infrastructure.