La Bussola della Trasparenza (‘the compass of transparency’): open government in Italy

In Italy, as in many countries, there is a relentless momentum towards open government, open data and citizen engagement. As part of the move to greater transparency, the Department of Public Administration developed a portal to government websites, the Compass of Transparency, for citizens to access the vast and growing quantities of public data on the web.

The challenge

The demand for transparency in the field of public administration has been growing exponentially in Italy. Transparency has always been an essential element in improving the economic, financial and organisational management of public affairs. There has been significant pressure from Italian civil society and from international movements that take inspiration from the principles of open government.

The key role of transparency has led Italian legislators to produce a sequence of legislative and regulatory interventions, leading towards a greater transparency in the public administration. In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the data that, according to the laws on transparency, must be published by the many arms of the Italian public administration on their websites.

What was most clearly absent was an identifiable tool that guided the two main actors of transparency through the data:

  • Administrations in fulfilling their duty to make government more open and transparent.
  • Citizens in finding the information they were interested in, since it was not easy to search successfully through the myriad websites and pieces of legislation.

The aim was to place the citizen at the centre of the process and to support the government in doing so.

The initiative

La Bussola della Trasparenza  [the Compass of Transparency] was created by the Italian Department for Public Administration (DPA) and began operations in May 2012. [1] It is a form of portal, “an automated online instrument that gives citizens the possibility to monitor in real time the implementation of all data and information requirements imposed by Italian law on the websites of public administrations” (PAs), of which there are more than 20,000.

The compass is a collection of rules, processes and technologies that combine to address the three basic principles of open government: transparency of PAs; citizen participation; and the collaboration between administration and the citizen.

The online monitoring of transparency involves other public administrations, such as fiscal agencies, social security entities, hospitals, and regional and other provincial governments. It also aims to:

  • Promote the participation of citizens to increase the level of PAs’ transparency, through an effective use of social media and new technologies.
  • Monitor the PAs’ compliance with transparency laws, through a real-time graphical dashboard.
  • Increase the accountability of PAs and prevent corruption.

The public impact

The compass regularly checks more than 10,000 PAs’ websites. The sites are analysed automatically both during the periodical complete scans and in real time on request by users.

The system monitors all Italian institutional websites in less than two hours, and guarantees the immediate ability to undertake any corrective actions that might be necessary both at the political and organisational level. It has resulted in cost-savings by automating a process that would require five administrative staff to execute.

A principal function of the compass is to discover what percentage of data that, according to legislation, must be published on a PA website has actually been published.  In summer 2012, the average percentage of published content was only 11 percent. This has been constantly growing, with the measure taken in January 2013 being 25 percent.

In addition, it is believed that it helps reduce the level of corruption in PAs by contributing to the openness of government in Italy.

The compass won first prize “during the 2013 edition of the prestigious European Public Sector Award (www.epsa2013.eu), whose theme has been ‘Weathering the storm: creative solutions in a time of crisis’.” [2]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

Since the need for this tool was born out of a public demand for transparency, it is safe to say that there was confidence in the outcome being pursued. However, a number of polls and surveys illustrate the public’s limited faith in their PAs.

A 2013 survey gives a typical example of the citizens’ views of PAs: "in general, employees in the public sector are negatively seen as ‘cannelloni’ (‘do-nothings’) with a light workload, high rates of absenteeism and high freedom of movement and having their current job thanks to clientele recommendation, especially from politicians".

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The project design is a reflection of input from many citizen groups and social networks. Not only have the interests of the stakeholder been employed in the design of the policy but also in the delivery of the overall objective, which is an ongoing process. The programme has been designed in such a manner that it requires significant stakeholder participation.

Transparency International was heavily involved actively in the definition of the initial plan to reduce political corruption, whose principles were a major input to the compass, thus making the system an effective corruption prevention tool.

The social collaboration of citizens is extremely important, as a different kind of verification system would have been very slow and expensive, given the large number of PAs. Citizens are engaged in the continuous improvement of transparency by expressing opinions about the quality of the published data. Integration with social networks facilitates the creation of social communities (e.g., on Facebook) that cooperate, during online events, to analyse the websites of target PAs. These anonymous opinions of the users are stored in the compass and immediately made available to the public, achieving a degree of citizen influence which encourages the PAs to keep improving the compass.

Researchers and academics can quickly obtain updated and complete data about all aspects of web transparency across the whole of Italy, giving them access to a vast source of public data.

Political Commitment Strong

The Compass was created as the resulted of a committed initiative by the Department for Public Administration (DPA) to promote open government and meet the requirements of Italian legislation.

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The Compass's objectives in its contribution to open government have been clear from the start, and were defined by legislation and the DPA. Its functionality was well designed and implemented, as is evident from its reputation with users and other public authorities (as in the EPSA award). However, its effect on some broader objectives, such as reducing corruption in PAs, are not easily quantifiable.

Evidence Good

Compass’s design has grown out of a persistent need of citizen and PA stakeholders for a way to publish and access open data. From a technical point of view, it was developed by IT professionals with organisational and technological experience, who were skilled in developing equivalent software tools.

Feasibility Strong

The concept and design of the Compass were such that they took into account several factors which affect its usability, sustainability, maintenance requirements and transferability. These indicate that significant thought was put into the design, and concerns regarding relevant issues were addressed during the design and build phases. IT staff were confident of its technical feasibility, having carefully developed the concept and defined the technical issues, including the software and system specifications.

The Compass of Transparency was designed and built in a period when the economic situation in Italy required significant reductions in public investment and the avoidance of additional costs for PAs in all e-gov and other initiatives. The Compass was designed to operate without substantial maintenance or, as a result of an ergonomic user interface, without user assistance activities. The low cost associated with the project was one of the key reasons for the EPSA award prize won by the Compass in 2013 EPSA Award: "from a sustainability point of view, the Compass has been designed to operate without substantial maintenance or user assistance activities."

Action

Management Strong

What makes the management successful is the self-evolution of a mechanism whereby the citizens (gathered via social networks) have designed a process and participate in monitoring and ensuring the success of the Compass. This not only ensures successful management but also indicates that the overall objective of transparency is met. Greater standardisation of previously inconsistent government transparency requirements before implementation, points to the fact that there is an intelligent thought process at work.

The governance and management of the Compass deploys two IT professionals for about 100 days per year. They deal with the governance of the project, the relationship with associations and PAs, the strategies for the dissemination of the project to the whole of Italy and with the evolution of the functionality.

The Facebook group ‘Trasparenza siti web’ has grown in popularity and in registrations (there had been more than 1.200 by March 2013). This group regularly meets online and performs a careful check of the transparency of target PAs, using the Compass as the primary work tool. The shared work of the participants in the Facebook group produces a detailed report that shows what the PA needs to do in order to increase the level of transparency through its website. The report is sent to the head of the relevant PA and to the main authorities overseeing transparency. Usually, this activity is echoed in the media, both at a national and at a local level, thus placing additional pressure on the administration to ensure compliance.

Measurement Good

Through the Compass it is easy to verify how actions are reflected in concrete changes in transparency, both at national and at local level. The quantitative results of the Compass can be divided in two different types: the internal results, which can be measured within the Compass, and the external results, obtained in the Italian administrative context, thanks to the presence and the action of the Compass. However, while there is a process to measure the internal results, the system fails to measure how much of transparency is attributable to the Compass. For instance, one of the most relevant external results of the activity of the Compass, as well as of administrative transparency as a whole, is the contribution to the prevention of corruption in the PAs: it is far from easy to measure reductions in corruption, still less to attribute how much might has been avoided thanks to the presence of the social control enabled by the Compass.

A planned feature (as of January 2015) is a graphical report showing performance over time, i.e, a weekly monitoring function presenting the evolution of the measured transparency relative to the minimum level.

Alignment Strong

There is strong alignment in the delivery of the objectives because there has been strong initiative to engage the public. The self-design of a citizen monitoring mechanism and proactive PAs attempting to contact groups who monitor the policy is a strong sign that all actors are motivated to pursue the objective.