Lockdown pushes digitalisation through in Italian public services

An immediate consequence of the Covid-19 crisis for local and regional administrations has been the need to quickly adapt to teleworking and remote interactions with users, pushing public service digitalization through in the emergency

In Italy, one of the earliest and most severely affected countries, large metropolitan areas and cities had already launched a process of progressive digitalisation with e-certification and online form filling through their websites. However, many medium and small local administrations with little staff and resources have had a hard time to keep up.

Suffering from chronic underfunding and a staff recruitment freeze of over 10 years imposed by radical austerity measures, many are lagging behind due to poor access to digital infrastructure such as broadband internet and computers and staff IT skills. Covid-19 has left them no choice but to go through an accelerated digitalisation process.

A few local government managers still feel that homeworking is not real work and tend to value presence over results, says Alessandro Purificato, from CGIL FP

“A major challenge has been to get supervisors to change their mindsets from a residential to a remote working mode,” says Alessandro Purificato, Head of Local Government at the National Secretariat of Italian public service union federation CGIL FP.

“A few local government managers still feel that homeworking is not real work and tend to value presence over results. Some of them have asked workers to send them emails at the beginning and at the end of the working day to prove they were working, as if they had to stamp their card,” adds Purificato.

Local service administrations have also sometimes been reluctant to place workers in ‘smart work’ - as homeworking is called in Italy - in spite of country-wide instructions ordering that the staff of services that could be continued remotely should remain under lockdown for their own protection and for safe public health. In such cases the union intervened to make sure they were allowed work from home.

The 10-year freeze in public service recruitment and austerity cuts have also meant that a majority of Italian local and regional administrations are now led by senior managers and staff who have hardly been able to access training and staff development programmes for more than a decade due to the lack of resources, translating into an intergenerational digital skill divide.

Also, remote work requires the ability to parcel out larger projects and to supervise them across multiple staff without a physical presence - a set of competences that requires training and practice.

Local public administrations adapt to ensure swift service continuation

Despite the pandemic’s terrible consequences, it has forcedly fast forwarded some useful e-local government steps. For example, many Italian local governments have issued municipal food vouchers to provide swift assistance to the most vulnerable in their communities. The vouchers are delivered electronically against a self-certification form with a photo and signature.

In a recent development, local administrations have started accepting photos of the form instead of scans or originals. “The fact that the neediest people are also the least digitally savvy and prefer to use smartphones has forced the local administrations to accept photos to ensure swift voucher delivery,” says Purificato.

Demographic services have had to adapt too, and now routinely coordinate digital information and documentation exchanges with local health centres (ASL) to minimize human interactions issuing death and birth certificates and celebrate deathbed marriages via videoconferencing.

“A national digitalisation framework in the Covid-19 context is missing nonetheless, meaning that every local authority has taken the digital measures it saw fit, causing a certain disparity and fragmentation of conditions not necessarily attuned upwards as we would wish. While some local administrations are very advanced, others lag behind,” he concludes.

In Italy, many essential public administration services are delivered at a territorial level. These are now crawling under users’ demands caused by the health crisis, such as the local offices of employment, pension and unemployment benefit centres, which depend on the national Ministry of Labour. They are under heavy pressure to process the files granting access to employment and financial support to many people who have suffered job and income losses.

Photo: CGIL FP
Photo: CGIL FP

Italian unions negotiate working conditions agreements for public services on the Covid-19 front line

While the majority of these services can now work remotely, many more cannot fully adjust due to the very nature of the service. This is the case of building site inspectors, roadworks, infrastructure maintenance staff and geologists. In addition, many more local government vital services such as social/disability services, cemetery and municipal police continue to require a physical presence and are on the frontline of the pandemic. They continue to report for duty and are committed to serving their communities even if PPE supplies are scarce and often inadequate, which puts their health and that of their families and communities at risk.

Italian trade unions, employers’ associations and the Italian government have negotiated national level prevention and safety agreements that ensure service continuation and income safeguards for workers in the private (14 March 2020) and public sectors (3 April 2020). These agreements are complementary. They include the following practical measures:

  • Encourage continual dialogue and consultation with workers’ organisation to ensure service continues while ensuring workers’ safety and health;

  • Ensure the availability of adequate, sufficient PPE material and full, enhanced access to proper handwashing facilities, including an encouragement to employers to prepare and make available their hand sanitizing formulations locally;

  • Enable social distancing through limiting access to dressing/waiting rooms and shared spaces (canteens, food and drink dispensers, transportation etc.) to small numbers at a time and for shorter time lapses, ensuring extra sanitation and ventilation measures and creating dedicated entrance and exit doors;

  • Increase shift rotations and parcel out users’ affluence by making appointments to minimize workers’ exposure;

  • Intensify the use of calls and videoconferencing for all interactions and for social workers to ensure support and institutional presence to families in need;

  • Sanitise service cars, work tools, computer and IT devices and increasing the frequency of professional uniform laundry services and disposal

Additional national-level branch agreements were negotiated in the health and waste management sectors, and CGIL FP won special provisions for municipal police staff granting equal treatment on PPE access and protection measures with national police, full powers and a compensation bonus for their full engagement in the front line of the pandemic.

The Italian social dialogue response to Covid-19 makes it a good blueprint for public service resilience at times of crisis. National level collective bargaining took place in key sectors, setting a framework for a coordinated response and encouraging social partners at all levels of government to seek permanent workplace dialogue to reach solutions that ensure public service continuation while protecting workers’ and users’ health and safety.