December 19, 2018

What 16 years working at Amazon taught the orchestrator of Italy's digital transformation

A tech executive explains how to make Italy's government as citizen-centric as Amazon is consumer-centric.

John Thornhill

6 min read

Diego Piacentini, Italy's former digital commissioner. Image: flickr Annika Haas

It is hard to think of two organisations more dissimilar than Amazon and the Italian government. But Diego Piacentini has worked for both in very senior roles.

Moving from a hard-driving company with enormous budgets and global ambitions to a slow-moving and deeply politicised Italian bureaucracy came as an extreme culture shock. But Piacentini was keen to give something back to the country of his birth and could not resist an offer from the then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to become Italy’s digital commissioner in 2016.

At a GovTech conference in Paris earlier this year, Piacentini summed up the lessons he had learned over the past two years trying to make the Italian government as citizen-centric as Amazon is consumer-centric. “We need to have change coming from the top, from the outside, and from the people,” he said. “Start from the citizens and work backwards.”


Daniel Korski, founder of Public, a GovTech advisory firm which ran the Paris conference, said that Piacentini was one of a small group of private sector executives brought into European governments to help spearhead digital transformation. “Some 35 years ago governments had a genuine belief that they had all the answers. Nowadays governments realise they cannot do it all themselves and there is a role for more outside actors,” he says.

Here Diego Piacentini talks with Sifted’s John Thornhill about his contrasting experiences in the private and public sector and the outlook for European tech.

Q: You worked for 16 years at Amazon and were responsible for its international operations. How far does Amazon stick to a universal proposition and how much has it had to adapt to local cultures and customs?

A: When Jeff Bezos asked me in the interview process what is the difference between a French customer and an American customer, I said: fundamentally none. They all want great prices and great service. That was the right answer, by the way. In Europe we did not have to adapt much to local habits because Amazon’s value was so vastly better. Amazon is very stubborn on its vision.

Q: How do you view the European digital market?

A: Companies like Amazon and Google and Apple all look at Europe as an aggregate and would like to deal with it as a single logistic and retail market. The Americans take the single European digital market more seriously than anyone else. That market is moving in the right direction but it is all terribly slow.

National markets are not big enough to justify the existence of many startups and Europe is fragmented. That is a universal truth. You cannot build critical mass in your domestic market.

But Europe has real strengths in space technology, digital payments, health, manufacturing, agriculture and energy distribution. We should not constantly try to copy Silicon Valley. Do not create something that happened 10 years ago and pay attention to what is happening in China. The average cabbage stand in Guangzhou has a more advanced payments system than a luxury store in New York.

Q: How did you apply the knowledge you had acquired at Amazon to the Italian government?

A: One thing that is common in all Amazon’s businesses is that it is a customer-focused company. That is what I tried to apply from my government job too: start with the citizen and work backwards. What does that mean though? The point is that customer-centricity starts from building the mechanisms that allow that to happen.

Q: Where did you begin in trying to transform Italy digitally?

A: When you go to work for the government you know what you are going to get. I told all the people: 'I recruited that you are coming in to an incredibly frustrating, slow environment called bureaucracy. Don’t ever complain about it'. Once you get into this mindset you just know that you are going to have way more obstacles and a much bigger headwind than working in the private world. I built a lot of patience. We were able to achieve a few successful results in terms of projects.

Matteo Renzi had the vision of the simplification of the public administration in Italy and believe me that is a big vision because that is one of the hardest jobs possible. You need to look at digital transformation as a forcing function. You look at this huge problem and then you try to break it into segments, and sub-segments. I had four big projects that were not going anywhere: digital payments, building a national register of citizens’ data, an electronic identity card, and digital identity. The main reason that they were not going anywhere was because there was no leadership. We added pretty basic project management and leadership tools.

Today we have seen phenomenal traction.

Q: What did you achieve?

The national register project that had one city on its database when I joined in 2016 now has municipalities that represent almost 30m people. The same with the electronic identity card. Within three to four years all Italians will have an electronic identity card in their hands. On the digital payments platform all administrations now use the same platform. They have automatic reconciliation of financial flows and accounting flows.

Then there was a second set of projects, such as open source software and allowing the sharing of technology among administrations. We created two very used websites and to share most of the public administration software and design tools and widgets. The third one was an app called both in Italian and English that will over time allow citizens to manage their relationship with the administrations for payments, or messaging, or archiving documentation. This is starting from the citizen’s needs and working backwards.

Q: Your team were called the ‘missionaries’. Did you succeed in converting the government to your religion?

A: Digital transformation has no political label and every government wants it. The mission is that if you want to work for the government then you do not do it for the money but because you want to help your country. The biggest issue is the lack of skills, the lack of competence, the lack of human talent. Over time governments will need to find ways to attract talent. But if you can work for two to three years in government on a specific project then that is attractive for a lot of young people.

Q: What do you make of the GovTech movement?

A: This new wave of GovTech companies, startups and scaleups, is fundamental for many governments in a digitalised world. Governments have a hard time doing it for themselves. GovTech is benefiting immensely from cloud computing and machine learning. Those two services will make GovTech very, very useful. The relationship with government should no longer be a pain but an easy part of your life.

This is government as a service.

John Thornhill

John Thornhill is Sifted’s editorial director and cofounder. He is also innovation editor of the Financial Times, and tweets from @johnthornhillft