Pace of Internet Penetration Quickens in Italy

ROME (05/09/2000) - From online procurement to the online formation of a government, Internet penetration is steadily gaining pace in Italy.

The benefits of the digital revolution were highlighted yesterday at the opening of a week-long conference on public administration, which heard how the government expects its new online procurement system to produce savings of up to 40 trillion lire (US$19 billion) per year.

In his speech to the opening session of the conference, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato credited the Internet with playing a key role in the formation of his government two weeks ago. "They made fun of me for bringing the government into being via e-mail, and in a sense it's true," he told the meeting.

Delicate negotiations on policies and personnel were handled from his private home by e-mail over the Easter weekend, Amato said. The policy platforms of the various political parties making up the center-left coalition were sent to his computer and the premier-designate responded by e-mail. "We understood one another and that's how the government was born," he said.

Amato first got to grips with Internet technology three years ago when he found himself out of public office and without the secretarial assistance he had come to rely on, the premier confided. "Our brains, even at the age of 60, are sufficiently elastic to learn the new technology," the 62-year-old Amato said.

At the same time as the prime minister was letting the public into his Internet secrets, Walter Veltroni, the secretary of the ex-communist Left Democrats, the largest party in the government coalition, was admitting to a group of Rome University students that he regularly participated in Internet chat groups under an assumed name, according to reports published today.

The Internet may be useful in forming a cabinet, always a delicate task in Italy, but it is likely to prove even more valuable in cutting costs and improving efficiency in the process of state procurement. Savings from online procurement could amount to as much as 35 trillion or 40 trillion lire, Public Administration Minister Franco Bassanini told the conference.

"If for example we need to buy 10,000 rolls of toilet paper, all the producers can be informed and make an offer," Bassanini said. "The best bid will win and the contract will also be paid for online." Thanks to a crash course on the basics of information technology, 80 percent of staff working for the state bureaucracy will soon be IT literate, the minister said.

Online procurement is to be handled by a new company, Consip SpA, created by the Treasury Ministry. One of the first effects of the new system should be seen by the end of this month when online negotiations for the provision of fixed and mobile telephone services are due to be completed, Consip CEO Roberto Falavolti told reporters yesterday.

Productivity improvements resulting from the introduction of e-government can be used to improve the salaries of the state administration's 3 million employees, Amato told the conference. A better service to citizens and higher wages were "two good reasons for taking the digital revolution seriously," he said.

Another aspect of the online revolution, electronic identity cards, will enter a trial phase in eight Italian cities in October, Bassanini told the conference. The cards will give access to public services and to services provided by private companies that have signed up to enter the system, the minister said. "You will be able to use the card to pay for transport services or to book a visit to a state health clinic," he said.

Italy is traditionally thought of as a country where cellular phones -- numbering around 34 million -- are all the rage but where personal computers are something of a rarity. In fact, Italy's population of cybernauts has now risen to 9.4 million, according to a study prepared for the public administration conference by the Censis social research institute and published last Sunday by the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

The figure is equivalent to 21 percent of the population, modest in comparison with the U.S.' 55 percent, but a dramatic increase on the 7.9 percent recorded in Italy only last year. The Censis study found 91 percent of Web surfers were seeking information, 72 percent used Internet for e-mail and just 10.6 percent used it for electronic commerce.

Italians remain suspicious of a state that would have the power to monitor private life and the possible misuse of their personal data. "Forty percent of the population doesn't trust the state administration to make correct use of their personal data," Stefano Rodota, chairman of the state privacy commission, told the Rome conference. But he said he was optimistic that the situation would improve. "The more services are made available to citizens over the Internet, the more their faith in the public administration will grow," he said.

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