Italians could lose control over their data if ISTAT outsources its IT services to an outside company. This was the conclusion reached by national and international experts who spoke at the IT and Public Statistics conference on Tuesday, organized independently by ISTAT researchers and technicians at the institute’s Rome headquarters.
The issue has been on the agenda since the Draghi government decided on the creation of a private company called 3-I SpA – officially established on December 12 – to which the IT services of INPS, INAIL and ISTAT are supposed to be assigned.
Outsourcing the flow of official data on people and businesses to a software house is as delicate an operation as one can imagine. For one, it involves obvious union-related issues regarding workers and the public resources to be transferred to the new company. But above all, it affects the quality and control of public data, a strategic knowledge asset for any country in the information age.
In recent years, the stages of data collection, processing and interpretation have become fully integrated. Artificially separating them in order to subcontract part of them to an outside company is not at all easy. It means jeopardizing the data sovereignty of all of us and balkanizing the skills of researchers in the name of an inexplicable imperative for privatization.
“For us researchers,” one of them told us in the corridors, “the institute doesn’t even allow us to use very common services like Dropbox or Gmail because of security issues, and now they want to send Italians’ data to external servers.”
After staging strikes, demonstrations and protest meetings, on Tuesday the ISTAT workers invited the international scientific community to comment on this peculiar government project. The response that came from the experts was resoundingly negative. Trygve Falch, division head at Statistics Norway – Norway’s equivalent to ISTAT – pointed out that the most up-to-date studies on the subject advise against separating the IT management of data from its collection and analysis.
“For us, in the public offices, the current trend is exactly the opposite,” he explained. “We are eliminating the use of outside consultants and hiring more internal staff, because today every phase of statistics has to do with IT. At the Department of Labor and Welfare, they did a similar operation as the 3-I project, but it was a failure and the government did a complete U-turn.”
Another expert who was perplexed was Giovanni Barbieri, author of the recent Le memorie del paniere (Donzelli, 2022), who was central director at ISTAT until a few months ago: “It’s not clear what the purpose of this outsourcing is.”
Trevor Fletcher, former head of information systems for statistics at the OECD, now an independent consultant and one of the experts entrusted by the UN with drafting guidelines for national statistical systems, advised against the privatization route: “The IT functions connected to national statistical offices are very different from those of other institutions: it is a niche market and it’s difficult to find the necessary expertise on the market. The risk of losing expertise from the institutions is high.”
His colleague Zoltan Vereczkai of the National Statistical Office of Hungary agreed, emphasizing the relationship between society and institutions: “There is a risk that by subcontracting the management of data, you will lose control of it and lose the trust of the citizens. You risk doing more harm than good.”
Davide Lamanna, chief technology officer of the company Binario Etico and a keen analyst of platform capitalism, was also critical of the methods of the government: “Not listening to the technicians and researchers at ISTAT as part of this process was a mistake on the part of the government.”
On Tuesday, as before, prominent figures from the government majority declined the invitation from the ISTAT researchers to attend the conference. Nonetheless, the latter were happy with its success (450 registered participants). It’s unlikely that the politicians would have had much to add, but they missed a valuable opportunity to take some notes.
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