Governmental bodies and the governance of digital transformation: A matter of practices

By: Michele Veneziano

Digital transformation has become increasingly important in the public sector due to its potential to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance (digital) public services. So far, different strands of literature investigated how the use of digital technologies in public administration has enabled governments to streamline processes, automate routine tasks, and improve data management. This is supposed to lead to faster and more accurate decision-making, greater transparency, and even more citizen engagement. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digital transformation in the public sector, as remote work and digital service delivery became essential.

Governmental bodies such as Agência para a Modernização Administrativa (AMA) in Portugal and Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale (AgID) in Italy are crucial actors in the governance of digital transformation, but their role is often overlooked. These bodies govern, coordinate, and orchestrate digital transformation and play an important role in ensuring the success of digital initiatives. They are the ones responsible for setting the strategic direction for digital transformation, coordinating efforts across different departments and agencies, and ensuring that investments in digital technologies align with the overall objectives of the government. They also play a key role in fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration, promoting the use of emerging technologies, and addressing the challenges associated with digital transformation. Without these bodies, digital transformation efforts in the public sector can become fragmented and ineffective. 

We can consider these governmental bodies as the main orchestrators of digital transformation. This means that they are the ones in charge of coordinating the various activities and efforts needed for successful digital transformation, aligning the different stakeholders, resources, and activities involved in the transformation process towards a common goal. Orchestration encompasses a range of activities, including setting the vision and strategic objectives for digital transformation, identifying the necessary resources (e.g., funding, technologies, competencies), managing the implementation process, and ensuring that the digital transformation is aligned with the needs of local public administrations and the broader goals of the government. Furthermore, such orchestration allows avoiding duplication in service provision and ensuring that resources are utilized efficiently. This is particularly important because previous digitalization efforts have been characterized by lack of coordination, which created strong inequalities in the access of digital public services. 

Nevertheless, there is generally a limited understanding of the broader political and institutional factors that shape the role of governmental bodies. Little is known about how power dynamics, institutional cultures, and political agendas can influence the effectiveness of governmental bodies in managing digital transformation. Furthermore, we should also acknowledge a lack of empirical research on the effectiveness of governmental bodies in managing the process, which makes it difficult to assess the impact of their policies and practices, and to identify best practices for managing digital transformation in the public sector. 

Figure 1. ForumPA 2018 Rome at “La Nuvola” Congress Center, Rome (EUR). One of the main events to discuss digital transformation of public administration in Italy.

In my research project, I am investigating, from a practice-based perspective, the role of governmental bodies and their orchestrating practices, in Italy and in Portugal. The choice of using practice theories as a theoretical framework stems from the need to try to take into account (and sometimes, tame) the complexity that characterizes the processes of digital transformation. Practice theories emphasize that practices are not simply individual actions or behaviors, but are rather shaped by broader social structures, cultural norms, and material conditions. Central to this approach is the recognition that social practices are dynamic and can change as a result of shifting social, economic, and political contexts. The use of practice theories in the study of policy and governance is still in its early days, and it has been mainly discussed in relation to sustainability transitions. Very few studies tried to apply these theories to the study of digital transformation, despite some notable exceptions. Despite the daily difficulties of trying to translate these theoretical considerations into empirical research, my goal here is to try to emphasize some possible advantages of this approach for studying the role of governmental bodies in the governance of digital transformation.

Theories of social practices can improve our understanding of the role of governmental bodies in digital transformation, at least, in four different ways. Firstly, they allow a more nuanced understanding of the institutional and cultural contexts in which governmental bodies operate. This includes an understanding of how governmental bodies are embedded in broader social and political networks, and how their practices are shaped by broader institutional norms and values. This allows, for instance, to investigate if and how the role and practices of governmental bodies change with a government reshuffle (a very common situation in Italy). Secondly, practice theories highlight the importance of studying the day-to-day practices and informal routines of governmental bodies, rather than simply focusing on their formal policies and structures. This can help to uncover the tacit knowledge, skills, and norms that shape the way in which governmental bodies approach digital transformation. Of course, this is strongly connected to the problem of gaining access to the institutional bodies and sometimes it forces the researcher to find proxies to gather data about their practices. Thirdly, social practice theories emphasize the importance of studying the interactions and relationships between different actors involved in digital transformation. This includes an understanding of how governmental bodies collaborate and interact with other public sector actors, as well as with the private sector and civil society organizations. Finally, practice theories can help to look into digital transformation beyond the boundaries of the organization that is experiencing it, looking, for instance, at how civil society organizations try to engage and to “gain a voice” in digital transformation of the public sector.

Overall, social practice theories provide a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the role of governmental bodies in digital transformation, by taking into account the institutional, cultural, and social contexts in which they operate. This hopefully contributes to inform the development of more effective policies and practices for steering digital transformation toward more socially desirable outputs.

Michele Veneziano is a PhD Student at the University of Bologna, and visiting student at ICS-ULisboa. He is interested in the governance of digital transformation of the public sector with a focus on the role and practices of governmental bodies and civil society’s tech watchdogs.


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