The restorative power of tech: an interview with Spain’s digital agency chief, David Cierco

By on 03/06/2020
David Cierco

For years David Cierco, head of the Spanish Red.es digital unit, made steady progress on improving the country’s public services and supporting its businesses. Then came coronavirus, and an emerging consensus that digital tech is key to Spain’s response, recovery and resilience. Pablo Jiménez Arandia meets him

Spain has had a tough pandemic. Together with Italy, the country was hit hardest during the first stage of the COVID-19 crisis, and on 14 March imposed a strict lockdown – since loosened, though not yet lifted – on its population and economy. But every cloud has its silver lining – and while coronavirus has caused huge harm, it has also driven rapid progress on digital transformation. Post-pandemic, the country is likely to boost much better online services and a more tech-enabled private sector.

“The agenda that we had been developing in the past two years since the arrival of this government was based on revamping the economy and public services – something that has a great social impact,” says David Cierco, chief executive officer of Red.es – the central government agency responsible for driving the digital agenda across the public and private sectors. And coronavirus hasn’t derailed that agenda: digitalisation is widely seen as not only an essential tool in addressing the current COVID-19 threat, he explains, but also a key element of work to support Spain’s economic and social recovery.

“COVID’s impact on public digital transformation policies is to accelerate the government’s plans and programmes, increasing momentum – and thus achieving the goals that we had set for ourselves earlier,” says Cierco. The digital agenda is now, he adds, operating with the “conviction and collaboration of institutions, organisations and also citizens. The importance of digitalisation and its potential… is already recognised.”

Riding on this wave of new requirements and support, “we want to achieve the goals we had set four ourselves sooner,” Cierco says via videoconference from his home in Madrid. Spain may face a huge economic challenge – but with digital transformation positioned as a major part of the solution, Cierco’s 200-strong team is finding public servants increasingly ready to buy into Red.es’s agendas.

A decentralised administration

Red.es, explains Cierco, has two main goals. On the one hand, it aims to modernise the Spanish productive sector, with a special emphasis on SMEs: there are 2.9m SMEs in the country, representing 99.8% of all companies. And on the other, it seeks to digitalise public services in three main areas: health, education, and ‘smart cities’ (or territories).

In a highly decentralised country such as Spain, the work of Red.es – a “public business entity” overseen by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation – must go “much further than launching programmes, as it also establishes collaborations between different administrations,” says Cierco.

As an example, he points to Escuelas Conectadas (Connected Schools), one of the agency’s oldest programmes, which works to bring ultra-fast broadband to all Spanish schools. Its design and implementation has involved various administrations and departments, Cierco explains – including the ministries of education and science, Red.es, and the regional governments that manage most education services. “Digitalisation affects us all, and it is up to both the central and regional administrations to work together,” he says. “Each of us undertakes to carry out certain actions and provide financing.”

Red.es has few levers to require regional or local governments – which are crucial across a range of the agency’s programmes, in areas such as health, urban policies, and socio-economic aid – to participate in the agency’s actions. However, Cierco points out that when public bodies are closely involved in developing digital projects, they generally “feel comfortable” getting involved. And Red.es takes a determinedly flexible approach to design and delivery, “uniting wills” by shaping schemes around local needs. “Our programs are not monolithic,” he says. “We have a framework programme, but since the needs of each of the regions are not exactly the same, there is enough flexibility to adapt the programmes”.

Transforming transformations

In response to COVID-19, Red.es and its partners have not only accelerated digital projects – they’ve also adapted them to help organisations address the pandemic and its effects. One such project – appropriately enough – is the Acelera Pyme (SME Accelerates) plan, aimed at promoting the digitalisation of Spanish SMEs.

Cierco explains that Red.es takes a determinedly flexible approach to the design and delivery of digital projects, “uniting wills” by shaping schemes around local needs

The government approved this programme on March 17, three days after lockdown. But the scheme then had to be radically adapted to meet SMEs’ needs in the current crisis, with the creation of a digital platform that centralises aid plans aimed at SMEs and freelancers through a kind of virtual “single office”. The platform presents support programmes run by central government, the Spanish regions and the European Union. “This portal is a first step, and we want it to grow with more services and more muscle,” says Cierco.

Red.es’s work on education has also been adapted to address COVID-19. Previously, the agency focused on improving connectivity in schools, but its aim now is to “accelerate attendance in remote classes”. Red.es is, says Cierco, working with the Ministry of Education to “help all children who need it to study from home” during the pandemic and in any future crisis.

To achieve this, he says, his staff are working on “integrated solutions” that combine better home connectivity, the creation of virtual teaching platforms, and the provision of digital devices to pupils where required: many Spanish families lack the laptops required to support remote teaching. Red.es’s long-established relationships and its existing strategies, says Cierco, leave it well-placed to help regional authorities’ education systems. “As we have been working on educational issues with the ministry and regional administrations for 10 or 15 years, we have a competitive advantage,” he comments. “The mechanism we have in place is highly coordinated.”

A long way to go

At the heart of government’s efforts to tackle coronavirus, of course, lie Spain’s health services. And here, Cierco highlights three recent “milestones” in health digitalisation that “are proving very useful”: a health card, with interoperability across the Spanish regions; digitised medical histories; and electronic prescriptions.

However, he also points to “three great challenges: e-health, from the point of view of an intelligent digital management of the system; everything related to chronicity [or long-term, chronic health conditions], which has a very important economic cost and requires the development of specific management platforms; and the application of AI in healthcare to advance the personalisation of treatments and their follow-up.”

And how is Red.es addressing these challenges? On chronic conditions, Cierco replies, the agency is piloting a scheme offering “other methods of assistance and the intensive use of mobile applications” in the region of Andalusia. He hopes to expand the project nationwide, he says – but the variety of local systems and circumstances makes it awkward. “In health, the complexity of the programmes makes it more difficult to implement them throughout the country,” he explains. “For example, if schools have to be connected, the tech solution is very defined; there is little magic. But in the field of chronicity, everything is still to be defined.”

Key strengths and weaknesses

As Cierco works to strengthen Spain’s digital infrastructure, services and economy, he can take advantage of Spain’s advanced position on open data: while the country sits in 11th place in the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), it holds second place on the publication and reuse of data to improve public policies. Spain’s open data policies, the Commission estimates, will save the country 1.7 billion euros (US$1.9bn) during 2020. And Red.es is at the heart of the action here, running the platform that coordinates nearly 30,000 databases open to the private sector and individuals. Reuse of public data leads to “a lot of economic activity generated, and this encourages too some sectors that use the data as their source of production,” says Cierco.

However, the EC ranks Spain 18th on the ‘human capital’ metric: improving the population’s digital skills, says Cierco, is a key priority. Digital training from an early age and in the wider population are essential to ensure that the benefits of digital technology are spread wide, he argues: “We do not want to have an intellectual elite from a technological point of view, made up by 10% or 15% of our population, because this is not changing a country but creating a vector of economic activity,” he comments.

So David Cierco’s team have a lot on their plate just now – helping citizens to access economic stimulus funds, health services and education; supporting businesses’ digital development; and working to raise the wider population’s digital literacy. In prioritising Red.es’s workload, Cierco explains, he sticks to a straightforward principle: invest only in “initiatives where we can make a real difference”.

The agency intervenes, he adds, “where if we weren’t there, it wouldn’t be happening” – and due to coronavirus, when Red.es is there, things happen pretty quickly. After a decade of steady progress, Spain’s public services are fast adopting new technologies: the country that emerges from lockdown will be a far more digitally-enabled one than the Spain of 13 March – and that will, in part, be thanks to Red.es.

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

David Cierco on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. Here is the video, and underneath it, an edited version of David Cierco’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“For five years I worked in London in financial markets, which is a bit different from what I am doing now! There, I learnt that it’s very important to make the best effort to achieve your own objectives ­– the result is not so important. If you are able to build teams around your effort, you are going to be in a successful place; and maybe you’ll end up in a better place than you thought initially. So the lesson would be: work as hard as you can, and build teams around you.”

Are there any projects or innovations from Spain that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“We’re doing many things which could be a good example for European and worldwide countries. On the digitalisation of our education, we’re connecting all the schools in Spain to high-speed broadband, and building networks within the schools to allow students to connect and access digital content; we’ll finish the programme in a couple of years. And right now we are building a digital layer to digitalize students’ education experience. This is a major effort, in a public service that’s critical for the future of our country.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“It’s critical that we build up projects at a European level, and for that the EU and the European Commission is very important. One good example would be Artificial Intelligence: AI needs a strategy that can only be accomplished if all the countries work together. The way is to build up teams and move forward policies at a European level; to help every single country to go in a good direction, while they contribute too.”

What are the biggest global challenges within your field in the next few years?

“AI will be a big challenge. But to reach good standards in AI, we need at least two things. One is talent: we have to work to improve our citizens’ talent. And the other is to work very hard on the deployment of 5G networks. It’s not only about developing the technology around AI, but also improving the talent of our people.”

What’s your favourite book?

“As a Spaniard, I have to say El Quijote. I know this is a common answer, but I have to talk about Cervantes. This is a book you can read and read again, and you always learn about how to look at life. I think it’s a big contribution of Spanish culture to humanity.”

About Pablo Jimenez Arandia

Pablo Jiménez Arandia is a Spanish freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He currently collaborates with several media outlets, writing on topics including international affairs, economics, migration and travel.

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