Amazon senior vice president Diego Piacentini is taking a sabbatical. As announced in February, he will take two years off from his executive position at the e-commerce giant to return to his homeland, Italy, and take on a pro-bono position as the government commissioner for the digital agenda. His official appointment was announced Friday (Sept. 30).
Ironically, it’s a perfectly bureaucratic label to describe a much-needed fix for the sad state of Italy’s digital affairs—in part caused by its onerous bureaucracy. Italy has a projected internet penetration of only 63%, one of the lowest in Europe, according to the European Commission, and the country ranks 25th of 28 European nations for its digital capabilities, and last in Europe for internet use. As well as addressing those problems, Piacentini will be charged with digitizing public administration to simplify citizens’ interaction with government.
Piacentini, a construction worker’s son, left Italy after graduating and worked 13 years at Apple before joining Amazon 16 years ago. The 55-year-old is now building a team that will include Paolo Barberis, the innovation adviser to the Italian Prime Minister, who is also taking on the new responsibility pro-bono.
In a post on Medium, Piacentini called for others to join the mission—”talents who either live in Italy or abroad and have the desire to come back—if only for a limited period of time and at a compensation level which is most likely much lower than what you are currently making.”
The post links to job listings, including for experienced data architect, a mobile app developer, and a cybersecurity expert. All the positions, Piacentini writes, will be paid between €70,000 and €120,000 per year ($78,000 to $138,000), which is actually quite competitive for Italy, where young professionals are among the worst paid in Europe. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (link in Italian), however, Piacentini said the salaries would be between €40,000 and €150,000.
Some have raised questions about Piacentini’s reasons for taking on the job, pointing to Amazon’s investments in Italy as an ulterior motive. As of May he was reported to be the second biggest individual shareholder at Amazon, behind only Jeff Bezos—which some have called a conflict of interest (link in Italian). Piacentini told La Repubblica that Italy’s business is relatively minor for Amazon, and said he took this appointment for free (with no expense account), because he wanted to “give back” to the country that formed him.
“In the 16 years I spent in the US I have been infected by a strong idea, of giving back to your country, your school, your university,” he explained, adding that such approach is uncommon in Italy, which is why people (including his own parents) found his choice perplexing.
The idea of working for the government for free has rankled some. Health minister Beatrice Lorenzin, already known for a series of embarrassing public campaigns, recently asked young creatives to help improve the ministry’s communications “possibly for free” (link in Italian), infuriating underemployed, underpaid Italian workers.
In a country struggling with youth unemployment and brain drain, Piacentini’s example looks to some like a bitter reminder that Italy is not truly competitive, and has no hope of bringing back big-name talent without good will—or outright free work.
But Piacentini says he’ll make sure this project, which he calls a “startup” within the administration, is successful. So far, there’s some reason for optimism: The job descriptions are free of the stuffy bureaucracy that the country is notorious for. “Change for Italy will be remarkable,” Piacentini said in an interview. It would be welcome, too.