Italy cracks down on the dolce vita of its highly uncivil service

They fiddled as Rome burned. Now, state jobs are being cleaned up, reports Andrew Gumbel
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ONCE upon a time, a job with the Italian state was a job for life. Well, "job" is perhaps too grand a word for it: it was a salary, for sure, with full benefits and pension rights; it was an office, with telephones and photocopiers and, sometimes, subsidised shops; but it bore only incidental relation to the concept of actual work.

For decades, the Italian state bureaucracy - it can hardly be called a civil service, since it provides little in the way of service and certainly isn't civil - has been synonymous with over-manning, time-serving, absenteeism and a dizzying degree of legalistic red tape that makes even the simplest operation a grindingly slow experience, for which the only available relief is the judicious offering of envelopes stuffed with cash.

Many public officials use their position to provide security for their family, fritter away their morning hours drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, and then spend their afternoons doing something more productive in the private sector.

The system has never had a chance to improve because the political parties have had too much to gain from handing out public jobs as favours to their voters, and too much to lose by taking on the powerful public service unions. Besides which, nobody can be transferred, much less fired.

Not until now. The government has just laid down some new rules that look set to spark a quiet revolution in the this most troublesome sector of Italian life. Starting in April, and pending approval in parliament, senior bureaucrats (around 6,000 people) will lose their lifelong tenure in favour of renewable five-year contracts; they will be obliged to give up any sideline activities and will risk the chop for "failure to reach preset targets".

Everyone else - the three million people employed as postal workers, document-stampers, book-keepers, caretakers and the rest - will keep their open-ended contracts but will be obliged to move offices, and perhaps move to another city if their current posts are perceived to be excess to requirement. Anyone who refuses to be transferred will be laid off, paid 80 per cent of their salary in unemployment benefit for two years, and then dismissed.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of such reforms in a country obsessed by the notion of the posto fisso, the sinecure for life, where the state is seen not as a guarantor of social cohesion but as an unwieldy, bloated cow, fit for milking. During the post-war period, the ruling Christian Democrat order used the state to provide employment for tens of thousands families from backward regions, particularly in the south. Half of Ciociaria, the hilly district between Rome and Naples, ended up in the Air Ministry, while certain post offices in electorally-sensitive areas in Sicily became inexplicably top-heavy with employees, many eligible for fraudulent disability benefits too.

The culture has been slowly changing over the past 15 years or so, as the Italian economy has grown more prosperous and the state has had to face up to the untenable costs and inefficiencies of its largesse. Back in 1982, unprecedented spot checks on ministry workers uncovered countless cases of employees who only ever turned up once a month - to collect their pay packet. The inspections triggered such panic among absentees that the commuter traffic in Rome was brought to a standstill for weeks; inside the ministries, colleagues greeted each other with the astonished recognition of long-lost friends.

More recently, ministries have introduced anonymous written exams to select entrants, replacing the old, blatantly clientelistic, open system. Favoured candidates still worm their way into jobs through the right connections, but at least the structure for a more honest approach is in place.

The latest reforms will be less effective, no doubt, than they appear on paper. After all, the idea is not to introduce American-style hiring and firing practices, merely to bring the public sector in line with the already highly indulgent Italian private sector. Will the injection of a few hot-shot senior bureaucrats and a more flexible system of job transfers make the Italian post office function? Will letters actually get delivered, rather than burned, and will Christmas packages no longer be looted? One suspects that public administration reform still has a steep hill to climb.