On the slippery road to Roma

November 25, 1994

I left Italy last month, after three weeks of Florentine sunshine, as the dark clouds were gathering over the Alps. On the Brenner pass electrical storms lit up the valleys. Hours later, parts of northern Italy suffered devastating flooding, thousands of homes were destroyed and scores of lives lost.

It is no surprise that natural disasters such as the one that was unfolding are known as acts of God. Whether the phrase embodies the concept of divinity within the cosmos or the weasel words of insurance underwriters matters not. What unites all natural disasters, is the perception that they are so dreadful that no earthly power could have foreseen or prevented them.

But evidence emerging from Italy suggests that much could have been done to anticipate the possibility of a heavy seasonal rainfall. An anguished Italian was quoted last week in the British press describing his fellow countrymen and women as in love with the poser-phone but less well prepared for handling the consequences of a major flood than the Bangladeshi government.

Now this may well be unfair on Bangladesh. But as an assessment of Italian public services, and the values that lie behind their management, it certainly accords with much that I have seen with my own eyes and learned over many years from friends.

The truth about how things happen in Italy is shrouded to a large extent from the eyes of visitors. The spirit that moves events is neither one thing nor another. It is located somewhere between the north and the south. Neither the traditions of subsistence farming nor the motorway economies of the large cities drive social or political relationships. In the corridors of power, neither the Mafia, the Vatican or Gramsel have the upper hand but the sickly scent of each of them is pervasive. Part Bertolucci, part Berlusconi. And the management of public affairs reflects this continued identity.

Michael Dibden, a marvellously evocative novelist, captures the languid inefficiency of Italian public services in his Aurelio Zen thrillers. He characterises brilliantly that departmentalised culture, with which Italian bureaucracies are blessed, that has an array of office workers sitting in large open offices, highly underemployed but actually running covert private businesses down government phone lines.

This accords with evidence I acquired some years ago when I visited Rome and explored the mysterious recesses of the Italian vocational training system. Officially entry into the public services is via a competitive examination. In reality, recruitment and promotion hang entirely on patronage. Preferment at all levels is determined by a whispered word from a cardinal, or by the intervention of a well-placed government contact. Machiavelli lives. Quality suffers.

The British post office will not, thanks to a taxi-load of wet Tories, now be privatised. Or not yet. The Italian post office on the other hand, could hardly do worse with Laurel and Hardy in charge. Letters take, on average ten days to get from Rome to Milan. This may be because all Roman mail is said, not altogether ironically, to travel via the Palermo sorting office.

The decline in standards in British public life (currently focussing on bungs, sleaze, fixing, and gerrymandering) may seem small beer by some international standards. But what starts as a slippery slope can soon lead to landslips in Piedmont.

Neil Fletcher is education officer of Unison, the public sector union.

A trade union friend described the abysmal standards set by the Italian public services as the natural result of the Catholic work ethic. According to this theory, the sin of worker incompetence, once detected, is rewarded not by discipline and punishment but through the process of confession, absolution and forgiveness and, human frailty being what it is, normally by repetition.

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