Appunti per un amico straniero sullo "strano" caso dei vigili urbani romani che non si presentano a lavoro a Capodanno a causa di improvvise malattie. Della serie "Italy for dummies".
A new debate on the role of Public administration sparked in Italy after an extraordinary number of Rome’s local police officers due to work on New Year's Eve called in sick. First reports said that of about 1,000 police officers who had been previously available to work, 83.5% were absent on the last night of 2014. Even international media outlets have somehow covered the issue.
First of all, let me reassure the readers on the safety of Italy's capital city for New Year's Eve. Rome’s local police tasks are generally limited to minor offenses and traffic duties. The Italian capital is also routinely patrolled by the Carabinieri and by the national police force.
Having said this, in order to explain what happened in Rome, you need to observe the story from two different points of view.
1) The first one is a local one. The major of Rome, Ignazio Marino, as well as the police commander, are trying to reform this local police corp made up by 6.000 people and to renew their employment contract. This means, for example, abolishing a "productivity bonus" that today is given to everybody, regardless of their productivity; but also dictating a rotation of policemen working in the city in order to curb corruption. This process is being blocked by corporative interest groups in the local police. What happened on New Year's Eve is a sort of a creeping and ongoing strike. And that might be illegal.
2) The second point of view is a national one. The Italian Government, led by Prime minister Matteo Renzi, has just approved a contested reform of the labor market, in order to make it more flexible. But it has also announced that the new rules might apply to the public sector in the future. That would mean abolishing some of the historical privileges that are attached to being a public employee. A certain laxity towards absenteeism is one of such privileges. Therefore, for almost 3 and a half million Italians that work for the government, a sector where Unions are still really powerful, this possible reform poses a few problems.
In the near future, on one hand we will see more and more strikes and forms of boycitt in the public sector. On the other hand, the center-left Government might be happy to exploit the most shameful and extreme episodes to boost support in the public opinion for its reform of the public sector.
Waiting for the investigations to be concluded, this episode is serious and reminds us of one thing for sure. Impunity for the worker who systematically does not perform well, or does not perform at all, is just one of the unique features of the Italian public sector. Throughout these last years of crisis, the Italian public opinion had the chance to test many of these huge differences between the public and the private sector. Impunity comes with low productivity, no economic and measurable objectives, no evaluation of any sort. Some legal scholars talk about another case of "legal apartheid" in our labor market, on top of the division between people with stable jobs and a growing army of younger employees with short-term contracts and no welfare guarantees at all. The facts of Rome are just a reminder of a weird phenomenon: Italian public workers often work on a different planet than their private counterparts.
If you want an even more striking example you could take a very different category of public workers, such as judges. In 1987 the majority of Italian people voted for a popular referendum stating a quite basic principle in liberal democracies: the exercise of judicial power in a democratic regime should not go without accountability. 28 years later, Italian judges are still not accountable and liable for negligence in most of their proceedings, and even disciplinary measures can be taken only by peers, that means such measures are never taken.
This same story of many local police officers calling in sick on New Year's eve in Rome is also a story of "neglected rules". In these hours the current Italian Government, led by Prime minister Matteo Renzi, has announced its willingness to change the rules of public sector employment. That might be a good thing to do, but what you won't hear from the Government is that many rules for a more efficient public sector are already there to be used; they are just not used. The Government for example let the newspapers know that medical certificates for public employees claiming to be too ill to work have surged by 27 per cent from 2011 to 2013. The Government also said that Inps, the public authority which issues and overlooks health certificates for the private sector, spends 25 million euros per year; in the public sector, several authorities spend 70 million euros per year, with much less workers to control and with public services at stake. To starve the beast - as Ronald Reagan used to call the Government - you need political will. To starve a huge beast, you need a huge political will.
As a final point, it has to be said that the status quo is penalizing the most skilled and talented public employees themselves. I will try to explain how. From the beginning of the economic crisis, the Italian Government has been looking for savings in the public sector; but on the other hand the Government has never managed to really evaluate the public employees' performance, either to reward the best employees, offer incentives to the average employees or sack the worst ones. How has the Italian Government come out of this situation? It has frozen most of the salaries and most of the hiring process, and it has let the oldest people retire. Result: today the number of employees in the public sector has dropped by 7% in 5 years, from 3,58 million people in 2008 to 3,33 million people in 2013; but the annual expense for salaries, for example, has remained almost at the same (high) level of 5 years ago, up to 165 billion euros a year. It has been seven years since the economic crisis started in the Eurozone, and today Italy has a public administration that is older, relatively more expensive and mostly more inefficient than European partners. That is no good news to both Italian and international investors.