The toughest job in Italy's government: making bureaucracy "simple"

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has a record of pushing through controversial reforms

But his government is still facing a far more formidable challenge: streamlining Italy's elephantine bureaucracy, which frustrates ordinary people, scares off foreign investors and usually gets the better of would-be reformers.

"We want a public administration that is not complicated - because complication results in blockages of citizens' rights and opportunities," Public Administration Minister Marianna Madia told dpa in an interview.

The fact that the comedy Quo Vado?, which presents Italian bureaucrats as essentially unreformable, became the country's biggest-ever box office hit this year, underscores the scale of Madia's challenge. Even the minister saw the film, and liked it.

Slashing red tape "is the mother of all reforms in a country where just opening a pizzeria can take 14 different permits," said law professor Alfonso Celotto, who wrote a book called I don't Believe it, but it is True - Tales of Ordinary Bureaucracy.

For bigger projects, it is worse: Italy's biggest shopping centre, opened this year near Milan, waited 13 years for building permits. In 2012, British Gas gave up on a gas terminal project in southern Italy after waiting 11 years for a go-ahead from the authorities.

No more, Madia pledged: anyone wishing to start a business project, or knock down a wall at home, will have to wait a "maximum of five months" to acquire permits. "This is going to become law on Wednesday," she said.

Italy's bureaucracy should work according to "clear rules and fixed deadlines," the minister insisted. "This is the most pressing demand from those who in recent years have refrained from making investments in Italy," she added.

On Wednesday, a government cabinet meeting was also scheduled to approve decrees simplifying procedures to authorize building works and speeding up the dismissal of absentee public sector workers - a reform that follows a string of highly publicized scandals.

In October, police found out that up to 75 per cent of council workers in the beach resort of Sanremo would clock in for work and then disappear for the day. A local policeman was filmed punching his card in his underpants, to then go back to bed.

"If there is overwhelming evidence that you have cheated the state about your presence at work, you must be sent home within 48 hours with no salary, and fired within a month. If this does not happen, then your boss will be held responsible and fired," Madia said.

The reforms are part of a complex legislative process whose terms were defined by a framework law in August, and which is slowly being implemented through a number of decrees, in a process that should keep Madia busy until the end of next year.

Last month she completed the passage of a Freedom of Information Act. Other decrees are still in the works, such as a reorganization of police forces and a radical cut-down of the number of publicly owned utilities, often mismanaged as political patronage vehicles.

More ambitiously, Madia has launched a digitalization project that should allow Italians to liaise with all branches of the public administration via their smartphone, using a single PIN code.

"The pilot phase has already started and the whole system should be fully operational in two years' time," she said.

Her reforming zeal follows a number of well-meaning, but eventually unsuccessful attempts. In 2010, a previous minister even organized an actual bonfire to burn hundreds of thousands of obsolete items of legislation, but the stunt had little practical effect.

Madia said she was confident of better results because her efforts are part of "a comprehensive set of reforms" which are advancing alongside others, including Renzi's constitutional overhaul, subject to referendum approval in October.

The bureaucracy reform would unclog Italy's institutions, "a bit like uncorking a champagne bottle," the minister said. One important aspect would be that by speeding up lawmaking in parliament, it would give governments more time to monitor how bills are actually implemented.

"It's not like your job is done once you publish decrees in the official gazette. In Italy, we often had good laws which went nowhere because political leaders stopped worrying about them the day after they were passed," she said.

Last update: Wed, 15/06/2016 - 14:27
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