ROME, Italy — Renato Brunetta has a dream: To modernize Italy through an upheaval of its public administration based on three key words — transparency, efficiency, merit.

The Public Administration and Innovation minister believes “innovation starts from within the public offices.”

Brunetta's dream is indeed ambitious, and perhaps impossible, but certainly admirable. Italy's state employees make up a big part of the labor force (over 3.5 million, or almost 6 percent of the total population, which is above the European average) and have always been considered “untouchable.”

Tough luck. In 2009, Brunetta pushed a controversial reform through parliament aimed at cracking down on “lazy” officials that live off taxpayers' money while still maintaining high rates of absenteeism and questionable amounts of sick leave.

Dubbed the “Brunetta Reform,” the measure is expected to introduce among Italian functionaires something quite unknown: meritocracy, productivity incentives, internal control systems and — incredibly — rating procedures by citizens. Brunetta's ultimate goal is to create a modernized, digitalized and innovative public administration: in brief a solid e-government like many other world nations have.

But his crusade is unpopular. The reform touches all state sectors — from health to education, from local authorities to the ministries — easing bureaucratic procedures, eliminating useless offices, curbing expenditures and privileges (there are over 630,000 state cars running in Italy for a total public cost of 21 billion euros each year).

Public employees' retirement age will be raised and new contracts frozen. There is to be no recruitment of personnel for the next two years, meaning 12,000 fewer doctors in the hospitals. In addition, medical certificates and all legal communications between citizens and public offices must be made online to speed up procedures and cut down on paper.

A committee supervising all central and local state bodies should be set-up by December to monitor and rate the employees' work standards and ordinary citizens will also be asked to give an evaluation.

The change will force all state employees to wear a name tag when they deal with the public so they can be easily identified and tracked down. A rating mechanism titled “Let's put our reputation at stake" is already operating in hundreds of public offices, featuring a screen with three coloured smileys — red (negative), green (positive), yellow (so-so) — to make the marking easier for citizens.

The problem with Brunetta's reform is the timing and circumstances. The modernization of Italy's state machine should be fully implemented by December. That means that public offices scattered across the country must introduce Brunetta's measures in the next six months. Up to now just one small northern city called Muggio has done so.

There are several factors to consider: Broadband internet connections are a privilege not all offices in Italy share (there are still several areas with no connection at all).

By August, the online medical certification scheme is expected to be launched nationwide. But according to a recent study, 35 percent of family doctors don't have access to the web. Such a desperate situation has led several of them to publish an open letter to Brunetta on daily Corriere della Sera, expressing their doubts on some aspects of the reform with regard to the health system digitalization.

Meanwhile, the austerity budget passed recently by the center-right government of premier Silvio Berlusconi cracks down heavily on public spending in a bid to balance finances and support the country's slow recovery. Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti has waged war against state employees by freezing salary increases for the next three years, while top state managers earning more than  90,000 euros will see their income drop drastically.

The budget cuts are seen by some as an obstacle to fostering productivity by threatening rewards for hard-working officials' increased efficiency.

Critics, including top leaders of the country's largest trade union, have suggested that the implementation of the Brunetta reform should be gradual and follow a trial period; others say that it must go along with a substantial, thorough update of Italy's rigid welfare state that addresses pensions and the labor market.

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