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Bureaucratic Elites in Western European StatesA Comparative Analysis of Top Officials$

Edward C. Page and Vincent Wright

Print publication date: 1999

Print ISBN-13: 9780198294467

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198294468.001.0001

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Italy's Senior Civil Service: An Ossified World

Italy's Senior Civil Service: An Ossified World

(p.55) 3 Italy's Senior Civil Service: An Ossified World
Bureaucratic Elites in Western European States

Sabino Cassese

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The beginning of the twentieth century saw a progressive southernization of jobs in the Italian public sector, with a sizeable migration of personnel from South to North. In 1995, some 35% of civil servants worked in the North and 65% in the Centre‐South, but 27% of civil servants in the North were from the Centre‐South, which, in this way, contributed to the administration and the provision of public services in the North; in the top echelons of the state administration, the disequilibrium was even stronger. State employees in general, therefore, and senior officials, in particular, are not representative in territorial terms, resulting in the paradox of a senior civil service that administers the nation, but which is not national. This chapter aims to illustrate this paradox. It looks first at the subject to be analysed (the senior civil service) and its organizational context, and then defines a profile of senior officials, illustrating the characteristics of the category in which they are found; finally it analyses the two (failed) attempts of reform.

Keywords:   civil servants, Italy, organization, reform, senior civil service, senior officials, state administration

Even after more than a century of political unification, Italy is still characterized by a lack of economic unification. The political union of the country was achieved in 1861, and was the result of the merging of various pre‐existing states (among them the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Papal State, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) which had enjoyed different degrees of economic and social development. The demarcation line fell mainly between the regions of the North (Piedmont, Lombardy, Venetia, Liguria, Emilia‐Romagna), economically developed regions with a long‐standing tradition of civic culture, and those of the South and the Islands (Abruzzi and Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sardinia, and Sicily), economically underdeveloped regions which were socially fragmented and, generally, without established civic traditions, with a Centre (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and Latium) placed half‐way between development and underdevelopment.

Instead of bringing about a reduction in these differences, unification accentuated the economic backwardness of the South, which witnessed the collapse of its weak industrial base in the face of fiercer competition from the North. The South was also confronted with a fiscal regime and an investment policy which drained its resources while favouring the North, not to mention customs tariffs which took a heavy toll on southern agriculture.

By the middle of the twentieth century this situation had not improved. As the country's economy shifted from a predominantly agricultural to a mainly industrial base, emigration to other countries was steadily replaced by migratory movement within the country. The Italian economic miracle (p.56) saw a massive flow of unskilled workers from the South into the rich industrial heartlands of the North. Meanwhile, a different pattern developed in the recruitment to the public‐sector workforce. Unification had taken place under Piedmont and the administration had remained in the hands of the Piedmontese. However, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a progressive southernization of jobs in the public sector.

Three figures provide an overview of this phenomenon—with the proviso that they are not homogeneous and, therefore, chronological series cannot be deduced from them. In the 1950s, 78 per cent of high‐ranking civil servants came from the South; in the 1960s, the number of southerners within the senior ranks of the civil service rose to 84 per cent; in 1995, 73 per cent of state civil servants (1.2 million employees in total) came from the Centre and South. In order to put these figures in context, they should be compared with the distribution of the population of 55 per cent in the North and 45 per cent in the Centre and South.

Consequently, therefore, a sizeable migration of personnel from South to North has taken place. Since 35 per cent of civil servants work in the North and 65 per cent in the Centre–South, 27 per cent of civil servants in the North come from the Centre–South, which, in this way, contributes to the administration and the provision of public services in the North.

In general terms, we may see an asymmetry within the civil service with three‐quarters of public employees coming from just over half of the population. When we consider the top echelons of the state administration, the disequilibrium grows even stronger. In 1995 the Centre–South provided 93 per cent of directors general, while the North provided only 7 per cent. This disequilibrium at the top has increased in the last few years: in 1962, the directors general coming from the Centre–South, comprised 89 per cent of the total, in contrast to only 11 per cent from the North. It is also interesting to compare these figures with a relatively homogeneous category in terms of size and income, like that of magistrates: in 1995, the South contributed 75 per cent of judges, the North 25 per cent of the total.

This leads to state employees in general, and senior officials in particular, not being representative in territorial terms. While people from the North have been involved in the conquest of the economy and the market, those from the South have dedicated themselves to the conquest of the state. This has produced the paradox of a senior civil service that administers the nation, but which is not national. Italian senior officials are not at the centre of the country but rather at the centre of its main disequilibrium

This chapter aims to illustrate this paradox. It is divided into four parts. In the first part, I shall present the subject to be analysed (the senior civil service) and its organizational context. In the second, I will define a profile of senior officials, then illustrate the characteristics of the category in which (p.57) they are found. In the third, I shall analyse the two (failed) attempts of reform. Finally, I shall offer some concluding remarks.

The Senior Civil Service in Italy

In order to identify the senior civil service, we need to select the categories of personnel which have a dominant role within key state organizations. This process is simplified in Italy by legal provisions which, since 1972, give recognition to the top echelon of the administration with the qualification of director general: at present there are approximately 1,300 directors general. From this category we need to exclude about 150 non‐state directors (from non‐economic bodies and research institutes), 250 diplomats, about 200 prefects, over 260 directors of armed forces and the police, and about twenty directors of autonomous companies. In fact, the first of these groups are not state directors, the second and the third are positioned mainly in the periphery; the others have specific sectoral competences. This leaves about 400 administrative directors who staff the highest places in the state administration, mainly those of directors general in the ministries.

Considering that central ministries now number nineteen, and the Prime Minister's Office (which has a large administrative structure, including some departments which correspond to ministries under ministers without portfolio), there is an average of twenty key positions per ministry, a number which corresponds to that needed to control the administrative apparatus.

These directors general are positioned at the top of the administration. They are directly under the minister and the minister's private office or cabinet. The minister is politically responsible to Parliament, issues guidelines, and controls the administration, taking the most important decisions in the ministry. The private office supports the minister and, in fact, constitutes the interface between the minister and the top echelon of the administration (the directors general). However, directors general are career officials and, as such, hold permanent posts, while ministers and their private offices change with the change of government. It can be said, therefore, that the 400 people identified constitute the most important level of the permanent administration of the state.

In order to take a ‘snapshot’ of directors general, we shall now examine six elements: their place of work; age and length of stay in office; gender; professional qualifications; origin (internal or external); and mobility. As far as the place of work is concerned, 65 per cent of directors general are located in the region of Lazio and, therefore, in Rome. The concentration in the capital is the natural consequence of the fact that directors general (p.58) in the ministries constitute the highest rank of the central state machinery. The average age of directors general is high: 71 per cent are over 56. The situation has worsened over the last few years: in 1961 only 55 per cent of directors general were over 56: in 1979 the percentage had increased only slightly to 57 per cent. Age explains a further phenomenon: the fact that directors general stay in office for an average of only ten years. In fact, given their relatively high age, they reach their retirement after only a few years in office.

A further characteristic of the group under analysis is the very low representation of women: they make up only 5 per cent of directors general, compared with 20 per cent of directors, the category immediately below. Qualifications are almost invariably of university level: 95 per cent hold a university degree. Data relative to the distribution of degrees per subject area are not available. Taking as a sample the 65 directors working within the Prime Minister's Office (16 per cent of the total) we find 53 per cent holding law degrees (and this figure climbs to 66 per cent if we include those with degrees in political science, a discipline that in Italy has a large law component). These figures may be compared with that of only 3 per cent for engineering degrees. A further element of comparison is the evolution of the dominance of law backgrounds in the whole of the civil service: in 1954, the figure amounted to 36 per cent of the total, in 1961 it was up to 40 per cent. The predominance of those with law degrees is even more marked in control bodies: access to the Corte dei Conti, in particular, has long been reserved to law graduates.

As for their origin, directors general promoted from the lower grades of the administration comprise 83 per cent of the total. Horizontal mobility is almost non‐existent. There are very few cases of directors general who, on reaching retirement, are appointed as chairmen of public or private companies. These are limited, on the whole, to directors from the Defence Ministry or from the diplomatic service. The French phenomenon of pantouflage is unknown in the Italian administration.

The presence of directors general in politics is also extremely limited. In post‐1945 legislatures, the presence of public employees in Parliament has been between 3 and 5 per cent. After the 1996 election, 6 per cent of MPs had been public service directors (from the state civil service or other public bodies), a low figure compared with the 10 per cent for teachers, 10 per cent for university professors, and 11 per cent for lawyers in Parliament.

The elements presented above suggest a senior civil service strongly anchored in public administration, regulated by a system of promotion linked to the length of office. It is, therefore, important to analyse the category immediately below, that of the directors, from which the directors general are recruited. In this category there are approximately 4,200 people. (p.59) A recent survey, based on a sample of 82 directors, showed that 90 per cent never change the geographical location of their workplace; 48 per cent are over 55 years old and 44 per cent are between 41 and 55; 46 per cent have been in office for over thirty years and 45 per cent between sixteen and thirty years; 88 per cent entered the civil service before the age of 30 and 46 per cent started in the ministry where they still were at the time of the survey, indicating an internal and closed job market. The survey did find evidence of some internal mobility, with 62 per cent of respondents having changed administration at least once. On the other hand, 68 per cent never changed their rank, and 44 per cent never even changed their type of activity and tasks.

The emerging picture from this brief overview of the senior civil service is that of an ossified structure, where access is restricted through internal promotions and progress on the hierarchical ladder is conditioned by age, length of service, and, maybe in part, by merit. The senior civil service in Italy is, therefore, aged, with little professional or geographical mobility, with a marked underrepresentation of women and a high percentage of law graduates. Moreover, the profile of the level immediately below that of directors general (which for the reasons outlined above can be seen as the recruiting ground for senior civil servants) reflects the same patterns and characteristics.

Two different kinds of pressure have come to bear on this ossified world. The first is a negative pressure exercised through political patronage on the senior civil service. The second is a positive pressure for stronger autonomy and better selection procedures. Italian bureaucracy has successfully managed to fend off both kinds of pressure.

In the post‐1945 period, the Italian administrative‐political system has been dominated by the influence of political parties. One indication of this control is that the weakness and short duration of governments (an average of nine months) have always been determined by the control of parties' secretariats over the governments.

Political parties in control of governments could have also used the legal means at their disposal to take hold of the bureaucracy. In fact, directors general are appointed by the Council of Ministers and, until 1993, the Council was not limited in its choice. Parties in government were able to select and appoint some of their members or sympathizers, at least to gain control of key posts. If they did not do this, or were not able to do this, it is thanks to the resistance of the ossified world of the senior civil service.

There has been equal resistance to the second pressure, this time positive, to reform the senior civil service in response to the economic and social development of the country. This attempt at reform has developed over (p.60) a period of more than thirty years, and it deserves closer scrutiny. We may identify two phases, one starting at the beginning of 1972 (Andreotti government) and the other in 1993 (Amato government and Ciampi government). Both reforms were characterized by a series of common elements, including: the passing of the government's legislative decrees (delegated legislation) for the reform of the higher reaches of the national bureaucracy; the devolution of some powers to the senior civil service; the imposition, in exchange, of a new mechanism for promotion based on merit (increasing fast‐streaming and vertical mobility) and of interdepartmental mobility, through the creation of a common framework for the higher civil service (horizontal mobility). In both phases of reform amendments to the original projects resulted in a considerable watering down of their ambitions, and the limited implementation of the reforms to those elements considered favourable to the senior civil service.

The first attempt goes back to the decree of the President of the Republic of 30 June 1972, no. 748. The decree had been adopted after two years of debate and controversy. It was considered as a partial ‘compensation’ for the senior civil service after the transfer of some administrative functions from the state to the regions in 1970. The reform envisaged the division of the senior civil service into five levels: from the lowest to the highest ranks, these were defined as director, higher director, director general (the latter category subdivided into three categories of directors general c, b, and a). The 1972 decree assigned to the senior civil service, and in particular to the directors general, autonomous powers of supervision and coordination, decision‐making, and control. These duties had to be fulfilled within the guidelines set by the minister, based on lists of acts to be presented by the senior civil servants to the minister. The minister could then overrule, amend, or reform the acts of directors general.

In exchange for the new tasks, the senior civil service was asked to become more mobile, vertically and horizontally. Vertical mobility was to be guaranteed through entry competitions and courses, common to all the ministries. These selection processes for entry into the senior civil service were to be overseen not by the ministries but by the High School for Public Administration, linked to the Prime Minister's Office. A first competition would have opened access to specific training programmes, with a further final competition to establish the eligible candidates. The selection was open to all employees of managerial rank.

Horizontal mobility was introduced by the law of 29 July 1975, no. 382, which provided for a common definition of the role of higher civil servants irrespective of their department, with the following four exceptions: the Ministry of the Treasury, the Home Affairs Ministry, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defence. In this way, even with the (p.61) four exceptions listed, the management of the career of senior civil servants was not under the control of individual ministries and the door to horizontal mobility between ministries was opened. Lastly, the law provided for the appointment of outside directors general on two‐year or permanent contracts.

All these reforms were modified during their implementation, were made ineffective, and undermined. Too many people were admitted to the selection for the higher civil service: 8,000 people for an administration which counted at the time twenty‐two ministries and two million employees. Senior civil servants never made use of the autonomous powers assigned to them. On the one hand, senior officials preferred not to take responsibility for autonomous acts to be submitted to the minister. On the other hand, laws continued to provide for a majority of decisions to be taken through ministerial decrees. In addition, the autonomous powers of top officials, linked to the value of the decision (for example: contracts could be signed only up to a certain total sum), were quickly eroded by the double‐digit inflation of those years. Very few directives were ever passed, they had vague aims, the lists of acts to be communicated to the minister were never prepared, and in consequence, ministers did not have to overrule, amend, or reform any proposals from the directors general. Moreover, private offices of ministers continued to overstep their duties and/or invade the sphere of competence of the civil service.

A similar failure characterized the new selection procedures. It was not until 1978 (six years after the redefinition of the career of senior civil servants) that some attempts were made to bring about the creation of the High School for Public Administration, but the envisaged competitive entry and training periods were quickly replaced by short non‐competitive training courses under the control of individual ministries. Competitive selection based on merit was rejected, and the old method of promotion linked to length of service was continued. Moreover, the provisions for external recruitment were never implemented. The selection of outside directors general for two‐year periods was never carried out, while the appointment of outside candidates to permanent positions numbered less than a dozen cases in the first ten years of the implementation of the law. Lastly, the provisions for the definition of a common framework for the role of the senior civil servants, though never formally abrogated, was never implemented: a curious fact for an administration with a strong legalistic culture.

The second attempt at reform, initiated with a legislative decree of 3 February 1993, no. 29 (modified three times in the course of the same year) has made advances with respect to the definition of powers of senior officials. The decree envisages that the government should set the objectives and the (p.62) programmes and verify the results and effectiveness of the action of the administration with reference to the general guidelines. Senior officials have responsibility for the technical, financial, and administrative implementation of all guidelines, including all decisions which involve contact between the administration and the outside world. Senior officials have autonomous powers over resources, personnel, and control. They are responsible for policy implementation and its results. It follows that, on the basis of the 1993 reform, senior officials have control over expenditure, the management of personnel, and the control of employees. The minister can take specific decisions only when there is a clear need or urgency and, in any case, in agreement with the Prime Minister.

In exchange for this decisive shift of powers in favour of the senior civil service, the law envisages two other fundamental changes: on the one hand, a strong reduction of the number of top officials by 10 per cent and, on the other, the introduction of the competitive training courses and competition. Such training should be common for all departments, it should last two years and it should not be restricted only to those already employed in the civil service (as foreseen in 1972) but to all those under 35 years of age with a university degree. The training course would be open to all those passing an initial competition; there would then be an intermediate examination followed by a six‐month internship in the public or private administration, leading to a final competition.

This second reform, too, has not been implemented (although it is still too early to draw more definite conclusions). The number of senior officials has not decreased. Their new powers have not been made use of, and directors general have preferred not to take full responsibility for the management of their departments, especially as a result of the increase in the ex‐ante control through the Corte dei Conti, a protection which many directors general would want reinstated. And, in this context, their fears can be linked with the growing dynamism of magistrates: embezzlement charges in Italy amounted to approximately 450 a year until 1989 and have climbed to more than 1,000 a year since 1991; extortion charges amounted to 100 a year until 1989 and up to 500 since 1992; corruption charges, which were less than 100 a year until 1991, have remained over 400 since then; and charges for abuse of authority have numbered between 6,000 and 10,000 since 1992. Faced with such an aggressive stance on the part of magistrates, senior officials have retreated into a defensive position, avoiding the assumption of new powers and responsibility. As far as open competition is concerned, by late 1997 only one had been initiated.

Fernand Braudel, in his La Mediterranée et le monde mediterranéan à l'époque de Philippe II (Paris: Colin, 1949), refers to the insigne faiblesse de l'Italie, which he identifies in the wealth and density of cities. The negative (p.63) side of this lies in the absence of a state, so that Italy is characterized by an administration without a centre. The French high civil service presents an élitist model of administration: the North American a representative model; Italy corresponds to another model, defined by the following elements:

  1. 1. The senior civil service is not a homogeneous group, given the absence of a common training on entry, a common culture, or the feeling of an esprit de corps, but it is united by geographical origin (and, in part, by its social origins in the middle class).

  2. 2. The nature of the senior civil service reflects the division of the country into North and South, with only part of the country represented among senior officials, in spite of their responsibility for the administration of all of the national territory.

  3. 3. The senior civil service, given its origins in the Mezzogiorno (the south of Italy), mirrors the characteristics of Southern Italy which can be summed up as follows: (i) coming from regions characterized by unemployment, job security takes precedence over efficiency and service; (ii) coming from relatively non‐industrialized areas (or where industry has not managed to establish firm roots in society and the economy), legalistic and formalistic attitudes tend to dominate, without reference to the objectives of public administration; the mentality is far from managerialist; there is a rejection of competition.

  4. 4. The senior civil service is not integrated into the political class or into the economic management structures of the country, due both to its different origins, and to the lack of osmosis between civil service and private firms and between administrative management and political control.

  5. 5. The senior civil service pays a price for this isolation, refusing to take on an autonomous policy‐making role and preferring the bureaucratic supervision of secondary administrative management.

  6. 6. But the senior civil service has been able to survive the political turbulence produced by government instability.

It remains for us to wonder why reforms have failed and, furthermore, why the southernization of the civil service is on the increase. The answer lies not so much in the higher civil service as in the echelons below it: it is these groups which oppose any reform attempt, fearing a reduction of their career prospects without any accompanying benefits. In other words, the trade‐off contained in the reforms remains asymmetrical. It gives more powers to the bureaucracy in exchange for mobility. But the benefit is to the advantage of senior officials, while the burden lies on the shoulders of middle‐rank categories, those of directors, who have cultivated hopes of promotion and oppose any interference of merit over age and years of service. This asymmetry explains why the reforms remain blocked.

(p.64) References

Bibliography references:

On history, see G. Melis, Storia dell'amministrazione italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1996). On the impact of economic dualism on the administrative élite, see S. Cassese, Questione amministrativa e questione meridionale (Milan: Giuffrè, 1977). On the higher civil service in the 1980s, see S. Cassese, ‘The Higher Civil Service in Italy’, in Ezra N. Suleiman (ed.), Bureaucrats and Policy Making (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984), 35, and in the 1990s, see M. D'Alberti (ed.), L'alta burocrazia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994).

Law 29/1993, E. Zaffaroni, ‘Il decreto legislativo n. 29/1993 e la dirigenza’, Quaderni regionali, 3 (1995): 933. For the mobility of civil servants, see G. Bonanomi (ed.), La mobilità del personale statale (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1995). On the role of penal judges, Camera dei deputati, Rapporto del Comitato di studio sulla prevenzione della corruzione, Presentato al Presidente della Camera il 23 ottobre 1996. ‘Southernization’ of civil servants is covered in Ministero del tesoro‐Ragioneria generale dello Stato, I dipendenti dello Stato per regione di origine e di servizio, Quaderni RGS, Analisi dei fenomeni gestionali‐Personale, 3 (Nov. 1996).

On civil servants in Parliament, Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, 3, special issue on ‘Elezioni politiche 1996’, ed. Roberto D'Alimonte and Stefano Bartolini (Dec. 1996). For proposals of reform, Commissione di studio per la definizione delle caratteristiche, del ruolo e della tipologia dell'alta dirigenza dello Stato e di quella ad essa equiparata, ‘Relazione finale’, Funzione pubblica, 1 (1996). A comparative approach is found in Barbara Wake Carroll, ‘Bureaucratic Élites: Some Patterns in Career Paths over Time’, International Review of Administrative Sciences, 62 (1996): 383–99.

Further reading: Alessandro Taradel, ‘La burocrazia italiana: Provenienza e collocazione dei direttori generali’, Tempi moderni, 6(13) (Apr.–June 1963); Franco Ferraresi, ‘Modalità di intervento politico della burocrazia in Italia’, Studi di sociologia, 6(3) (Sept. 1968), 247–8; by the same author, Burocrazia e politica in Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1980); Robert D. Putnam, ‘The Political Attitudes of Senior Civil Servants in Britain, Germany and Italy’, in Mattei Dogan (ed.), The Mandarins of Western Europe: The Political Role of Top Civil Servants (New York: Sage, 1975), 111; Stefano Passigli, ‘The Ordinary and Special Bureaucracy in Italy’, in Mattei Dogan (ed.), The Mandarins of Western Europe: The Political Role of Top Civil Servants (New York: Sage, 1975), 233; Vittorio Mortara, ‘Tendenze conservatrici e rapporti con la politica degli alti burocrati’, in Sabino Cassese (ed.), L'amministrazione pubblica in Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1976), 263; Sidney Tarrow, Between Center and Periphery: Grassroots Politicians in Italy and France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).


The author wishes to thank Francesco Battini (Corte dei Conti and Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri), Raffaele Iuele and Antonella Trifella (Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri) and Stefano Tomasini (Ragioneria generale dello Stato, Ministero del Tesoro) for the material provided and for their suggestions, as well as Stefano Battini and Giacinto della Cananea for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.