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Against Fairness

February 12, 2017
Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

The sudden closure this weekend of Rome’s favorite farmers’ market has led me to think about why efforts to do the right thing sometimes produce the wrong results.

Carlo Ratti, in a short letter entitled Nudi al Concorso*, explains why despite all the byzantine efforts to implement fair and impartial public competitions (for university positions), the results in Italy are almost always less than satisfactory. Instead, in the US — and I’m not saying the US is better, especially not these days— the administration “simply” chooses the candidate who they believe to be best qualified, and it usually works. Because when those who manage a project are personally accountable for the results, they only choose a friend or a relative if they happen to be the best for the job. 

Corruption has long been a huge problem, in Italy (as it is in many developing nations). To minimize the risk of jobs or contracts being given out as favors, or in return for bribes, an elaborate system has evolved.

It’s a system which takes time, money and often by virtue of its complication excludes all but the experienced bidders (since the calls for bids are not widely publicized or easy to comprehend). But, as an entrepreneur I don’t want to hire someone who spends hours of their productive time looking through fine print on institutional publications for job openings. In the age of Google it works the other way around; I find the best candidates through my network and take the risk of hiring them. Not necessarily the ones with the most experience, and definitely not the ones to whom I owe favors.

I might choose the ones who come recommended, but not raccomandati (in Italian this has negative connotations of favoritism).  

The bottom line is that if I want my project to succeed I need the best people on board and I need them quickly. No matter how I select the candidate, it’s the results that count. In Italy, no matter the results, it’s the process that counts.

I am thinking about the recent closure of my local farmers’ market in this context. True, there was never an official tender, the legally-required process through which the city should have chosen who could open stalls to sell fresh food here. True, the only reason the market is there at all is due to a mistake by then-Mayor Alemanno who made a promise he was in no position to make.  But the goal of the legally-required procedure would be to ensure the outcome of the market, and no one doubts that it is already a success with citizens. By contrast, the procedurally-correct competitions for the“Punti verdi qualità” in the nineties was an abject failure and a costly one (but one for which few of the perpetrators have been held accountable).

I have to conclude that a better system is possible:  a regulated free-market process with one key ingredient, heretofore missing, accountability.

Here’s how it would work:

  1. When the public administration has a need or opportunity, they publish an announcement on their website and on all other channels with the goal of informing as many people as possible (the opposite of the hidden tenders that are published only to satisfy the legal requirements).
  2. They accept proposals in the simplest way possible, following the models of most fellowship grants: a website form to which attachments such as team CVs can be uploaded with a reasonable deadline.
  3. A commission comprised of public administrators and outside experts evaluates the submissions and chooses the best proposals.
  4. THEN, comes the important part. The administrators who chose the winning proposal remain accountable for the outcome;  if the project succeeds they receive credit, but if it fails they take the blame. They are forever linked to the success or failure of that project, they are not allowed to distance themselves from it after the ribbon cutting cerimony. Furthermore, the only advantage they get from it is from its success. Even if they are corruptible, the immediate benefit of some high-risk extra cash would be outweighed by the devastating long-term cost of supporting a failing project.

Of course, some projects will fail, and some mistakes will be made — even Apple has produced some duds and moved forward. People must be held equally accountable for doing nothing (or for obstructing something) as they are for doing the wrong thing and failing.

If Italy is going to remain relevant in a progressive world economy, Italian administrators should replace their obsession with procedure with the institutionalization of accountability. If the trash isn’t picked up, if illegal cars are not towed, and if our farmers’ market is not allowed to open, someone should be held accountable. And, as I sincerely hope (and optimistically believe) will happen, when Rome gets back on its feet, cleans itself off and starts attracting the global investment it deserves those responsible for its s should be rewarded.

p.s.

*For those of you who read Italian, here’s Carlo Ratti’s letter (I have to track down the source, I believe it was in Corriere della Sera circa 2013).

 

NUDI AL CONCORSO

Carlo Ratti

SAPETE come funziona un concorso universitario negli Stati Uniti? Inviate una domanda in carta semplice, con allegate due o tre pagine di curriculum. Fate una lezione di prova. Andate al bar con un paio di professori. E alla fine, se li avete convinti, ricevete via e-mail un’offerta di lavoro. Insomma, il massimo dell’arbitrarietà. E in Italia? Non ve la cavate con meno di tre chili di documenti: certificati di laurea, diplomi autenticati, dichiarazioni sostitutive di atto notorio, articoli in originale, eccetera. Poi vi presentate a un impeccabile esame scritto, dove dovete c dei temi preparati in gran segreto da una commissione giudicatrice. Quindi passate all’esame orale. E infine, a seguito dell’applicazione di un rigoroso algoritmo (tanti punti alla laurea, tanti al dottorato, tanti allo scritto e all’orale), ricevete il verdetto. Insomma, la perfezione formale. Perché allora i concorsi universitari sembrano funzionare bene negli Stati Uniti, mentre in Italia non ce n’è uno che non si chiuda con sospetti, ricorsi al TAR, accuse di brogli? Perché il professore di un’università americana, che ha pieni poteri su chi far passare e chi no, sceglie di solito il candidato migliore invece di privilegiare il nipote, la cugina o l’amante? Non perche più corretto e meno corrotto del suo collega italiano. Semplicemente perché è obbligato a comportarsi in un certo modo dal sistema in cui opera, in virtù di quel principio cui fa riferimento Marco Santambrogio sulla Stampa dell’8 gennaio: l’accountability. Infatti, se questo professore non sceglie i collaboratori migliori, prima o poi il suo centro di ricerca si indebolirà, avrà meno appeal per studenti e sponsor, riceverà meno fondi e, alla fine, chiuderà. Sarebbe possibile introdurre questi principi anche in Italia?

Difficile, almeno fino a quando non ci saranno università davvero in competizione tra di loro, studenti pronti a spostarsi da un capo all’altro della penisola alla ricerca dell’eccellenza accademica, datori di lavoro pubblici che non valutino il titolo di studio di per sé (la laurea, con il suo valore legale) bensì il percorso formativo dello studente e la sua università di provenienza (provate a dire negli Stati Uniti che la laurea a Harvard e all’università di Roccacannuccia sono equivalenti!), enti di finanziamento che non distribuiscano i loro fondi a pioggia ma rigorosamente in base ai risultati ottenuti (ad esempio le pubblicazioni su riviste internazionali), professori che invece di considerare l’università una sinecura di origine feudale siano pronti a mettersi in gioco e rischiare addirittura il proprio posto di lavoro. Ecco perché è particolarmente interessante la proposta che sembrano lanciare all’unisono Marco Santambrogio e Raffaele Simone sulla Stampa dell’8 gennaio: creiamo strutture parallele di alto livello, prendendo a modello gli altri Paesi europei. Non risolveremmo di botto tutti i «mali storici profondi» dell’accademia italiana, ma contribuiremmo a motivare e responsabilizzare i nostri migliori ricercatori e docenti, dando loro i mezzi per combattere ad armi pari nello spietato scenario internazionale.

Outside the farmers' market, across the street from city offices, on any normal weekday, a thousand parking violations.

Outside the farmers’ market, across the street from city offices, on any normal weekday, a thousand parking violations.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. terry levi permalink
    February 14, 2017 12:29

    Great article. I am writing an email to the comune di Roma objecting to the closure. Perhaps some of your readers would like to copy and paste it.

    Like

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