The Italian malaise, so widely chronicled in its various facets of gerontocracy, corruption, stagnation and economic insecurity, is one of those systemic issues that have become so entrenched that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it. Yet, author and former management consultant Roger Abravanel believes that many Italians’ dissatisfaction with the status quo may have reached the threshold that triggers change.
A few words on why, far from being impartial, I am a member of the subterranean Roger Abravanel Fan Club. When I joined McKinsey, Roger was already a senior partner at the firm, having returned to Milan after his years in Tokyo, Mexico City and Paris. I had the privilege to work with Roger on several assignments throughout my years there, and I looked up to him as a leading role model; he was, I believe, the most sincere practitioner of the caring meritocracy that kept many of us going through those nights and weekends at work. After retiring in 2006, Roger spent his time as a board member at companies in both Italy and Israel, and started writing a book about meritocracy, published this month.
Meritocrazia argues, with Roger’s characteristic optimism, that four concrete solutions can inject a jolt of leadership and excellence into Italian economy and society, and jumpstart its turnaround. These are his four proposals:
- Establish a Delivery Unit for the public sector in Italy, modeled after the one launched by Tony Blair in 2001 to monitor progress on and strengthen the British government’s ability to deliver on its key priorities across education, health, crime and transport. Roger has extensively discussed that experience with Sir Michael Barber, the first head of the Delivery Unit, and argues that an Italian version of it could both improve quality and reduce waste in the public sector, and train a new generation of young leaders. The extraordinary civil service of Singapore and, though only in part, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France provide more food for thought on how to turn around our dismal performance in government services.
- Create a standardized testing system for Italian schools, similar to the SAT Reasoning Test in the United States (“the secret weapon of American meritocracy”, in the words of Nicolas Lemann). No education reform and no amount of money showered onto schools and universitites can ever achieve any impact, if we can’t measure how schools and teachers are performing.
- Launch an Authority to deregulate and promote competition in private and public local services. From food retail to urban transport, from pharmacies to taxis, from water utilities to toll roads, from gas stations to local professions, local services are the bulk of the economy: and they have largely been untouched by liberalization, thanks to the extortionary power they exert on consumers’ daily lives (try driving through Rome during a taxi strike) and the political consensus that protects local monopolists and oligopolists. This Authority should lead an extraordinary effort to unlock competition in local services. “Devolution” is not the answer: on the contrary, getting results will require strong alignment from the center.
- Unlock the leadership talent of Italian women through affirmative action for women in corporate boards. The model here is the recent Norwegian law mandating that medium and large companies must have at least 40% of board members who are women, or face tough sanctions, including forced liquidation. Italian women themselves are not fond of the affirmative action idea, and some of them have, most insidiously, interiorized our culture’s worst stereotypes. But I believe Roger is right in saying that we’re not going to get anywhere without a shock therapy forcing the end of discrimination at the top of our economy and society. Women’s careers should also be supported through incentives for shorter maternity leaves and a better public and private child care network.
Roger’s book is well-documented, wide-ranging and convincingly argued; it has the crucial virtue of moving beyond diagnosis and adopting a “can-do” attitude to defeat the defeatism so prevailing in public discourse. It is also a direct appeal to our Prime Minister, whoever that would be (the book was going into print just around the time of the April elections), to adopt these proposals. Whether Roger is listened to or not will be, in my opinion, a crucial test for the openness of this government’s agenda to citizens’ needs.
Finally, an apology to some of my Twitter followers. Last Wednesday I inundated them with a live twittercast from the presentation of the book, in Italian – I understand it looked like a ton of spam to those who don’t speak it. But now you understand why I cared so much about what was going on!
Update, September 2008: Please visit www.meritocrazia.com to leave your comments and questions for Roger Abravanel!