Italians take new approach to tackle easy-going attitudes to fraud: anti-corruption school

Is helping a pal win a contract just being friendly? What's wrong with taking the kids to the beach in the office car? And why not linger over lunch at the trattoria if things aren't too hectic at work? These are the kinds of questions that city bureaucrats pondered recently in Florence in what has been billed as Italy's first anti-corruption class for public officials.

Italy, the birthplace of the Mafia, is notorious for its problems with corruption — and these days it's awash with scandals that have tainted some of its most important public works projects. But the lessons in Florence took aim at more mundane problems: the little instances of everyday corruption that many Italians don't even recognize as being wrong.

The approach proposes to tackle corruption at its roots: a deeply ingrained mentality where friendly reciprocity can too easily cross the line into nepotism, and where tolerance, on the one hand admirable, can also mean turning a blind eye to wrongdoing. Such tendencies may not always be the driver of corruption, but can allow it to flourish.

"The issue is to make bureaucrats and citizens understand that this type of behavior is not correct anymore, you can no longer do this," said Marco Giuri, one of the teachers of the course. "Because in our mentality, it's not corruption, it's just help. It's not that you are paying for a service, but it's simply a favor between contacts, a relative, or the fact that he's a friend. These occurrences are the most common and they are the ones the law wants to break through — and it's common because it's really in the DNA of Italians."

While Italians may struggle to identify corrupt behavior, there's almost universal agreement that it's pervasive: A 2014 EU Commission report found that 97 percent of Italians think corruption is widespread in their country.

The issues the students bring up show that corruption is often a cultural matter in Italy.

"Sometimes they are very small problems ... maybe someone always uses the public car for personal use," said student Simone Cucinotte. "There's a mindset of being a bit elastic on these things."

The school is part of Italy's recent shift to focusing on preventive instead of punitive measures to fight corruption, introduced by a landmark 2012 anti-corruption law. Under the new rules, each city administration must appoint an anti-corruption compliance officer to monitor problems and map out new anti-corruption and transparency plans.

At the Florence course, instructors exhorted their students to focus on locating the problems: Encourage employees to call day or night to report suspicions of corrupt behavior. Create plans to educate the office on what constitutes corruption. And most of all, don't forget to record all activities: Without written proof, you have nothing!

The students nodded along, vigorously taking notes.

Cucinotte said he believed the course could help him make a difference in his office. "If you hold meetings and you involve people and you explain that there will be checks, people get used to the idea," he said. "Maybe they will think twice before doing these things. Instead, if you think that no one is checking, then you're more tempted to take liberties."

And those liberties, big or small, can have a serious impact. Giuri said that bureaucratic inefficiency and endemic disrespect for rules are a form of corruption that can be just as harmful as money changing hands — dragging down the economy and lowering trust in institutions.

"The concept of corruption, according to our law, is much wider that simply bribes, extortion or kickbacks," said Giuri. "Not complying with the working hours, not respecting service orders, not performing work functions, all fall within this very broad concept of anti-corruption."

Giuri is cautiously hopeful that more classes like this one will lower corruption, but he also has his doubts. After all, public employees have to start coming forward to denounce instances of corruption if the system is to work.

He said that even if the law, in theory, says that whistleblowers should not face discrimination, protection is still weak.

And then, the problem may go back to culture: It is one thing to teach the definitions of corruption. It's an entirely different battle to challenge the stigma associated with being a "spy."