LONG IS THE JOURNEY n. 2 Fall 2015

An Uncommon Experience by Daniela Caianiello (2014)

I began my professional life working with my father in his accounting firm, where we applied ourselves to finding “legal strategies” (which some might call evasions) to allow successful enterprises to limit the proportion of profits they would have to share with an extremely demanding but unproductive partner—the State.

After 5 years of this respectable work, I left my elegant office in the heart of Vomero to exercise my skills in two rather ill-famed districts of Napoli: the Spanish Quarter (known for its alleys of picturesque hanging laundry) and La Sanità (the birthplace of Totò). I was selected by Prof. Meldolesi to participate in project URBAN, implemented by the Municipality of Naples with the aim of promoting artisanal trades, including through the drafting of a proposal to extend small loans to businesses (up to a maximum of 60 million lira). Our ambitious, some would say dangerous, goal was to convince semi-underground enterprises to move towards regularization. Prof. Meldolesi dubbed us “street accountants” in order to highlight our proximity to the needs of small-scale artisans, who were often eager to regularize themselves for the sake of their own professional advancement but were intimidated by the innumerable bureaucratic requirements (paradoxically, several artisans had been subject to disproportionate penalties while their activities were regular, incurring unnecessarily heavy fines for every small infraction; instead, they had never been penalized while functioning irregularly, conveniently hidden from prying eyes).

Within a few months, our squad of 5 team members working in pairs contacted almost 500 small shops (all those existing in these neighborhoods), having developed particular skills that enabled us to identify even the most concealed activities. Relating with these small entrepreneurs (actually more artisans than entrepreneurs) was easier than we expected, backed by these strict guidelines:

  1. Introducing ourselves as young graduates interested only in the development of those disadvantaged areas. We made it clear from the very beginning that we were not salespersons (sellers of vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias were the most unwelcome), we did not want money, we were not Jehovah’s Witnesses, but most important, we had no inspection-related motives (we were not from the Financial Police or Department of Labor). Initially, our arrival triggered strange currents: people would suddenly abandon their workstations and greet us as if they were merely passers-by. On one occasion, when we explained the possible benefits of regularization to a business owner and his three colleagues (running their business entirely in black), he interrupted us claiming that the activity (they were producing about 100 bags) was only a hobby, because he was a public employee and so was obviously not interested in regularization.
  2. Always accepting the coffees that we were generously invited to share (which always seemed to be freshly brewed); this served as a sort of peace pipe. These we drank without exception even if we had already drunk a dozen that very same day, despite the strain on our stomachs. Refusing would have been seen as an attempt to “keep our distance.”
  3. We established a fair relationship with these people, in that we initially offered our services for free. In reality, we had an advantage because the consultants they engaged were not particularly knowledgeable. They were usually bookkeepers recommended by friends and relatives, who charged little but whose services were worth even less (a certain craftsman specializing in formal wear, to whom I explained the benefits and convenience of offering apprenticeship contracts to his young embroiderers and thereby regularizing them at little cost, was so happy with the service that he offered to sew my wedding dress: pity that I was already married!). We went on to support them in all the stages of financing, from completing the grant application to the final verification of how they had spent the money. Apart from some minor attempts to cheat, which were immediately foiled, they all behaved very correctly. This time, the State was no longer a distant entity to be “cheated” but was made up of real people, fresh-faced but intelligent youth who had tried every possible means to help them, above all for free (our meagre pay came directly from the Municipality of Naples, the executor of the project).

I still recall the general amazement when word spread that we would accept no gifts, purely to avoid distortions in our rapport. At first there was disappointment on the part of those whose presents were not accepted—we refused literally everything, from bags to fresh pasta, from Christmas sweets to handmade umbrellas, and many other unknown gifts that were never opened. But later, this approach came to be respected and we gained more trust. Had we to accept gifts in any form, our availability could have been construed to be influenced by this; instead, our assistance had be perceived as entirely disinterested, an embodiment of the Friendly State.

After this exhausting but highly satisfying apprenticeship which was consolidated by the launch of Project CUORE (Centri Urbani Operativi di Riqualificazione Economica), inspired by the example of  other  colleagues and enticed by the possibility of a steady income (since I now had a family to look after), I decided to attempt the public competitive exams. I enrolled in the 5th edition of Project RIPAM (Riqualificare la Pubblica Amministrazione) and began my studies (700 hours of coursework) to prepare myself to work in a public body. Thus, I went from being a “Street Accountant” to the “Chief Accountant” of the Municipality of Cardito—a major step forward for some, but a leap in the dark for me.

As strange as it may seem, I encountered many more problems in the comfortable office of a public body than I did in three years of working in two  ill-famed neighborhoods. The necessity of my appointment in the Municipality sprang from the need to replace the previous accountant, who had been caught red-handed several times but whom nobody had ever dared to denounce owing to his connections to influential local politicians. To render this substitution less humiliating, it was justified by the appointment of an up-to-date and qualified young person. Sadly, from among their specifications, the authorities were unable to dictate the sex of their ideal candidate; the incumbent Mayor wanted a man at all costs, and was deeply disappointed when he learned that a woman had been assigned to the role. I had to put up a considerable fight to be assigned to the Financial Services, since the Mayor was convinced that I would be a perfect candidate for the Social Services…

My first year of work was notable for my being boycotted by “some funny prankster” who, to demonstrate my absolute incompetence, tried every day to lay traps and pitfalls for me (disappearing files, sabotaged accounts, incorrect information) and so take my place. In reality, I was able almost immediately to rely on the support of my colleagues, who were very happy to work in a more transparent fashion without the risk of being blamed for concealing the misdeeds of the previous Chief Accountant who, if the need arose, would have deflected all responsibility on to them. In any case, within a few years I created a close-knit and efficient team, to the exclusion of all slackers. Now, in fact, there exist tools to compel personnel to work and I use them all: when an employee is entrusted with a specific and measurable workload and does not complete it, processes to curb poor performance are activated, and they control employees’ clocking in and out to identify those who arbitrarily leave their workstations. For the administrator who has no wish to terminate an employee—who in this case is also a voter—it is more convenient to transfer him to a less “rigorous” department (the previous Mayor used to call me “the Spartan” or even “the Islamic fundamentalist,” accusing me of being too uncompromising, but he essentially said this admiringly), thereby winning the gratitude of the offender who, after years of inertia, has had to endure the disgrace of having his hitherto incontestable productivity equated to zero.

At present, we are four team members in the Financial Service. I have three colleagues, one of whom is an accountant, another a kindergarten teacher, and the other an electrician. I would vouch for their honesty and willingness; as for skills, mine will have to suffice. I have a special relationship with them: they trust me, my honesty, my professionalism, and they are ready to work hard to achieve set targets (the balance sheet documentation was prepared in record time, with the issue of more than 2000 invoices in one month for the audit of the funds received under D.L. 35/2013). They tell me, “We do it for you; the Municipality does not deserve anything, but you do.” They come even in the afternoons so that I do not have to work by myself, and try in every way to make their contributions. For my part I always defend them, taking responsibility for any mistakes in my department and giving them gifts on every occasion to make them feel part of a team, with rights and responsibilities. The only drawback is that they appreciate me so much they do not want me to ever leave the Municipality, and so, whenever I participate in a selection, they hope that I do not win. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s their fault if I am eternally the “first among the unfavored” and therefore always rank second.

In the employee selections conducted by Municipalities, in sectors that are particularly strategic for the Administration such as Social Services, the Department of Private Housing and the Human Resource Department, being able to rely on a yes-man is more fundamental than solid skills. In these cases, the search for the ideal candidate (whether internal or external) is anchored to the essential requirement of agreeing to the Mayor’s every demand, whether legitimate or not. Fortunately the Financial Service, my area of expertise, requires solid competencies in order to avoid serious and irreparable consequences such as the collapse of the institution, which would have grave implications for the political careers of its administrators (if they are held responsible for the crisis, they suffer a sort of “exit” and cannot be re-elected for 10 years, in addition to being prosecutable by the Court of Auditors). Therefore, the Mayor is more inclined to tolerate my “fixations,” which are actually just transparent working methods.

One of the greatest sources of friction with the political machinery stems from its claim to deciding whom to pay and when. In times when resources are scarce and payments can be delayed for up to 20 months, this discretion imputes an enormous power. For this reason, I maintain in my office a chronological register of payments wherein EVERYONE can verify his dues and NOBODY can bypass anyone else (apart from very few exceptions governed by accounting regulations). The law is useful in this regard, because even the Constitutional Court in ruling n. 211/2003 has declared that the immunity of public bodies vis-à-vis its creditors can be invoked only if payments have been made in strict chronological order. It is vital NEVER to deviate from this because once an exception is made, everyone will feel entitled to demand similar consideration.

Eventually the Mayor conceded, because it is clear that I will bend the rules neither for HIM nor for ME, and much less for his opponents; this assurance is very important. Further, I have the advantage of being able to invoke the punitive intervention of the Court of Auditors, which is much more effective than even the bogeyman is for children. For example, I was recently able to convince the Mayor to exchange his official car (an Alfa Romeo 156), which exceeded the maximum permissible power, for a humble Fiat Punto.