Balance of Power

Today I found few interesitng news items for my TAD (@wikipatterns) “news trend-spotting” activity, that I use since few months ago to share the results of my (almost daily) news review.

But, frankly, newspapers today are sugar-coated (the Royal Wedding in London), and one of the trends is meaningful only within the scope of Italian politics, and more a confirmation of a self-fulling prophecy than a real trend (i.e. using migration and Libya to re-energize the political base of a separatist political party before the incoming administrative elections).

A more interesting trend is something that could, despite all that is said and written, imply a slight shift in EU, moving from a quota-based to a skills-based allocation of critical posts within the bureaucracy.

With no negative connotation: any large enough organization requires a permanent bureaucracy that can keep the flame up- more a Marathon than a 100-meters dash, despite our obsession for individual “champions”.

Part of my cleaning up the last few years includes working a little bit on my Dutch reading skills- an old ritual of mine, i.e. consolidating skills learned on a project at the end of each project, just in case.

And this by chance overlapped with some articles about our shared past history- including a long list of wars and treaties.

Listing who signed what is almost a mathematical exercise- how many way you have to group countries in competive groups?

One of various treaties, in Utrecht (1713), had an interesting article setting in motion a “balance of powers”, by interrupting succession lines, to avoid that France and Spain could end up under the same king.

This is what the “balance of power” in the title refers to- and it is so much part of our shared history, that is almost a conditioned reflex: put a group of us together, and we focus more on the balance of chairs than on the shared goal.

The Lisbon Treaty changed a little bit the concept- but it is still a work in progress: changing the attitudes in any organization takes more than just writing a joint statement, as you can ask any consultant who ever tried to work on change.

All this is in interesting contrast with the past: few centuries ago, beside exporting artists and intellectuals, Italy was providing also diplomats- thanks, in no small measure, to its long history of “bell tower” diplomacy, with a constant quest for a local balance between the various factions and statelets: a kind of “training ground” for multi-party diplomacy.

The fictional editor of “The Economist” in “The Fourth Angel” had a comment on who is really ruling contemporary Italy, thanks to the long-term, long-winding (and, until not so long ago, half-hearted) “war on organized crime” that, as any war of attrition, made the less scrupled corrupt not just the usual bad apples on the othe side, but the attitudes and approaches, while also, thanks to the unlimited funds at their disposal, infiltrating in every nook and cranny of the Italian society.

And you just need to read online the websites of major Italian newspapers (or the real “The Economist”) to see that the increase of “goonish” attitudes is just an everyday observation, not an opinion or fiction.(beside the world-reknowned lack of transparency and widespread corruption that seemingly spares no part of the local bureaucracy).

But working in such an environment and keeping clean requires quite an effort- therefore, those that survive, can probably be more focused on the goal they are associated with, and be able to pre-empt any infiltration or attempt at reproducing the same approaches.

In other terms: they developed the required antibodies.

If you had asked anybody (myself included) barely a couple of years ago, nobody would have expected the usual “rotation by passport” conditioned reflex to ever be trumped by something as mundane as skills and experience.

And, of course, the passport would have been a liability, as nobody would think that a country that belongs to the PIIGS group could be able to deliver people with the appropriate experience and skills to fulfill the needs of EU-wide financial institutions and positions.

Recently, Vittorio Grilli received the nomination to head a significant bit of the new post-Lisbon institutional constellation: basically, the one preparing the economic agenda on the political side.

And, after the step back from the German head-in-waiting, an increasing convergence in attitudes produced another German candidate, who happen to hold an Italian passport, and who worked for foreign financial institutions: the current Governor of the Bank of Italy.

Well, in Italy there is a long tradition of calling “German” those who are un-Italian when it comes to business issues: and usually carries a positive connotation.

Somebody say that this is also to move abroad a potential Prime Minister- it was done also with Mr. Prodi and, at times, it had been said also of Mr. Frattini- “promoveatur ut admoveatur” is a long-standing Italian tradition.

But both Mr. Grilli and Mr. Draghi carry along something else: experience acquired in non-European private and public financial institutions- and the associated understanding of how non-Europeans perceive what we Europeans say.

Somebody is already complaining about Mr. Draghi’s past- using a “loyalty” framework that, frankly, in our specialized, hyper-professional world, we should leave to the organized crime.

If somebody is a professional, (s)he of course will have a personal association with past business connections.

But whenever changing “team”, a professional should be assumed to be able to shield what was part of his^her past business connections from the current team: or should we assume that that is acceptable only for football players?

Personally, I worked in multiple industries and multiple customers within each industry: but while of course I carried my prior experience with me, on each new activity I had a “Chinese wall” vs. whatever was customer-specific.

Few attempts were made at getting past the wall, but, in the end, private sector customers accepted that professional integrity implies some business ethical standards: and you cannot disclose privileged information only because now you have a new employer.

Anyway, I wonder how those criticizing both Mr. Grilli and Mr. Draghi for their non-European business past assume that you can benefit from the ability to cope with complexity that having worked in multiple environments entails, if they then require that each and any experience is developed within a single organization or business culture.

Our economy is globalized: maybe our institutional inability to cope with and manage globalization is part and parcel of our inability to globalize also our bureaucracy?


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