Berlusconi: short

A revolution is under way in Italy: civil servants are turning up for work.

Silvio Berlusconi's minister for public administration, Renato Brunetta, a professor of labour economics sometimes described as the only Thatcherite in Italy, was crowing on radio last week about his success in persuading the "millions" of civil servants he claims are fannuloni, literally "do-nothings", to mend their ways.

"In the past few months, there has been a drop of nearly 50% in absence from work on account of sickness [among public employees]," he claimed. And, referring to the southern Italian saint celebrated for healing the incurably sick, he boasted: "I'm better than Padre Pio!"

Brunetta, who is even shorter than Berlusconi, is one of the more impressive performers in the media mogul's cabinet, and made a blistering start earlier this year when he launched a campaign to cure chronic skiving among Italy's 3.65 million state employees.

A post in the Italian public sector has traditionally meant a job for life, but in July Brunetta was behind a new law giving state institutions the right to sack employees if their misbehaviour warranted it, as well as to transfer and discipline them if required. Those who called in sick were for the first time subject to mandatory medical checks.

It is too early to tell if Brunetta's reforms have revolutionised national behaviour. Italians have a tendency to react swiftly and prudently to draconian new laws, but then to slide quietly back into their traditional ways when vigilance slackens and the immediate danger has passed. In August, eight railway workers were dramatically sacked – an unheard-of event – when it emerged that a ninth had been clocking in for all of them. But last week, it was reported that the railways had since taken all eight of them back.

And shifting the fannuloni culture of Italian public service will take more than a few medical inspections. Many government workers obtain their jobs through personal or political favouritism. As it has been impossible to sack them (until now, at least) they can either put in the hours, or punch their cards and go off and do something else.

Over the decades, state institutions have permitted the spread of a vast undergrowth of informal business activity. As a result, there are judges who moonlight as journalists, librarians who make far more money as freelance designers, university professors who also run businesses to run outside, and museum curators who drop in once in a blue moon, but who cannot be touched because of their friends in high places.