MANY years ago, a professor at a state-run university did one of those apparently trivial things that has unforeseen consequences.
Tired after a day of giving oral examinations, he sent student Sabino Cassese home.
Young Sabino, who had waited hours to take the exam, was not happy about having to come back the next day.
He has never forgotten the incident, for him a symbolic of a widespread lack of respect here for the simplest rights.
Today Mr. Cassese is Italy's minister for public administration and is waging war against an arrogant bureaucracy.
There is plenty of work to do in this country, where everyday encounters with public officials would inspire a modern Franz Kafka.
Consider the students who have to go to chronically overcrowded state university classrooms hours in advance of the lecture in the hopes of getting a seat - or those who never even bother, preferring to study at home. Or the people placed on long waiting lists for medical operations, many of whom finally decide (if they can afford it) to go abroad or arrange for surgery in a private clinic. Or the millions of Italians who stand in interminable lines at the post office or the utility company to pay their electricity, gas, or phone bills to often rude, nameless cashiers (the practice of paying a bill by check through the mail is virtually unknown here).
Or the 76 percent of Italian citizens who do not have either a high school diploma or a college degree and who cannot make heads or tails of an archaic lingo that was inherited from ancient Rome. Or the hapless folk who telephone a public office, only to hear the phone ring and ring and ring, because no one troubles to answer it.
This is the Italy that Cassese wants to change. After only a few months in office, he has, among other things, proposed a Public Services Charter that sets a standard of public performance and gives Italians rights to request damages for the failure of public officials to meet those standards.
The charter is similar to reforms made earlier in the decade in the United States and Britain. Cassese has produced a stylebook that calls on government employees to avoid bureaucratic jargon and write in intelligible Italian. And he has created guidelines for state competitive examinations, (which he says in the majority of cases were circumvented in recent years in favor of political patronage).
But bringing efficiency and transparency to Italian public life will not be simple, since the current situation is the direct result of the decades-old patronage system being exposed today by investigating magistrates from Milan and Palermo.
Especially in the last two or three decades, political bosses doled out favors, either on the basis of personal acquaintance with ``the client'' or as the consequence of receiving bribes or kickbacks.
``In Italy, with the increase of inefficiency of public services, we have seen a situation in which rights became sovereign concessions of the Sovereign,'' Cassese says. ``That is, in plainer words, the simplest things to which one had a right became a privilege.''
For example, he says, it was discovered a few years ago in one southern Italian city that people even had to have a recommendation to get a birth certificate.
Another example, he says, can be found at the university where he teaches.
``At the University of Rome, there isn't a secretary or a doorman who isn't the son, the grandson, the great grandson, the husband, or the wife of another employee of the University of Rome,'' Cassese says. ``This means there's a hereditary transfer of jobs.''
Cassese frankly says this is corruption.
Speaking in his ministerial office in Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II in the heart of Rome, he says the issue is access. A birth certificate or a visit to a state health clinic cannot be treated as a favor.
``It's not a privilege; it's a right, equal to all,'' he says.
The telephone rings. Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi is calling to clear up a question before the two meet for lunch. Mr. Ciampi, whose no-nonsense style of governing has won broad support both within and outside of Italy, turns to Cassese when he needs a fireman. Some people even say that one day they would like to see Cassese, who is virtually unknown to the Italian public, become prime minister.
But not everyone is enthusiastic. The unions have objected to his efforts to produce efficiency, saying the changes touch on issues that are more properly dealt with by the unions themselves. Farmers were alarmed recently by his proposal to streamline the central government by merging the Agriculture Ministry into a larger Economic Ministry.
Still, earthshaking reforms are unlikely in the near future, since the Ciampi government has entered a caretaker phase, awaiting the results of the March 27-28 parliamentary elections.
In the meantime, bureaucrats and the rest of the Italians are left to contemplate the day when officialdom's curt ``mi dica'' (``Tell me'') - or worse still, the rude, ``What is your problem?'' - will have to be replaced with a gracious, ``How may I help you?''