🔮 Populism and the public sector in Italy

Anna Longhini argues that in the relationship between citizens and bureaucrats, we find the seeds of populist ideology, which characterises the former as the 'pure people' and the latter as the 'corrupt elite'. Italy is a useful case in point. There, attempts to reform the public sector have failed to stem the spread of populist ideology

When bureaucracy pits an 'elite' against 'the people'

‘Bureaucracy’ is just one way to define public administration. It is a term with negative connotations, but the closest to common perceptions of public administration: an administrative apparatus that formally applies the law, without necessarily considering the importance of achieving a desirable public result. People bemoan bureaucratic 'red tape'; excessive adherence to formal norms that slows down processes and the achievement of goals. Indeed, many citizens see bureaucracy as working against them rather than in their favour. Thus, bureaucracy widens the distance between 'the people' and 'the elite'.

The power of the elite, moreover, lies not just in the exercise of its functions. It also lies in the power of not doing, of postponing, of slowing down, or even of preventing policymakers from acting. The configuration of this ‘administrative power’ has led citizens to question the accountability of public administrations in complex democratic systems.

Public administration and the problem of accountability

At least two distinct conceptions of accountability exist. We can relate them to the two different administrative cultures typical of Continental European and Anglo Saxon systems.

In its traditional conception, public administration should be generically 'accountable'; that is, responsible and transparent to citizen-users, rather than to the changing political will of elected officials. This conception is closely linked to the separation between the public and the private sphere, or State and society. Yet, it also refers to a separation between politics and administration, which is a feature more typical of continental European countries.

In the Italian case, the separation between politics and public administration is traceable to Article 97 of its Constitution. This complex relationship involves wide-ranging discretion, making it difficult to balance 'the autonomy given to those exercising public power with appropriate control'.

Article 97 also references the sustainability of public debt, which should prevail over spending public money without the appropriate financial coverage. This Article, paradoxically, influenced the development of technocratic populism. A recent example is the Meloni government’s controversial pension policies.

The country’s political instability has affected the design and regulation of its public bureaucracy. It has exposed Italy's citizens to a multiplicity of regulations and bureaucracies. One such is the Regional Autonomy Bill, currently under discussion in parliament.

In Anglo-Saxon systems,

public administrations have the purpose of realizing administered democracy and can do so through a mix of control, capacity, and reinforcement of values

AM Bertelli and LJ Schwartz, Public Administration and Democracy

Public administrations have the capacity to realign democratic values and make democracy work. In this sense, accountability is not a generic responsibility, but a real expectation to respond to a specific political mandate that citizens have entrusted to elected representatives. In systems where democracy precedes the formation of professional bureaucracy, Parliamentary sovereignty exercises control over public administration, holding it 'politically accountable'.

Italy as an administrative democracy

Bridging the gap between public administration (perceived as an obstructive bureaucracy) and citizens is a problem. Indeed, it has been a constant challenge in Italy's attempts to reform its public sector. Reform attempts have been inspired by both Anglo-Saxon ideas of New Public Management (NPM) and pressures from the EU, usually described as an 'external constraint'.

Since the 1990s, NPM ethos has led to the introduction of managerial techniques and tools borrowed from the private sector, with the intention of making the public sector leaner and more efficient. Examples are the introduction of ‘standard costs’ in the healthcare system, and various privatisations, including the Italian Post. As for the 'external constraint', the best example would be the pressure the EU has placed on Italy for over two decades to reform its justice sector and sluggish courts.

Italy has made some efforts to increase bureaucratic transparency, introducing a right of access to administrative Acts, and creating an Office for Public Relations

The Italian government has made several attempts to increase transparency. One was introducing the right of access to administrative Acts. Another was creating an Office for Public Relations, effectively recognising the idea of ‘administrative democracy’. And, most recently, it developed e-government tools such as PagoPA, a platform that allows citizens to make digital payments to the public administration. Yet, in the absence of significant structural reforms, e-government – tools facilitating service provision through information technology – has not yet managed to bring public administration closer to a population demographically not very inclined to digitalisation.

Populism and (dis)trust in the public sector

In Italy, distrust in the public sector, also linked to public service deprivation in some areas, has undermined its smooth functioning. This distrust resulted in significant cuts in human capital spending, while leaving overburdened administrative procedures in place, under the rationale that they are necessary to prevent deeply rooted corruption.

Italy's public sector is overburdened with administrative procedures, under the rationale that they prevent deeply rooted corruption

Cuts to the public sector aimed at streamlining an administrative machine deemed unproductive have prevented the hiring of a young labour force, and pushed up the average age of public workers across all sectors. Among OECD countries, Italy now lies among those with the lowest numbers of public sector workers.

Recovery of trust

Improving the relationship between governed and rulers through a recovery of 'trust' in institutions should serve not only to improve the delivery of public services, but also to govern today's complex society. Cementing the trust relationship is also the best remedy for populism as an ideology. Populism, after all, feeds on progressive polarisation of the people and the elite, portraying them as more at odds with each other than they actually are.

As long as the problems of public administration accountability remain unresolved, populist targeting of the public sector as the cause of the malfunctioning of contemporary societies will continue to resonate.

No.67 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Anna Longhini
Anna Longhini
Postdoctoral Researcher, BabeÅŸ-Bolyai University

Anna works on the Next Generation EU project DIGIEFFECT (2023–26), which investigates the risks associated with digital political campaigning in the EU.

Prior to that, she was a Research fellow at Trieste University.

Her research interests lie in the fields of global public policy and public administration.

She tweets @anna_longhiniX

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