international analysis and commentary

The Italian governance system facing the pandemic


The Covid-19 pandemic hit Italy very hard. Italy was one of the European countries where the virus first appeared and for many weeks the number of patients in Italy was the highest in Europe, surpassing even that of China at one point. The pandemic began in the North and did its direst in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna in particular. The Central and Southern Regions have had and continue to have much lower rates of infection and far fewer deaths.

In Italy, as of September 3, 2020, the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants was 58.81. In comparison, the number of deaths per 100,000 in Belgium was 86.4; in the UK 62.29; in Spain 62.2; in Sweden 56.89; in France 45.79; in Germany 11.23; in Hungary 6.33; in Poland 5.47; in Greece, just 2.55. In the United States, the rate was 57.09.

As is widely known, different countries count death differently, making statistics hard to compare. Italy’s system of counting is probably one of the most inclusive. Regardless, however, it is clear that Italy has had one of the highest Covid-19 death rates.

The pandemic has put Italy’s governance system under stress. Probably more than any other European country, with the possible exception of Spain.

Palazzo Chigi, seat of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, in a lockdown night


Italy’s constitutional structure and its impact

The Italian State was born in 1861 on the French centralistic model; then, in 1948 – with the Constitution of the Republic – twenty Regions were created, each with their own legislative powers. The implementation of this system of Regions was only completed in 1970. Before the constitutional reform of 2001, the Regions had remained essentially administrative articulations, but with that reform, the Regions were given much more extensive legislative and management powers. Healthcare, in particular, became the main area of competence attributed to the Regions, and health management today represents more than 80% of the Regions’ budgets. So in Italy we have a national health system, but it is mostly managed by the Regions.

Still, in that 2001 reform, responsibility for “international prophylaxis” was left to the State (art. 117 of the Constitution). Therefore, the central government maintains direct control and responsibility with respect to actions to be taken against a pandemic.

The current constitutional structure of Italy is not typical. Italy is neither a unitary state nor a fully federal one. The hybrid character of Italy’s governance system has had and continues to have profound consequences for the Public Administration’s management of the pandemic. Since the division of responsibilities between the central State and the Regions in the field of healthcare has never been fully defined, serious conflicts have arisen among the various institutional levels with regard to the pandemic’s management. Both the State and the Regions have claimed decision-making powers, and each have tried to blame any mistakes or delays on the other.

These conflicts have been exacerbated by the fact that almost all the Regions in Northern Italy (with the notable exception of Emilia-Romagna) are ruled by right-wing administrations, while the present Italian Government is supported by a left-wing coalition. The latter’s electoral support comes mostly from the central and the southern parts of the country.

Sadly, this institutional uncertainty – as well as the political conflict between the Regions of the north and the central Government – has sparked several criminal investigations about who was possibly responsible for decisions, or non-decisions, that proved to be wrong, ex-post. In particular, such cases regard the decision not to lockdown a few cities in Lombardy, where the virus started, already in late February.

One reason behind such conflict was the role given to the technical institutions, like the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, in shaping the decisions made by the Government and by the Regions. In the Italian governance system the role of technical institutions is almost entirely consultative. These institutions do not normally have the power to impose any kind of behavior on citizens. Furthermore, given the unprecedented nature and size of this pandemic, the prescriptions given by the technical institutions were inevitably laden with uncertainty, and variations in timing. Nevertheless, the main suggestions made by the technical institutions proved to be largely right. It’s on the basis of these suggestions that the Italian Government decided to enforce a lockdown – the first country to do so in Europe.


Shifting responsibilities?

There is no doubt that in Italy the management of the pandemic has given new impetus to the centralization of decisions. Such centralization is justified in this case by art. 117 of the Constitution, as mentioned above. At the same time, there has been a substantial shift of powers from Parliament to Government in broader terms. This fact is unprecedented in a “pure” parliamentary system like the Italian one. During the health crisis, most of the government’s decisions were made by administrative decree, not through legislative measures. The Parliament was almost completely bypassed. For many weeks, both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate were physically closed. Unsurprisingly, such behavior has sparked intense criticism from many constitutionalists, mostly from the Left.

In particular, the lockdown of the whole country, as well as the “state of emergency”, were declared by an administrative decree. Since the lockdown and other measures deriving from the state of emergency obviously severely restricted citizens’ constitutional rights, the point at stake here was and remains particularly relevant.

It is largely agreed that the lockdown was the main reason why the virus did not expand into Southern Italy. A surprisingly high percentage of the Italian population respected the rules established for the lockdown, which ended on June 3. The police and the army also proved very effective in enforcing that lockdown. In just a couple of months almost one fourth of the Italian population had been subjected to controls by the authorities.

The health emergency has also led to a deep restructuring of the way services are provided (front office) and the way public offices work (back office). In particular, there has been a widespread use of remote working. The government facilitated this shift by simplifying administrative procedures in important ways.


Public administration and the pandemic’s challenge

As far as the functioning of the Public Administration (PA) is concerned, the overall judgement is that the PA proved substantially successful in coping with the emergency. This is true for the health system, and it is true for other branches of the administration, such as education, transportation, and social services.

Such an evaluation was certainly not a foregone conclusion, given that the Italian Public Administration has always been structurally weaker than that of countries such as France, Germany or the United Kingdom.

Now for some more specific points.

At the end of March, a Special Commissioner for the Covid Emergency was appointed. At that time, Italy had the second largest number in the world of people infected.

The Commissioner had, and has, unprecedented powers in the history of the Italian Republic. Indeed, he has the power to bypass all administrative procedures. And he made use of these powers. For example, the regular procedures for public procurement were largely ignored. Bids were approved or denied by the Commissioner, something made possible legally by the declaration of the state of emergency.

On the basis of article 117 of the Constitution, the Special Commissioner is making most of the decisions concerning concrete measures to fight Covid-19. For example, his office was mostly responsible for the strong increase in the number of available intensive care units (they were 5,170 at the beginning of the pandemic, and there are now 9,400; another 3,500 are currently on the way). His office was and is responsible for the implementation of the central government’s decisions about providing masks and other equipment to the different Regions.

Overall, the action of the Special Commissioner has been very effective. In all probability, the positive results Italy has achieved in combating the pandemic would not have been reached if regular procedures and the regular distribution of powers had been followed.

The sector of the PA currently under the greatest stress is no longer the national health system, but the national school system.

The national school system is much more centralized than the health system, as the central State has almost all legislative and managing powers in this field. This is true also of the University system.

The Government has decided that from mid-September all schools and universities will open and classes will be held in person, whereas from mid-March until the end of June everything was done online only.

This decision affects about 12 million Italians, without even counting public transportation and other services. That means more or less one fourth of the Italian population.

The effort required by the PA so that the Government’s decision can be applied without too many problems is enormous indeed. Just think: universities such as Cambridge in the UK have decided that classes will be held only online for this academic year. And the Polytechnic of Zurich – with a limited number of students, spacious facilities and a generous budget – will only offer in person classes to first-year students.

Let me conclude on a more abstract point. The present situation has determined a strong increase in administrative power over legislative power. During the pandemic, legal rules were largely substituted by administrative commands. This means that the Italian decision-making process has shifted from the logic of abstract and general rules (typical of a country operating under Roman and civil law) to the logic of immediate results. One may wonder what the long-term consequences of such a shift might be.

This is particularly true of the power relationships between politics and the Public Administration. The weakening of the sphere of abstract law in favor of administrative decisions necessarily requires a strong and effective PA. It is not entirely clear whether Italy’s Public Administration has the capacity to fulfill this new role, and whether it can continue doing so successfully into the future.

Another important shift also took place. In the Italian constitutional system, the different Ministries have significant autonomy. In Italy, for example, the President of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister) is a “primus inter pares” – first among equals. This is not the case for a British Prime Minister or a German Chancellor.  To cite just one difference, the Italian Prime Minister cannot remove a Minister singlehandedly.

During the pandemic, ministerial autonomy was severely restricted; often, it was cancelled altogether. All relevant decisions were made – and continue to be made – by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. It might behoove us to consider what will happen after the pandemic. Is Italy being led – de facto if not de iure – into a new institutional arrangement?



This article is a revised version of the Speech given at the e-panel session “Coping with Challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Roles of Public Administration” – EGPA-IASIA e-conference “Public Administration learning & development in the COVID-19 era”, September 2-4.