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Making Regions Work--Lessons from Italy

More than a month after my trip to Italy, I keep thinking about one of the books I read there--Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, by Robert Putnam.

A classic text of governance and civics, Putnam's study focuses on a unique experiment begun in 1970 when Italy suddenly transferred the main responsibility for such activities as urban affairs, regional planning, public works, and economic development from a discredited and unpopular national government to a newly created set of elected regional governments.

Alert to the potential for a novel study of fundamental issues in civics, Putnam closely followed the unfolding and aftermath of that administrative transfer and soon observed dramatic differences in the effectiveness of the new regional governments in Italy.

In most places, to be sure, the reform produced measurable and mostly beneficial change. But even so stark variations in the quality of the regions' governance under the new system emerged.

In the north, regions blessed with a long history of civic association and democratic community like Emila-Romagna or Veneto (where I just was) quickly succeeded in delivering a strong, responsive, and effective brand of regional government measured by both contented citizens and dozens of new day care centers and industrial parks.

By contrast, regions in the south like Puglia, Calabria, or Sicily that contend with a history of authoritarianism dating to Byzantine times and Norman feudalism have not delivered good government. To be sure, the new institutional devolution helped in some ways but for the most part residents of the southern regions have been left to contend with governments that have remained unresponsive, crooked, and unable to lift their people out of poverty.

Putnam's conclusion: Institutions matter, so does the history and local culture in which they are embedded. Or to put it another way: The practical performance of governments is heavily shaped by the social context within which they operate.

Why is this on my mind? Well, of course I'm interested in Italian devolution in its own right and loved the animated prosperity I enjoyed in Milan and Verona. However, my more personal interest in the results of the Italian experiment flows from its implications for our whole Brookings Metro Program project of empowering U.S. regions.

Over and over we at Metro have belabored the need to convey more discretion to metropolitan area actors, whether to construct metropolitan export initiatives, bolster local industry clusters, or design more sustainable communities and better transportation systems. And all along we have urged institutional reform as a strategy for boosting regional and national prosperity.

I have myself been especially militant on this point, and always urged erring on the side of too much rather than too little local autonomy. That has always seemed to me the route to change and more vibrant, autonomous regions.

And yet, Putnam's story of the Italian regional experiment in the 1970s and 1980s gives pause.

That the preexisting history and culture of Umbria supported success and that of Sicily cronyism when the two regions got a chance to act on their own counsels reflection for those of us proposing greater autonomy both for Seattle and Detroit.

As Putnam writes, "Where norms and networks of civic engagement are lacking, the outlook for collective action appears bleak."

Which is to say, the depressing results of devolution in Sicily and Calabria are a possible cautionary tale for efforts to catalyze new prosperity by providing greater flexibilities, discretion, and resources to Detroit, Cleveland, or Boise.

Regional habits, both civic and social, condition the effectiveness of institutions, Putnam contends, and as he and others show, those habits are long-lasting and hard to change. It matters for its current governance whether a town in Italy enjoyed, like Verona, a period of self-governance and vibrant civic life in the 14th century, or--like Naples--remained strictly autocratic. Likewise, and even more daunting, it matters whether a town was a free Etruscan city-state in the ninth century B.C.

All of which raises serious questions about whether a region with a history of weak civic traditions (Fresno) or ineffective government (Richmond) or corruption (Springfield), or big-firm paternalism (Detroit) has a reasonable chance of designing and executing a smart industry cluster strategy or a transformative light-rail system.

To that extent Putnam's story of Italy counsels caution to those of us who advocate decentralization and metropolitan discretion as a strategy for transformation.

And yet, even Putnam leaves room for optimism. 

In the Italian regionalization experiment, institutional changes gradually came about. The new arrangement, as Putnam documents, nurtured somewhat more pragmatic execution in the south as well as the north.   It produced more genuine sub-national autonomy. And of course in the south as well as the north the new regional government was generally regarded as an improvement over the aloof national management it replaced. As Putnam says, summarizing his extensive surveys of Italian citizens, the new regional government was “certainly more accessible and probably more effective.” The upshot: Changing formal institutions can change political practice, which bodes well for Buffalo and New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Maybe devolution of greater autonomy to such regions can allow greater “learning by doing” and so lasting change.

And then, as my colleague Jonathan Rothwell points out, plenty of evidence suggests civic relations can be improved. For example, economists Edward Glaeser and Raven Saks have shown that education cuts against corruption, a symptom of low social capital. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s own research and that of others suggests another channel for improving social capital: racial and ethnic integration. More integrated metros exhibit higher volunteerism rates and greater degrees of trust. Likewise, Alberto Alesina’s work shows that more ethnically integrated countries exhibit higher quality institutions.

In other words, although corrupt and oppressive institutions drain trust and civic capacity, education and integration can reverse these trends and helps regions lift themselves out of the depths of civic despair.

In view of that, I feel largely serene about our readiness to embrace devolution, regional power, and local discretion. Starting points, history, and culture matter, but even where they are unpromising they are not all-determining. Policy can make a difference; so can education and even temporary experiences of successful self-governance. And then, I’d say the status quo of top-down business-as-usual offers no option at all. So: Let’s keep banging away. Let’s err on the side of self-governance while doing what we can to improve its chances of success.