- Italy’s Civic Divide
Making Democracy Work is that rare work of social science which is both important and almost instantly successful. Launched by an enthusiastic review in The Economist and quickly brought out in an Italian translation by a major publisher, it was reviewed in most of Italy’s important newspapers within a few weeks and subsequently analyzed in greater depth in many prestigious journals of sociology and political science. Robert Putnam’s central theme—the institutional performance of Italy’s 20 regions since the 1970 inauguration of an experiment with regional governance—ties into the ongoing public debate in Italy on the need for decentralization of the state. Putnam sets forth a clear, strong, and provocative hypothesis: Differences in the present-day institutional performance of the various regions of Italy can be traced to differences in patterns of civic engagement that extend back to the early Middle Ages. His analysis also has resonance for the many newly democratized countries of the world that are currently grappling with the classic problem of how to achieve good governance where civil society is weak and severe economic difficulties prevail.
The key question that guided the author’s research was, “What are the conditions for creating strong, responsive, effective representative institutions?” (p. 6). Given the vastly different social, economic, political, and cultural settings of the Italian regions, and the nearly identical institutional structures that were implanted in them, Italy’s regional experiment provided an excellent opportunity to study the process of institutional development. The book presents an enormous amount of data, gathered over the course of two decades, in support of the above-mentioned hypothesis. The methods of inquiry included several waves [End Page 173] of personal interviews with regional councilors and community leaders in six selected regions; nationwide mail surveys of community leaders and voters; examination of a number of statistical measures of institutional performance in all 20 regions; an experiment to test government responsiveness to citizen inquiries in all 20 regions; and case studies of institutional politics and regional planning in the six selected regions, as well as a detailed analysis of legislation produced by all 20 regions.
The book begins with an analysis of the consolidation of Italy’s regional institutions over the course of the first two decades of their existence. This process seems to bear a remarkable resemblance to the consolidation of new democracies, with the expansion of regional powers leading over time to the gradual legitimation of those institutions, and with the emergence of an autonomous new political arena being followed by the socialization, integration, and deradicalization of the political elite. In the end the new institutions became so well consolidated that criticism of specific regional governments can be interpreted today as a demand for an even greater degree of decentralization. The basic consequences of regional reform have included greater attention to social demands, changes in the ways those demands are articulated due to the actual working of the new institutions, and the reorganization of political parties in the direction of greater regional autonomy.
The performance of these regional institutions was evaluated according to 12 indicators within three general domains: policy processes (e.g., cabinet stability and budget promptness), policy pronouncements (e.g., reform legislation and legislative innovation), and policy implementation (e.g., with respect to day-care centers, industrial policy, housing and urban development, and bureaucratic responsiveness). The indicators are highly correlated with one another, and the index as a whole is congruent with Italians’ opinions of their regional governments. But the author does not explain how the index was constructed, nor does he report exact data on performance for each region, although various diagrams clearly show a North-South gradient, with the northern regional governments as a group being more successful than their southern counterparts. Six of the 12 indicators are based on data collected for just one year. None goes beyond 1985, with the exception of one that also covers the two following years. In particular, the measure of policy implementation is less reliable than...