Italy was the first European country to enter national lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and was, for a while, one of the nations that was hardest hit by the pandemic. However, after a few first months of real struggle, the spread of the virus has been effectively contained through a concerted effort that has involved all levels of Government. Sadly, the same cannot be said for England.
In Italy, local and regional authorities have constitutional protection and there are several permanent committees that provide forums for regular and constructive dialogue between central and subnational government representatives. There is also clear distribution of power, responsibilities and funding across levels, and local and regional governments have a wide range of direct competences, including on health.
Collaboration, dialogue and subsidiarity are the foundations of the relationship between central and local authorities. To be sure, in the context of the pandemic there were times, especially at the early stages, when central Government had to intervene directly and made decisions on regional and local matters. However, as the country adapted to the ‘new normal’, co-operation, autonomy and local leadership were reinstated. As such, while consultations and sharing of information/data takes place regularly with central Government, regional bodies work in earnest with local authorities in the day-to-day response to the pandemic – with responsibilities on testing, contact tracing, data, monitoring, prevention, and health and care provisions. Through negotiations with central Government, they also develop ‘regional security protocols’ tailored around local characteristics/needs – acting as point of guidance and contact for businesses, workers and civil society, while also providing a clear, unequivocal messages to local communities.
This is not to say the Italian model is perfect. Mistakes were made by central Government and mayors along the way. And yet, there’s one very important lesson we can learn from Italy: co-operation, co-ordination, consistent communication, mutual trust and diffused leadership can have a much more positive effect on policy decisions and crisis management than centralised, place-blind responses.
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University