"Strong regional and local identities are part of history's bequest to Italy. Regional entities - geographically defined, politically independent, economically differentiated, and generally dominated by a strong city - have been proeminents threads in the tapestry of Italian history for more than a millennium. Indeed, when the Italian state was proclaimed in 1860, linguistic variegation was so pronounced that no more than 10 percent of all 'Italians' (and perhaps as few as 2.5 percent) spoke the national language. For the Piedmontese monarchists who unified Italy, regional differentitaion was the principal obstacle to national development. Fatta l'Italia, dobbiamo fare gli italiani was their slogan: 'Having made Italy, we must now make Italians'. The highly centralized Franco-Napoleonic model was the latest word in admnistrative science. Strong central authority was, they concluded, the necessary remedy for the weak integration of the new nation state.
A few voices called for the establishment of autonomous regional government within the new state. Fearing the reactionary tendencies of the Church and the peasants, as well as the backwardness of the South, however, the majority of the makers of modern Italy (like most of their counterparts in the emerging states of today's Third World) insisted that decentralization was incompatible with prosperity and political progress. The centralizers quicky won the debate. Top local officials were appointed by the national governemnt in Rome. Local political deadlock(or even local dissent from national policy) could lead to years of rule by a commissioner appointed by the national governement. Strong prefects, modeled on the French system, controlled the personnel and policies of local governemnts, approving all local ordinances, budgets, and contracts, often in the minutest detail. Most areas of public policy, from agriculture to education to urban planning, were administraed by field offices of the Roman bureaucracy.
This negotiated, differentiated system of central controls survived de facto throughout the Fascist interlude. Elections, parties, and political liberties were abolished, but the traditional organs of executive power and much of the older ruling class remained in power. Despite the highly centralized formal institutions, the reality of Italian governance embodied a certain implicit responsiveness to local elites. Neverthless, for local policymakers under the monarchy, under Fascism, and for more than two decades under the post-Fascist Republic, all roads led to Rome.
Only after World War II, with the advent of democratic politics and growing grassroots revulsion against extreme centralization, did regionalist sentiment begin to re-emerge. Newly powerful political parties, both the Christian Democrats on the center-right and the Socialists and Communists on the left, had historically opposed the national government and thus generally had argued for greater decentralization. Under their aegis, the new Constitution of 1948 provided for directly elected regional governments.
This constitucional mandate was carried out almost immediately in five 'special' regions, located along the national borders and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, areas threatened by separatism and ethnic problems. Creation of the remaining, 'ordinary' regions, containing 85 percent of Italy's population, required enabling legislation, however, and was delayed by intense political resistance. (...)
A wide variety of objectives had been enuntiated by proponents of the new institutions.Populist claimed that regional government would raise levels of democracy, by fostering citizen participation and responsiveness to local needs. Moderates argued that decentralization would increase administrative efficiency. Southerners believed that regional governemnt could speed social and economic development, reducing regional inequalities. (...) Two more years were required for the central government to issue decrets transferring powers, funds and personnel tothe regions, so that the new governments effectively did not open for business until April, 1, 1972. (...)
Our 1976 wave of interviews found our respondents much less confident about the ability of the regions to assert their autonomy. They reported more conflict between center and periphery, and more central control, than they had foreseen six years earlier. Their previous optimism about the new institution's capacity to address urgent social and economic problems was now more restrained, and they were quick to point the finger of blame at foot dragging in Rome. Naturally, demands for autonomy stood much higher on their agendas now. (...)
Devolution is inevitably a bargaining process, not simply a juridical act. (...)
Responsibility for many aspects of government that touch the lives of ordinary Italians - many of the essential functions that successive national governments had failed to perform - passed into the hands of the regions.
A pratical measure of the importance of the regional government was the resources they now controlled. Thens of thousands of administrative posts were created to serve the new governments and, during the waves of decentralization in the early 1970's, thousands of employees were transferred from the central bureaucracy to the regions. By April 1981, the fifteen ordinary regions accounted for 46.274 administrative personnel, a figure that had grown by 76% percent in the preceeding five years (the five special regions employed another 29.383 persons).
Totally funds available to the regions grew exponentially during the 1970's and 1980's rising from roughly $1 billion in 1973 to roughly $9 billion in 1976, roughly $ 22 billion in 1979, and more than $ 65 billion in 1989, the lion's share of this coming from the central government in the form of general-purpose and special-purpose transfers. (...) By the beginning of the 1990's, nearly one-tenth of Italy's gross domestic product was being spent by the regional governments, only slightly belw the figures of the American states. (...)
But for the better or worse, much of the Italian domestic policy was now regionalized. Regional government had become, in Max Weber's evocative phrase, 'a strong and slow boring of hard boards." - Robert Putnam, in Making Democracy Work - Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton, 1993.