The Politics of Localism: Understanding the Failures of Asylum Governance in Italian Cities
Network governance theories praise localism—the devolution of policies to subnational governments—as an opportunity for public authorities, business actors, and civil society organisations to collaborate in pursuit of inclusive policy innovations. Scholarship on welfare and urban governance is instead more critical and warns against the perils associated with government decentralisation, including austerity, privatisation, poor inter-institutional coordination, and the resulting socio-territorial inequalities. Both supporters and detractors, however, remain elusive on the political dimension of localism and its consequences for policy-making. This lack of attention is ever more surprising in times of profound political polarisation across liberal countries.
This paper argues that localism in divided democracies incentivises governance failures and social exclusion, rather than their opposites. Subnational authorities are eager to capitalise on their state-delegated powers in public service provision to transform local policy-making in a political battleground, making conflict—not collaboration—the prevalent mode of interaction among them. In such polarised contexts, exclusion—not necessarily inclusion—of marginalised city residents is more likely to become a politically expedient policy objective. In all, localism may pave the way for phenomenal, inclusive innovations with upscaling potential, but also undermines the sustainability of such policies over time and their consistent implementation across space, thereby breeding unequal landscapes of social citizenship.
This argument is unfolded through the prism of immigrant integration, a policy domain in which the scholarly praise for localism is especially popular. Municipalities are celebrated as beacons of hope for their inclusive or pragmatic responses to immigrants’ needs, mirrored in the proliferation in academic debates of labels such as “sanctuary,” “refuge,” “solidarity,” and “welcoming” cities. Yet it is our contention that, in times of contestation over the boundaries of community belonging, localism offer political incentives to frame highly politicised immigrant populations as undeserving policy targets, leading to their exclusion from public services.
Drawing on assorted empirical evidence, the paper recounts three decades of asylum policymaking in two middle-sized Italian cities: Bologna and Venice. Over the 1990s-2000s, both these cities crafted innovative local responses to accommodate forced migrants and spearheaded policy change from the bottom up—pioneering what was to become Italy’s asylum system. These similar governance trajectories, however, have diverged dramatically since the 2010s, as asylum morphed from a consensual into one of the thorniest political topics in the country. While Bologna’s asylum policies have proven to be path-dependent, Venice’s governance network gradually collapsed, leading to the dismantling of its own policies.
These findings travel beyond Italy and the domain of immigrant integration; they call upon policy scholars to look at local governance and social policies through more political lenses in times of increasing political polarisation across liberal societies. Normatively, the paper makes a case for “flexible centralism,” that is, a mode of governance that pursue the uniform implementation of policies across national jurisdictions while leaving room for collaborative experimentation at a local level.