Show Less
Open access

Utopian Discourses Across Cultures

Scenarios in Effective Communication to Citizens and Corporations

Edited By Miriam Bait, Marina Brambilla and Valentina Crestani

The term Utopia, coined by Thomas More in 1516, contains an inherent semantic ambiguity: it could be read as eu topos (good place) or ou topos (no place). The authors of this volume analyze this polysemous notion and its fascination for scholars across the centuries, who have developed a variety of visions and ways to explain the «realization» of utopian discourses. The experts in the fields of sociology, political science, economics, computer science, literature and linguistics offer extensive studies about how utopian scenarios are realized in different cultural contexts.

Show Summary Details
Open access

Administrative Simplification between Utopia and Nightmare.

← 104 | 105 →

Gloria Regonini

Administrative Simplification Between Utopia And Nightmare

1.  A Common Nightmare: Bureaucracy

Almost a century ago, Max Weber described the competitive advantage of bureaucracy over previous forms of organization of public agencies with the following words: “Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs – These are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration” (Weber 1925d, 1978: 973). On the grounds of such vision, Weber believed that the efficiency and self-referential nature of the bureaucratic machine foreclosed a source of risk for representative institutions, incapable of exerting effective control over its activities.

Today, delays and inefficiency of public agencies feed into the feelings of dissatisfaction common to many citizens in a wide range of countries differing in terms of their institutional settings, organizational cultures and political balance. Bureaucracy has been blamed for many of the failures of public intervention, and those who complain about its inadequacy range from Nobel Prize1 winning scientists to D-Day2 veterans, as well as entrepreneurs and families, taxpayers and recipients of welfare subsidies.

In Italy, discontent stemming from lengthy and complex administrative procedures is widespread. From international adoptions to certificates attesting major illnesses, from scholarships to tax returns, from stadium building projects to fishing, there is no area of human activity that is not perceived as burdened by the unbearable weight of red tape.

International comparisons broadly confirm one fact: Italian opinion of public administration is not the result of a collective prejudice, but is based upon solid objective evidence of serious inefficiencies. According to the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) published by the World Bank between 1996 and 2014, Italy ← 105 | 106 → performed consistently below average among high-income OECD countries with respect to all governance dimensions. Particularly significant was the deviation in the values of those indicators, which are most directly related to the functioning of public administration: government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and control of corruption (World Bank 2015).

2.  A Common Dream: Simplification

If bureaucracy can be regarded as a nightmare, simplification is the dream that politicians, regardless of their political orientation, constantly promote as the ideal model of good governance for a healthy relationship between citizens and public administrations.

The goal of ‘zero bureaucracy’ holds considerable charm, as politicians, journalists and bloggers know very well. The battle between the evil of bureaucracy and the sake of simplification is often described with military or religious metaphors (e.g. an anti-bureaucracy ‘task force’, ‘war’, ‘ban’, ‘vision’, ‘mission’, ‘crusade’). The promise is that simplification can be similarly achieved by simple means: the deed can be done by just cutting, deleting, or getting rid of regulations, offices, or procedures.

The Italian case clearly indicates that the relationship between means and ends is not so linear. Twenty years of simplification initiatives have revealed how the dream can transform itself into a new nightmare, producing the reverse of what was expected. In fact, hundreds of measures taken by governments on opposite ends of the political spectrum – involving different governmental levels, appointing simplification ministers and town councilors and depleting considerable human and financial resources – have produced a layering of rules that have generated enormous costs for policymakers, without conferring any substantial benefit.

3.  The Usefulness of Extreme Cases

In many ways, Italy’s relationship with paperwork has atypical features, making it an extreme case: “The Italian legislative corpus has long represented a labyrinth for even the shrewdest legal practitioner because of its complexity and sheer volume” (Borghetto and Visco 2015: 106). Even among Southern European bureaucracies, Italy is notable for the persistence of its legalistic and formalistic administrative cultures (Galanti 2011).

Yet the unexpected and unintended effects in this field are not exclusively an Italian anomaly. That the utopia of simplification can be transformed into its ← 106 | 107 → opposite is not a remote hypothesis. Indeed, in radical libertarian theory, this is an inevitable outcome, as stated by David Graeber with his ‘iron law of liberalism’: “Any market force, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect, increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs” (Graeber 2015: 7).

The empirical evidence reported in international comparisons of the bureaucratic burden leads to more cautious evaluations. If it is true that no nation is completely immune to this problem, the opinions of citizens and entrepreneurs in terms of their relationships with their nation’s administrations vary greatly from country to country. Italy consistently places below the average in measures of regulatory quality, a finding that can be used as a magnifying glass to better examine the dynamics that lead to worse outcomes in order to tackle them more effectively: “The ‘generalizability’ of case studies can be increased by strategic selection of critical cases [.] Atypical or extreme cases often reveal more information because they activate more actors and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (Flyvbjerg 2001: 77–78).

The case study examined in the following pages relates to all the measures implemented in Italy to reduce the administrative burden on businesses.

4.  Simplification for Businesses

Since the 1990s, and even more so after the economic crisis of 2008, Italian entrepreneurs have been complaining about the unbearable burden of bureaucratic procedures that affect each phase of their activities, from starting a business, to its possible developments or its termination

In surveys conducted in recent years to gauge the opinions of business leaders within the Global Competitiveness Reports of the World Economic Forum, the ‘Inefficient government bureaucracy’ item almost always ranks first among ‘the most problematic factors in doing business’ in Italy.

Complaints of entrepreneurs often carry a tone of exasperation due to the sheer amount, complexity and slowness of required administrative formalities. In 2014, for example, Antonello Montante, legality delegate of Confindustria, declared: “Bureaucracy causes more damage than the Mafia”3. ← 107 | 108 →

These criticisms have had a strong influence on the decisions made by political institutions. Moreover, in the last decade, the simplification of administrative procedures for businesses, especially for small and medium enterprises (SME), has become an explicit, continuous and non-controversial objective, even for the European Union. With the Small Business Act (SBA) of 2008, the Commission set the following objectives for itself: “Design rules according to the ‘Think Small First’ principle” and “Make public administrations responsive to SMEs’ need[s]”4. These principles, together with the finding that the little progress made by some countries, including Italy, are regularly reaffirmed in the annual European Competitiveness Reports.

On a national level, Italian governments, regardless of political orientation, have adopted numerous measures since 2008, such as draft-laws approved by Parliament, executive orders, rules of procedures, codes, and three-year plans, all of which were aimed at easing the administrative burden placed on Italian companies. Political leaders have learned to give attractive ‘nicknames’ to these laws: “Masters in our own home” (2001), “Cutting administrative burdens” (2008), “Development Decree” (2011), “Simplify Italy” (2012), and the “Decree of doing” (2013).

During that same period, all twenty Italian regions have implemented a number of agreements signed with the central government and have produced laws and simplification decrees on important matters within their jurisdictions relating to trade, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, the environment, health and social services, urban planning, construction, health, and civil protection.

If the outcome of the government’s actions were measured by the number of words approved by means of formal deliberations, the simplification for SMEs ‘Italian Style’ would deserve an extremely positive assessment. But it is not so. The main objective of simplification is to make it easier to open and run businesses in Italy. With respect to this aim, the most recent international comparisons confirm the persistence of a strong delay. The Doing Business 2016 report (World Bank 2016) places Italy among the lowest-ranking European countries. The evaluation is particularly low for operations that directly involve the public administration and the judiciary power, such as paying taxes and enforcing contracts. The Global Opportunity Index 2015 by the Milken Institute (Wickramarachi and Savar 2015) places Italy in the same negative position with respect to the ability to attract investments, with a continuous drop in performance since 2009. Even according ← 108 | 109 → to the Global Competitiveness Report 2015–2016 by the World Economic Forum, while Italy has recovered some positions compared with previous measures, productivity remains low, “as a result of long-standing constraints such as burdensome red tape (139th) and labor market inefficiency (126th)” (World Economic Forum 2015: 30). Nevertheless, although government bureaucracy is confirmed as the most problematic factor for doing business in all the advanced economies, Italy's position is still clearly far behind the average.

After more than a decade of simplifications, this paradoxical result has been recognized in documents published by the Italian government itself: “The long and uncertain time, the excessive costs and the large number of obligations continue to represent a major obstacle for those who want to ‘do business’. Over the years, regulatory announcements and measures have followed one another, yet they have failed to effectively address this crucial issue for the country’s growth and development”5.

In fact, the never-ending process of making laws and subsidiary legislation has generated perverse effects. The continuous layering of interventions concerning planning consents, environmental safety, and company registrations for tax and social security purposes, causes standards to overlap and intersect with each other, increasing uncertainty among the very public officials who should enforce them, and among the citizens who have to comply with them.

5.  A Perverse Problem

In some respects, the fact that the regulation of SMEs is a never-ending process can be regarded as normal, as technologies change, the economy changes, and their impact on the environment as well as on working conditions and products themselves also changes.

But the Italian case pushes itself far beyond these progressive adjustments. A cross-section of the initiatives stratification can be found under “company simplification” on the Ministry for Simplification and Public Administration’s website6. The 229 web pages listed represent a catalog of broken dreams of various successive governments, with their ‘cutting-laws’, ‘new agendas’, public consultations, and memos ‘containing explanatory guidelines’. Pages and pages are repeated with the same objectives, without a logical connection, no milestones (and often no dates), were it ← 109 | 110 → not for some reference to the decrees, reported in the form of unreadable PDF files7, as if no one will ever bother to check up on their promises to see if they were kept.

In other words, SMEs comprise one of the sectors currently facing greater complications in legislation.

This significant growth in complexity produces the very opposite effects of those desired. First of all, public officials find it very complicated to keep abreast of the constant changes, to review the forms and use databases built under now-obsolete laws.

For the recipients of these interventions, compliance is difficult, even for those with the of best intentions. As anyone can see in following specialized blogs, engineers spend more time studying decrees than new building materials.

For the past several years at the end of each December, the sitting government sends the Parliament a bill called the Milleproroghe [A Thousand Deferrals] also in official documents, and which delays the enforcement of new and old rules for six or twelve months. This established practice is clear proof of the ‘Italian Style’ regulation difficulties.

The final result is the implosion of the very meaning of the word law, as recognized in the ruling of an administrative court: “The sequence of cascading referrals […] makes the voluntas legis8 almost unfathomable”.

This contributes to undermining trust in institutions and the civic spirit of loyal cooperation in a country that consistently ranks very low in international surveys with respect to these aspects of political culture.

6.  Two Changes in Perspective

When a problem is so extensive and persistent, it is often technically labeled as ‘wicked’ (Conklin 2005; Grint 2005)9, despite attempts made to resolve it. Wicked problems have vague definitions, many interrelated causes, and different features ← 110 | 111 → in different contexts. Solution attempts require the integration of many skills and often produce patchy, nonlinear effects with a mix of positive consequences and negative externalities.

In any case, when facing a wicked problem one should try to change the perspective. In 2013, a mouse conquered the web with an enviable number of views thanks to a video taken as he was trying to steal a cracker10. To do that, he had to climb onto a step. The video records him while tries in vain for dozens of times to push the cracker onto the next step, in reality just managing to fall back on himself. At one point, the little mouse interrupts his vain efforts and jumps on the step without the cracker.

This move allows him to observe the matter from above, from a new perspective. Once back down, the little mouse builds on what he has seen and, with some minor adjustments, he finds the right position to push the crackers on the step, and then he flees with his prize.

In the following pages, we will try to apply the example of the mouse to administrative simplification, proposing two dramatic changes in perspective. The first involves a shift from a legal approach to a policy one, analyzing the problem using the knowledge provided by social and behavioral sciences. The second change of perspective implies the reversal of the opinion that simplification may be the product of mere reduction or elimination of procedures. To really simplify, one must have an extraordinary ability to deal with the unavoidable complexity of adjustment in our open societies.

7.  From Laws to Policies

The Italian fiasco in the field of simplification underscores one fact: the reduction of laws through new laws has the same credibility of Baron Munchausen’s pulling himself out of a mire by his own hair. A real improvement of the relationship between citizens and administrations will not result merely from a legal logic, albeit graciously concerned with its own self-containment. Official documents have actually come to this conclusion: “As it is acknowledged, in the past, simplification measures were entrusted mainly to laws. Poor attention, if none at all, was paid to their practical application. The result is that, as citizens and enterprises know too well, many of the announced simplifications remained ‘on paper’”11. When the entire horizon of regulation remains within the boundaries of the legal perspective, and the production of formal laws is considered the only form of ← 111 | 112 → intervention, the very meaning of the law vanishes, becomes undetermined and loses the precise connotation that could come from the comparison with other epistemological perspectives, which provide a different interpretation of what institutions do.

In the following pages, we will try to place the simplification in another semantic space, in another ‘finite province of shared meaning’ (Schutz 1962): one that revolves around the concept of public policy. First of all, this entails linking the choices, whether formal or informal, explicit or implicit, of different actors in and outside institutions, using a collective problem as a common thread. According to the definition provided by James Anderson, public policy is “a purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors in dealing with a problem or matter of concern” (1984: 3). Secondly, this perspective requires the collection and use of the knowledge produced by social and behavioral sciences through the observation of real actors: politicians, but also street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980), specialists, and the recipients of these interventions. This breakthrough, which began in the United States over 50 years ago, has an important consequence for this present study: without close observation of the actual behavior of the regulators and those they regulate, it is virtually impossible to develop any simplification proposals that will get through ‘the road test’.

But applying this analytical frame to the Italian case and analyzing the war on bureaucracy as a case of (re)regulatory policy means adopting a totally different perspective from the categories in which the rulers and the ruled in this country interpret their objectives and their choices. Italian, like all the Romance languages, has a single term politica to define the two spheres of action that the English language calls ‘politics’ and ‘policy’. In the practical use, the first meaning absorbs the second. When the term politica is accompanied by the indication of a specific public sector intervention (e.g. education, pensions), it refers to all of the laws on a particular topic. The official website of the Italian government for monitoring the implementation of the executive program only mentions “law proposals and delegated legislation” approved by the Cabinet12. One would search in vain through the website for documents that describe the internal logic of the various measures, their expected results, the actual stage of implementation, and any impact assessment or evaluation of the results obtained. ← 112 | 113 →

In other words, the policy analytical capacity (Howlett 2009) of Italian government institutions is not only very low (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2015), but is also a skill often unknown to decision-makers themselves.

Switching from a legal perspective to a policy one means drawing upon a much wider range of governmental tools and broadening the range of factors that may influence their effectiveness: “Regulatory policy is the framework within which rules and alternatives to rules are considered, evaluated and implemented by government and public authorities seeking to influence the behavior of private actors in the economy” (Lunn 2014: 21).

If we begin by considering the possible tools of government, even in this case the family of words used in the Italian language creates important mismatches of meaning when compared with English. For instance, the Italian term regolazione is not the simple equivalent of ‘regulation’, because the former is absorbed as a synonym by the term regolamentazione, the formal definition of the tiny details of laws, which unlike ‘regulation’, leaves no room for the use of soft instruments, such as interpretation, position statements, and guidelines. ‘Regulation’ can be discretionary, participatory, or negotiated. Regolamentazione can only be top-down, command and control.

Secondly, adopting a policy perspective means broadening the range of factors that should be considered to explain the poor performance and to improve the effectiveness of interventions. The first striking fact that emerges from the reconstruction of the decision-making processes of the past decade is that the simplification arena is crowded with many actors, from the European level to the national, to regional and local ones. The venues that gather actors (boards, technical committees, task forces, etc.) keep changing their names, composition, and responsibilities with a form of institutional Keynesianism: instead of digging holes and then filling them up, organisms are first created and then eliminated, but only to be recreated under a different name. Established in 2005, the Parliamentary Commission for simplification itself also changed its name and responsibilities in 2009.

8.  The Network

If we look at the most influential actors, we will note that a large part of the relevant decisions are made within “iron quadrangles”13 who have at their corners politicians with a strong presence of SMEs in their councils, organizations representing the interests of various categories, administrative executives called ← 113 | 114 → to enforce the laws, and professionals, who, for profit, act as middlemen between those who are regulated and the public administration and politicians.

In the analysis of the relationship between politicians and public administration, it is necessary to distinguish between the dynamics that emerge in the public communication arena and those that develop in institutional decision-making bodies. The ambiguity of the term ‘bureaucracy’, which can be seen both as a group of people that make up an untouchable privileged class or a set of complex and onerous procedures, represents the link between these two arenas. When politicians are (or try to be) in the spotlight of old and new media, bureaucracy is singled out as a caste that hinders the implementation of innovations decided by those who govern14. This game of scapegoating and blame avoidance (Weaver 1986) is vital in a country whose levels of public trust in politicians are the lowest in Europe, with a continuously negative trend15. When they instead hold legislative or executive roles in parliament or in the ministerial offices, politicians hardly pay attention to the linearity and formal clarity of the decisions they make, as evidenced by the bleak opinions of the Legislation Committee of the Chamber of Deputies.

Moreover, this ambiguity also characterizes the questions that organizations promoting the interests of SMEs address to the politicians with whom they are closest. On the one hand, the representatives of these groups complain about the unbearable weight of red tape. On the other hand, the regulation process is invoked, even in its most baroque forms when it comes to defending its market position threatened by foreign investments, especially in the field of trade, when trying to safeguard the products protected by quality marks, or when deregulation threatens to disrupt established business routines. The old Italian saying ‘the law is interpreted for friends, and applies to enemies’ has become ‘simplification is for friends, red tape for competitors’.

9.  Administrative Logic and Risk Aversion

The analysis of the role of administrative officers in charge of applying detailed rules and standards highlights the gap between the legal approach and the policy approach, which follows a social and behavioral perspective. The first approach is only measured ← 114 | 115 → in one way: the degree of compliance of acts with the prescriptions set forth in long and complex legal provisions. The second approach has allowed us to understand the multiplicity of the tensions and contradictions that officials at different levels have to manage or at least absorb for many decades, namely since Herbert Simon’s fundamental work Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (1947). Considering public officials not as followers of a procedure for the enforcement of laws, but as actors in the implementation process, has important consequences both for the descriptive prescriptive levels. Regulatory policies for SMEs are aimed at influencing the behavior of individuals and businesses to protect public goods such as competition, the quality of the environment, and workplace safety. Their implementation is effective as long as administrative burdens are proportionate to the gravity of the feared harm, and applied appropriately and selectively, taking into account the past behavior of those who are regulated, and aim to shift from detailed preventive authorizations to a prompt identification of violations.

This ability to articulate distinct modes of regulatory implementation is quite utopian in the context of Italian public administration. First, the regulatory inputs that spill over public offices have formal features, as we have already pointed out, which are totally incompatible with their selective application and, in this case, smart. The number and frequency of laws, cross references, and the way in which the texts are written, are so jumbled that it is impossible to understand which are the purposes and which the means, which are the primary objectives and which the secondary ones. The typical language of a simplification law contains formulations like: “subsections 3 and 4 of Article 8 shall be repealed…paragraph 1a of Article 31 is repealed”. Often, the changes relate to laws passed just a few months previously. In this situation, the only possible strategy for survival is the ipse dixit, “he himself said it”, and that is the servile dependence on the interpretation memos written by superiors.

In Italy, in fact, there is a lack of consideration of how bureaucratic burdens take a toll on public administrations, which are called upon to implement laws, including simplification ones. The false assumption is the total flexibility and absorption capacity on the part of public services. However, in other countries the bureaucratic costs for public servants themselves are monitored and reported within tolerable limits. An interesting example is the 2007 British initiative ‘Cutting Bureaucracy for Our Public Services’, which sought “to reduce the amount of unnecessary bureaucracy faced by frontline public sector workers”16 through the bottom-up identification of the ‘key irritants’ to which they are exposed. ← 115 | 116 →

The perverse complexity of regulatory inputs affecting the activity of civil servants has two serious consequences. The first is the absence of effective transparency in procedures, which creates a corruption-prone environment17. As is well known, Italy consistently holds a very low position in international rankings in terms of its ability to fight corruption. In a country with a strong presence of organized crime, this is not a minor problem. The second consequence is less obvious and is related to the fact that the same extreme complexity of laws ordinary citizens are confronted with also concerns the legal framework of the civil service. For an official-type, the principle “a form (or a stamp or a signature) more is better than one less” is a self-defense strategy, because it means less risk of being caught or blamed by superiors and control authorities in the case of checks. In fact, in the case of an investigation of a public servant’s responsibilities, the proportionality and appropriateness of criteria would be of little or no importance. Neither are there incentives or protections for those who venture down this road.

The usual reference to the principal-agent theory as an explanation of the bureaucrats’ behavior focuses on moral hazard as a source of inefficiency and lack of responsiveness. In the Italian case, this model succumbs to an alternative explanation in many situations. In 1964, Victor Thompson convincingly linked bureaupathology to the sense of personal insecurity inducing officials to give an abnormal priority to self-defense over the objectives of the organization which they work for, displaying behaviors such as “close supervision; failure to delegate; emphasis on regulations, quantitative norms, precedents, and the accumulation of paper to evidence compliance; cold aloofness; insistence on office protocol; fear of innovation; or restriction of communication” (Thompson 1964: 100). Although convictions for breaches of public laws affect a small percentage of employees, nevertheless, the stress, length and economic costs of these proceedings are so high that extreme risk aversion becomes the rational choice.

10.  The Hidden Requirement of Simplification

The fourth important group of actors in regulatory policies for SMEs are intermediaries, i.e. professionals who get paid to replace the entrepreneur in interactions with administrative offices and deal with required formalities on their behalf in ← 116 | 117 → the fields of taxation, social security, urban planning, public health, etc. In Italy, these intermediaries are widespread figures. A behavioral approach allows us to understand the ambiguities and contradictions implicit in this position, even linking it to other similar professions. In the area of justice, for example, Italy, together with Luxembourg and Greece, is the country with the highest number of lawyers per capita and the length of legal proceedings is consistently higher than in other countries (CEPEJ 2014).

Even in the case of intermediaries acting in the name of the SMEs, objectively speaking, this thriving business has opposing interests to those pursued by the simplification policies, which aim to make it easy for the user to access the administration directly and autonomously. An important confirmation of this conflict came from the president of the National Institute of Social Security (INPS), which handles almost all the national pension and welfare services. In a letter to a major national newspaper, the president Tito Boeri wrote: “[…] not a day passes now without my receiving a letter from some representatives of labor consultants that threaten retaliation against INPS. My fault? Having declared at a public meeting that […] Companies must no longer necessarily resort to intermediaries, career counselors and tax advisors and should instead interact directly with us, reducing the costs for businesses”18.

This action has uncovered an underdeveloped aspect of our analysis of the four main actors in the regulatory policies for SMEs. Despite the frictions and mutual accusations used by the media, the elements of this network ultimately support and legitimize each other, because a change in efficiency would create problems for everyone, including the users themselves. Plans for simplification tend to systematically ignore one fact: post-bureaucratic administration does not demand fewer skills from all employees and policy makers, but rather different and more specific skills, such as being able to access channels of digital interaction; understanding English terms that increasingly often refer to the conceptual horizon of the Common Law and not to the more familiar continental Civil Law; and taking responsibility for choices that can easily get through ex ante checks, but are then subjected to more onerous ex post verifications. These are all innovations that require considerable knowledge and skills. If we compare these skills with those used by small business owners, who are loyal to the old routine based on political patronage, face-to-face relationships in administrative offices, or carte blanche delegation to intermediaries, simplification appears to be more demanding than the traditional red tape. ← 117 | 118 →

This finding is of particular importance in Italy because our country has a very significant delay in the sector of adult skills. According to the 2014 OECD Adult Skills Survey (PIAAC):

In Italy, the mean proficiency scores of 16–65-year-olds in literacy and numeracy are significantly below the average of the countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). In literacy and numeracy, the younger adult population (16–24-year-olds) scores significantly below the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey […]. In Italy, 26.9 percent of the adult population (16–65 year olds) reports no prior experience with computers or lacks very basic computer skills19. To fully reap the benefits of simplification, users need significant expertise, which is quite scarce in Italy, and the situation is not any better if we consider the skills administrations must possess in order to create physical and digital communication websites that ensure both a pleasant user experience and provide effective solutions for those who access them. Unfortunately, the necessary skills and cultural understanding to build channels of this type are almost completely absent in the Italian public administration because of the generally older age of its employees, which is caused by the contraction of turnover due to the high public debt. This situation perpetuates the predominance of legal training, which until a few years ago was a necessary and sufficient condition for recruitment. This indirect adverse selection isolates the Italian administration from the technologies and communication styles used by younger generations and cross-border users.

An example of this deficiency is the troubled implementation of the Points of Single Contact (PSCs), a European Commission project launched together with the 2006 Services Directive: “They should become a single contact point where SMEs can easily obtain information, submit applications and collect decisions or other replies without having to deal with a multitude of authorities at different administrative levels, as is the case today” (“Points of Single Contact: Doing business made easier”20).

In June 2015, the European Commission commissioned a research study to assess “the performance of the PSCs in the 28 EU member states and three EEA member states against the PSC Charter criteria”21. The evaluation was not ← 118 | 119 → independent, having been entrusted to Capgemini Consulting and Eurochambres: Chambers of Commerce are found in many countries, including Italy, and are the main actors in the design and operation of the PSC22. Although the assessment of implementers-evaluators has on the whole placed the Italian PSC ‘business in a day’23 above the European average in terms of formal delegation of functions, the usability of the website is still considered disappointing when verified bottom-up: “Mystery shoppers indicated that the PSC is non-intuitive and difficult to navigate. The ease of use of the portal currently does not match customers’ expectations. This refers, among others, to the extent that activities were integrated (necessity to use many different websites), the experience of technical difficulties and the extent to which users were confident that they were doing the right thing”24.

11.  Front Office, Back Office and Political Dividend

One of the most important contributions to the breadth of literature on digital government is the identification of the fundamental difference between the so-called back and front offices: Back Office: This is the overall term for all processes and areas in a business enterprise or public authority which are carried out in the background for the citizen or customer and are not directly visible. It includes the internal processing of applications and queries received by the administration. […] Front Office: By contrast with the back office, the processes, which take place in the front office, are processes in public administrative transactions that are visible to the customer. The further steps of processing the customer’s request then take place in the back office of the administration. (Anttiroiko and Mälkiä 2007: 1553)

This distinction is crucial in an era in which websites represent the most visible face of institutions. Today, the first judgment of a public policy is made on the basis of its digital identity. Emblematic from this point of view is the story of the Obama administration’s website for the Affordable Care Act,, launched on October 1, 2013. When the website crashed in the first days, many commentators defined the problem not as a technical one, but as the failure of the reform itself. On October 20, 2013, President Barack Obama addressed the matter, publicly admitting that there was “no excuse”. Once the technical problem had been solved, in April 2014, the Secretary of the Health and Human Services announced her resignation. ← 119 | 120 →

Even the policy goal to reduce red tape for businesses must first be translated into “a transformation in the business experience of frontline regulation” as mentioned in one presentation by the Better Regulation Delivery Office UK25.

But the simplicity of the front office implies a large and complicated number of tasks for the back office. The greater the difference between what end users see and what is processed in the back office, the greater the chances of a satisfying experience for the user. Unfortunately in Italy, public administrations continue to bend the needs of the front office against the back office ones. To escape this logic, a great effort in observing actual user behavior must be made to empirically verify which cognitive maps they use and which shortcuts they take when accessing a website to interact with a public office. User strategies and expectations are a stronger objective constraint than laws and codes in determining the success or failure of the regulation, because these factors are not influenced by government decrees, but by the user experience that citizens consolidate surfing on global websites to shop online or to download films. Ignoring this fact is like ignoring the force of gravity in the engineering design of a public building.

Unfortunately, the persistent work of the back office does not pay out political dividends in terms of visibility, and it potentially eliminates one of the central actors in the policies for SMEs: the intermediaries, who in turn have strong links with interest organizations and politicians themselves. In a country where ‘making a law’ is considered the natural solution to every collective problem, and a large part of the political show is occupied by the tensions that accompany the law-making process, while very scarce resources are dedicated to the evaluation of its real effect, this is not a cost-effective strategy.

12.  Conclusions

If used as a magnifying glass to detect problems and tensions in other nations, the reconstruction of the Italian regulatory policies for SMEs points to two important conclusions. First of all, the objective of simplifying administrative procedures is of paramount importance in influencing the degree of public confidence in institutions and the competitiveness of the national economic system. Secondly, the contribution of social and behavioral sciences brings to light problems and solutions that neither jurisprudence nor the classical economic theories of regulation can provide. ← 120 | 121 →

Since the 2008 publication of Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the interplay between the objective of simplification and the institutional use of behavioral sciences has taken on a well-known name: nudge. While this volume has been able to highlight the contribution that behavioral sciences can provide to regulation in both descriptive and prescriptive terms, however, this potential has been compressed to some extent and under-used because of an almost exclusively psychological approach to the dynamics that affect the individual choices of those who are regulated.

In this essay, I have instead tried to show that there are other analytical perspectives that can use the knowledge provided from observations of the actual behavior of the regulated and the regulators. Studying governments and the governed not from a juridical logic, but from a policy one, entails recognizing the strong influence authors such as Charles Merriam and Harold Lasswell have impressed on this discipline. The difference here, compared with fields such as behavioral economics and psychology, is that the actors are considered in their social dimension, since they are immersed in a web of relationships without which the criteria to evaluate the profitability of the alternatives they face would not emerge (Wildavsky 1987; Dunn and Kelly 1992).

The contribution that comes from a policy perspective on the issue of regulatory simplification may seem paradoxical: the first step in simplifying is to recognize the tremendous complexity involved in identifying and managing an acceptable balance between the needs of the individuals, their rights, their preferences, and the needs of the society that these same individuals belong to.

Attempts to bypass this uncomfortable but realistic conclusion have obvious limitations. In Italy, the path of simplification as a strategy of subtraction and getting rid of rules has been pursued with determination. On March 23, 2010, a real stake sealed this strategy: “Over 375,000 laws and repealed regulations were burnt at the stake. Literally. Armed with ax, pick and blowtorch the Minister for Simplification Roberto Calderoli set fire to a huge wall of boxes made up of all the provisions repealed through the work of his ministry”26. After six years, however, no one has ever noticed a reduction in the bureaucratic burden that can be traced to this gesture.

A second shortcut consists in understanding simplification as deregulation by other means. This strategy has often resulted in stopping the search for the difficult balance between public assets and private interests, giving more importance to the latter. In many cases, this results in shifting complications to other arenas, ← 121 | 122 → such as by increasingly appealing to courts to settle disputes between rights that nevertheless are entitled to formal protection: for example, the freedom of trade, but also the right to health.

A third way is the one explored by simplification through the use of ‘nudges’ (Sunstein 2013). As previously pointed out, the libertarian paternalism that inspires it can easily lead recipients to make choices without a clear understanding of the overall costs and benefits implicit in the proposals to which they subscribe (Bubb and Pildes 2014).

All of these three paths are likely to lead only to a superficial simplification, moving away from the indirect effects of these strategies on the difficult political, social and economic balances upon which our civil coexistence lies.

In short, trying to keep it simple is not only complicated27, it is also complex (Boisot 2006; Geyer and Cairney 2015).


Anderson, J. E. (1984). Public Policymaking: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Anttiroiko, A.-V. and M. Mälkiä (eds.) (2007). Encyclopedia of Digital Government. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Reference.

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2015). Policy Performance and Governance Capacities in the OECD and EU. Sustainable Governance Indicators 2015. <>.

Boisot, M. (2006). “Moving to the edge of chaos: bureaucracy, IT and the challenge of complexity”. Journal of Information Technology 21(4): 239–248.

Borghetto, E. and F. Visco (2015). “Governing by revising: a study on post-enactment policy change in Italy”. In: Conti, N. and F. Marangoni (eds.) The Challenge of Coalition Government: The Italian Case. Abingdon: Routledge: 106–127.

Bubb, R. and R. H. Pildes (2014). “How Behavioural Economics Trims Its Sails and Why”. Harvard Law Review 127: 1593–1678.

CEPEJ 2014. Report on “European judicial systems – Edition 2014 (2012 data): efficiency and quality of justice”. <>

Conklin, J. (2005). Dialog Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems. New York: John Wiley. ← 122 | 123 →

Dunn, W. N. and R. Mae Kelly (eds) (1992). Advances in Policy Studies Since 1950. Policy Studies Review Annual Volume 10. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: why social enquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galanti, M. T. (2011). “Is Italian Bureaucracy Exceptional? Comparing the Quality of Southern European Public Administrations”. Bulletin of Italian Politics 3 (1): 5–33.

Geyer, R. and P. Cairney (2015). Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Graeber, D. (2015). The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. New York and London: Melville House.

Griffith, E. F. (1939). The Impasse of Democracy. New York: Harrison-Hilton.

Grint, K. (2005). “Problems, Problems, Problems: The Social Construction of Leadership”. Human Relations 58 (11): 1467–1494.

Howlett, M. (2009). “Policy Analytical Capacity and Evidence-Based Policy-Making: Lessons from Canada”. Canadian Public Administration 52(2): 153–175.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Lunn, P. (2014). Regulatory Policy and Behavioural Economics. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Schutz, A. (1962). Collected Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nyhoff Publisher.

Simon, H. A. (1947). Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. New York: Macmillan.

Sunstein, C. R. (2013). Simpler: The Future of Government. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thaler, R. H. and R. Cass Sunstein (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thompson, V. A. (1964). “Administrative Objectives for Development Administration”. Administrative Science Quarterly 9(1): 91–108.

Weaver, K. R. (1986). “The Politics of Blame Avoidance”. Journal of Public Policy 6(4): 371–398.

Weber, M. (1978 [1925]). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wickramarachi, H. and S. Keith (2015). Global Opportunity Index 2015. Santa Monica: Milken Institute. ← 123 | 124 →

Wildavsky, A. (1987). “Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions: A Cultural Theory of Preference Formation”. American Political Science Review 81(1): 3–22.

World Bank (2015). Worldwide Governance Indicators. Country Data Report for Italy. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.

World Bank (2016). Doing Business 2016: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.

World Economic Forum (2015). The Global Competitiveness Report 2015–2016: Full Data Edition. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

1 “Nobel winners say scientific discovery ‘virtually impossible’ due to funding bureaucracy,” Rebecca Smith, The Telegraph, June 2, 2014.

2 “Veteran’s anger as French bureaucracy threatens to derail 70th anniversary of D-Day”, Sunday Express, April 21, 2014.

3 La Repubblica, Palermo edition, February 25, 2014. Antonello Montante, who is also president of Confindustria Sicilia, is under investigation for accusations of Mafia related activities as of January 2016.

4 Commission of the European Communities 2008. Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – “Think Small First” – A “Small Business Act” for Europe, <>.

5 Governo Italiano 2015. Agenda per la semplificazione 2015–2017, Rapporto di monitoraggio agosto 2015, <>.

6 < (accessed on January 28, 2016)>.

7 For instance, an essential document like the General Directive for administrative action and the management of the Office for the 2013 government program. <> and <>.

8 Ruling N. 01946/2014 REG.PROV.COLL. N. 00336/2014 REG.RIC. <>.

9 Australian Government – Australian Public Service Commission 2007. Tackling Wicked Problems A Public Policy Perspective, <>.

10 <>

11 Governo Italiano, note 6.

12 Governo Italiano, Monitoraggio dell'attuazione, <> (accessed 27 January 2016).

13 With reference to Griffith’s (1939) ‘iron triangles’ among the congressional committees, the bureaucracy, and interest groups.

14 The Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared before an audience of entrepreneurs: “We need to take up a violent war against bureaucracy. I’m using the word violent because we have no alternatives” (11th April 2014).

15 CESifo-Database for Institutional Comparisons in Europe, World Economic Forum, The Global Competitiveness Index Historical Dataset 2005–2014, <>.

16 National Audit Office (NAO) 2012, Reducing bureaucracy for public sector frontline staff: Briefing for the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee, <>. The NAO acts as a watchdog for the British parliament.

17 In 2015, Italy ranked second-to-last among other EU members. See Transparency International 2016, Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, <>.

18 Tito Boeri, Non opporsi alle innovazioni, Il Sole 24 Ore, 17 October 2015.

19 OECD 2014. Italy. Adult skills (Survey of Adult Skills, PIAAC), <>.

20 <>

21 European Commission 2015. The Performance of the Points of Single Contact. An Assessment against the PSC Charter. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

22 Chambers of Commerce often rely on Capgemini consultants.

23 <>

24 Italy. Performance of the Point of Single Contact, (29/06/2015), <>

25 Russell, Graham 2012. Enforcement and Inspections. A Journey Towards Change. BRDO and the UK context, <>

26 Corriere della sera, Calderoli brucia le leggi abrogate, March 24, 2010.

27 Roz Strachan, Trying to keep it simple? It’s complicated, May 28, 2014, Digital Marketplace Blog, Cabinet Office, Government Digital Service, <>.