The Inclusion of Local Governments in Italy’s Multilevel Conference System of Intergovernmental Relations

Greta Klotz, Eurac Research

Relevance of the Practice

In Italy there are two important formal mechanisms to facilitate intergovernmental relations and to include the local level of government in the political decision-making process: the Conference of the State, Cities and Local Autonomies (hereinafter CSCLA) and the Unified Conference, which brings together the CSCLA with the Conference of the State, Regions and Autonomous Provinces. The latter conference therefore comprises three levels of government (national-subnational and local). The CSCLA was introduced with the decree of the President of the Council of Ministers on 2 July 1996 and was reformed by the Legislative Decree no 281/1997. The same legislative decree also created the Unified Conference.

The two conferences are the only formal institutions where political representatives of the local authorities meet regularly with members of the national and subnational governments to discuss relevant policies, as well as challenges of the local institutions. They are thus of utmost importance.

Description of the Practice

The members of the CSCLA is composed of representatives of the national government as well as representatives of the local authorities. The chair of the conference is held by the Italian Prime Minister or, through delegation, the Interior Minister or the Minister for Regional Affairs. In addition, the following members of the national government participate in the Conference: the Ministers of Finance, Economy, Infrastructure and Health. For the local authorities, the members are: The President of the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI), the President of the Union of Italian Provinces (UPI), 14 mayors appointed by ANCI and 6 presidents of Italian provinces appointed by UPI. The institution tries to strike a balance between urban and rural areas with the provision that five out of the 14 mayors have to represent metropolitan cities. The same persons also form part of the Unified Conference, together with the members of the Conference of the State, Regions and Autonomous Provinces (Prime Minister, Minister of Regional Affairs, all presidents of the Italian Regions and the two presidents of the Autonomous Provinces Trento and Bolzano).

The CSCLA meets normally at least once a month (according to law it has to meet at least every three months). In addition, the Prime Minister, the President of the ANCI and the President of the UPI have the right to ask for a meeting whenever they deem it necessary. On the contrary, only the Prime Minister has the right to convoke the Unified Conference. The tasks of the CSCLA are about consultation, information and exchange:

  • coordination of relations between the state and local authorities;
  • study, information and discussion on issues related to policies that may affect the functions of provinces, municipalities and metropolitan cities;
  • discussion and examination of problems with regard to the organization of local authorities, including aspects of financial and budgetary policies as well as legislative initiatives and acts of the national government;
  • discussion and examination of problems relating to the management and delivery of public services and any other problem that is submitted to the opinion of the Conference itself by the President or at the request of the local authorities;
  • encouraging information and initiatives to improve the efficiency of local public services.

In contrast to the CSCLA the Unified Conference brings together three levels of government. According to the Legislative Decree no 281/1997, there is the obligation to consult the conference with regard to draft laws, legislative decrees or acts, which are of common interest for regions and local authorities. Specifically, the Unified Conference expresses opinions (pareri), among others, on:

  • the draft stability pact that aims to ensure sound public finances;
  • the draft finance law and related draft laws;
  • the economic and financial planning document.

The function of the conference is purely consultative, as its opinions are not binding. Furthermore, according to Article 9 of the above-mentioned legislative decree, the Prime Minister can put on the agenda each other topic that he/she regards as being of interest for the regions, provinces, municipalities, as well as mountain towns and communities. This can also occur, however, upon request from ANCI, UPI or the National Union of Mountain Towns and Communities (UNCEM). The UNCEM was founded in 1952 as a non-profit association, which represents all Italian mountain towns and municipalities, which cover 54 per cent of Italy’s territory and are home to around 10 million inhabitants. According to law, the President of UNCEM should also be a member of the CSCLA. In practice, this function is left to the representation of ANCI, with whom UNCEM is working closely and on the basis of a written agreement. However, the President of UNCEM is present at the meetings of the Unified Conference.

Beyond its consultative function, the Conference promotes and confirms, for instance, intergovernmental agreements (intese) between the government entities represented there. However, if there is no agreement within 30 days, the Council of Ministers can take a unilateral decision (with justification).

It is interesting how the Unified Conference works in practice. It does not take decisions in common but separately in two groups of entities. The group of regions which are members of the Conference of the State, Regions and Autonomous Provinces and the group of representatives of the local authorities who are members of the CSCLA have to give consent in two separate blocks. Usually, the consent is given in unanimity by the members of these two groups. If there is no unanimity, the consent is given by the majority of the representatives of each of the groups. Therefore, there is a differentiation in the decision-making process between regional and local authorities but not, among the latter, between authorities from urban areas (e.g. metropolitan cities) and rural areas (e.g. mountain towns and communities).

Assessment of the Practice

The rationale behind the establishment of these two conferences is very important, as they are about reinforcing the relations between the national government and local authorities and giving the latter a voice regarding policies that concern them. Thus, it strengthened the position of the local level of government in the multilevel system and gave it the possibility to discuss these policies and their repercussions in a formal framework. However, it must be borne in mind that there in Italy two dimensions of political access and representation, i.e. the formal channels such as the conference system and the direct, (party-)political informal channels.[1] The system of intergovernmental relations is therefore not as coherent as a purely formal perspective might suggest.[2]

In spite of their potential crucial role, the conferences are often criticized as being limited to discussing relatively minor technical issues instead of big policy issues and as being imbalanced in terms of decision-making power. It is indeed true, especially, that the role of the local authorities is, in comparison to the national government, quite a limited one. This is underlined by the fact that the Prime Minister chairs both conferences and sets the agenda. Furthermore, the agreements and opinions of the conferences are not binding. Therefore, although there is the formal collaboration between government levels, these opinions are in fact often ignored by the national government. There are of course some decisions which require not only consultation with local authorities but also their agreement, even if constitutional jurisprudence has defined this requirement on a case-by-case basis in very different ways. Arguably even more problematic is the fact that there is no mechanism for verifying compliance with what was agreed upon, especially when it comes to implementation.[3] In fact, as some scholars have pointed out, it was only the Covid-19 pandemic which eventually seems to have prompted the national government to take the conference system more seriously.[4] Before that, the latter had after some debates in the end often relied on ‘hard’ instrument such as financial tools and pressure.

From the perspective of the local authorities, a further challenge is within the conference system to speak with one common voice. This is so because experiences especially with metropolitan cities suggest that there is an intense struggle for representation and that medium- and large-sized local governments typically prevail.[5] For this reason, the broad spectrum of different views on specific policies by local governments from urban and rural territories might be not visible. Metropolitan cities have a strong position as they represent 5 out of 14 mayors, even if about 90 per cent of Italian municipalities have less than 3,000 inhabitants. As for the above-mentioned two channels, the political and institutional one, local governments other than metropolitan cities are therefore disadvantaged concerning the institutional channel. As a result, they focus on political contacts with other government levels, through ANCI or outside of it. Due to Italy’s historical legacy of localism, it is not that municipalities are not heard at all, quite often mayors even in appear public and media debates concerning national issues. What is missing is stronger integration through the institutional channel.[6]

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Bifulco R, ‘The Italian Model of State-Local Autonomies Conferences (also) in the Light of Federal Experiences’ in Jörg Luther, Paolo Passaglia and Rolando Tarchi (eds), A World of Second Chambers. Handbook for Constitutional Studies on Bicameralism (Giuffrè 2006)

Bin R and Ruggiu I, ‘La rappresentanza territoriale in Italia. Una proposta di riforma del sistema delle conferenze, passando per il definitivo abbandono del modello Camera delle Regioni’ (2006) 6 Le Istituzioni del Federalismo 903

Carpani G, ‘La collaborazione strutturata tra Regioni e tra queste e lo Stato. Nuovi equilibri e linee evolutive dei raccordi “verticali” ed “orizzontali”’ (2009) 19

Palermo F and Wilson A, ‘The Multi-Level Dynamics of State Decentralization in Italy’ (2014) 12 Comparative European Politics 510

Senato della Repubblica, ‘Il sistema delle Conferenze’ (dossier, XVII Legislatura 2016)

Website of the Conferenza Stato-Citta-Autonomie Locali,   <>

[1] Statement by Silvia Bolgherini, Senior Researcher, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[2] Statement by Andrea Lippi, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Florence (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[3] Interview with Claudia Tubertini, Associate Professor, Department of Legal Studies, University of Bologna (14 May 2021).

[4] Statement by Andrea Lippi, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Florence (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[5] Statement by Silvia Bolgherini, Senior Researcher, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[6] Interview with Andrea Lippi, Professor, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Florence (10 June 2021).