The staffs of politicians have gone through a series of phases from 1861 up to the present day. From the Unification of Italy to the end of the Second World War, their primary feature was fragmentation and disjointedness; a scarcity of responsibilities excluded political and para-political involvement, limiting them to generic support for their assigned ministers, even as regards personal affairs. The birth of the Republic saw a change in the nature of the cabinet staff, an increase in their number and assigned tasks and, above all, a gradual increase in their influence on political activity.
From a historical standpoint this was due to a general decrease in the role of those public administrative bodies, formed for the most part under the Fascist regime, that did not enjoy the trust of republican leaders. These latter preferred to draw upon other government bodies for their staffs, who played a pivotal role in administrative undertakings – especially in the case of the first centrist “reconstruction” governments. The rise of the center-Left and a need for long range planning led later to a staff recruitment based also on attracting broader political affiliation.
From that moment on, cabinet formations oscillated continuously between those closely bound to ministers and others that foregrounded the role of service to institutions, up until the crisis in politics and the traditional political party system of the early 1990s and the “golden age” of Italian cabinet protocol: a direct collaboration that took on a role almost in “defense” of the minister of reference. This latter generally being less expert in the workings of politics, cabinet members saw their operative autonomy grow, along with the possibility – not theoretically envisaged by the law – of interfering between ministers and the active administration.
Such centrality was also dictated by the fact that cabinet staffs have grown considerably in size over time; indeed, today being composed of over 100 members – a number that not uncommonly surpasses 200 and even 300 in some cases. Recruitment relies in any case on drawing from traditional pools such as the Council of State, the office of the Attorney General, the Court of Auditors and, more rarely, from among parliamentary counsellors. This does not apply to the Ministries of the Interior, Justice and Defense, where the presence on internal staff consists predominantly, if not entirely, of seconded personnel. Finally, although it has become more articulated and more diversified over time, staffs’ prevailing background is in the study of law, which is why administrative provisions often have a legal tone and are based on case method. Knowledge of the law also makes it possible to inform government activity, not least with a view to preventing eventual objection by the judiciary.
Professional cabinet staffs were a typical Italian phenomenon up until the end of the First Republic and in a few cases after that. Nevertheless, the proportionally-corrected (at least on paper) majority electoral system reduced the number of cabinet staff allowed to operate under two opposing governments – something viewed with diffidence by some international institutions such as the EU, where long-term experience is sometimes “sacrificed” in the interests of greater independence of judgement.
Italian cabinet staffs, so central to institutional life today, nevertheless highlight two weaknesses that demand attention: that of the political corps and that of the administrative body. That is, these staffs formulate policy on the one hand, and, on the other, assume the duties of active administrations that are unable to perform or that lack the necessary trust to do so. Cabinet staffs thus end up providing a buffer – a “para-political” layer of intermediaries – between politicians and administrations, when it comes to implementing and executing government policies. What is called for is a strategy that can increase the quality and specialization of the public administration; such a strategy would in turn decrease the reliance on the staffs of politicians to take on tasks the public administration should be covering. Politicians’ staffs could thus be returned to their original – perhaps more limited, but equally important – role.