Colombo to speak at Halifax Club this afternoon

Alessandro Colombo believes in the trickle-down effect, that transferring power from government to people makes society stronger.

It all comes down to giving people a choice, the scholar said, talking about the Lombardy region in Italy, likely better-known for its fashion capital of Milan than the grassroots governance system Colombo has studied for the past dozen years.

Nova Scotia could learn a few lessons from its Italian counterpart, Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies said, especially the semi-privatization of schools that has happened there.

Colombo spoke to the Halifax Club Monday about how the Italian region has begun to move to a system of subsidiarity.

In Italy, Rome controls the purse strings — and, until recently, planned, paid for and operated all services from health care to courts to education.

But in 2000, the state began transferring a percentage of that tax revenue to the regions, Colombo said.

That transformed the concept of public service and how it reaches people, he said.

In health-care and education, the state pays for public institutions, while the region at least partly subsidizes the private.

Lombardy has private and state-run school systems, the second of which the capital funds and manages.

“The consequence is quite clear,” Colombo said. “The rich people go to the private school and the poor people go to the state (school).

“So what the regions did was to invent a kind of voucher which can (cover) up to 25 per cent of the expenses (at the private school) and this allowed some middle-class families to send their kids to private school.”

Should Nova Scotia be trying to learn from Italy, education could be a natural starting point, Chris Bryant said after the speech. Bryant spent part of his career as a teacher but now works in administration at Halifax city hall.

“It’s really hard to change the entire system all at once. But what you can do is where there’s obvious weaknesses … is try something different.”

An obvious example could the shuttering of schools in rural parts of the province, where students are bused close to an hour to get to class.

Perhaps the community can come up with a better solution, Bryant said, which could then get public funding.

“Maybe we go back to the one-room school, but we make it technology rich. You’ve got one teacher with access to the Internet and older kids teaching younger kids, maybe that school could remain at the heart of the community.”

Lombardy’s grassroots approach has been extended to other services as well, including state-run hospitals and private clinics.

“If you are a state hospital and people come to you, you will get money, and if you are a private hospital and people come to you, you get the money,” Colombo said.

“So (government) money follows people.”

In Lombardy, about 44 per cent of people use the private system, up from the national average of 37 per cent.

That approach benefits residents in two ways, he has argued in research. People can choose the option best suited to their needs and the competition between the two systems should increase overall service quality.

And the cost of delivering health-care there is cheaper, Colombo’s research shows, about 30 euros less per person compared with the countrywide average.

There could be other parallels between Nova Scotia’s future and the Lombardy experience, Cirtwill said.

“We can learn from areas where they’ve been able to move from a much more centralized model to a much freer model far quicker than we have.”

Read the article in The Chronicle Herald here