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18 April 2023

Impacts of populist government examined in new study

The election of populist governments at a local level can have a negative impact on economic performance and the quality of civil administration, a new study has found.


Academics examining data from more than 8,000 municipal governments in Italy found that the election of populist mayors led to smaller repayment of debts, larger cost overruns on public contracts and a higher turnover of civil service staff.

The findings were revealed in a new paper, A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy, co-authored by Dr Matia Vannoni, of King’s College London, Professor Massimo Morelli (Bocconi University), and Dr Luca Bolldi (Bocconi University).

The academics examined more than 20 years of data on economic performance, public procurement and the bureaucratic composition of municipal governments in Italy between 1998 and 2020.

They said: “We found that when a populist mayor barely wins an election, debt repayments decrease and cost overruns on procurement contracts increase, suggesting lower financial sustainability and efficiency in government economic performance.

“We also found that populist mayors led to higher turnover among top bureaucrats, who in turn are on average less educated.”

The study found that the close election of a populist mayor lead to a 5.3 percentage point increase in the share of public contracts with cost overruns, and smaller debt repayments.

Meanwhile, turnover among top bureaucrats increased by 50 per cent compared to the average turnover in the data, and the percentage of bureaucrats with a university degree dropped by −13.1 percentage points.

The academics found the stated reasons for bureaucrats’ departures were forced rather than voluntary departures which, they said, suggested that bureaucrats were forced to leave and did not choose to leave when populists won.

The researchers noted the specificities of the Italian system of local government in relation to their findings but added: “While it is important to highlight the specificities of the Italian context and more general scope conditions of the theoretical framework, we believe that the main gist of the article is rather general.

“Populism is on the rise across the world, and it is likely to have sizable consequences for the performance of government and interfere with the appointment and removal decisions that characterise the relationship between political principals and bureaucratic agents.”


The study, published in the American Journal of Political Science, can be read in full here.

In this story

Matia Vannoni

Senior Lecturer in Public Policy