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Two More Years of Civic Monitoring of EU Funds in Italy: The Results of the Students’ Investigations

Since the last post on the results of our civic monitoring of public policies, nearly 300 new monitoring reports have been added to the Monithon.it platform, more than twice the number that we had in 2016: 300 new studies, each focusing on one of many projects taking place throughout Italy that are funded by Cohesion (or Regional) Policy. This increase is an extraordinary achievement, making us proud to be part of this experiment in civic monitoring as a proactive way to use public data and to bolster civic engagement and public policy accountability.

Every since its creation, Monithon has positioned itself as both a tool and a research method, putting itself at the service of schools, universities, NGOs and local communities, nearly always as a group of volunteers and following with the philosophy of civic hacking.  To learn how Monithon came into being and about the people who are the driving force behind it, you can read our post from last year.

This year we are prouder than ever, because the quality of the reports we are publishing is constantly improving. The studies conducted over the last two years have, in almost 90% of cases, included an on-site visit to the project headquarters – the infrastructure or the location where a project financed with public funding is being conducted – involving the collection of data, videos, photos, and documents.  During these last 2 years, over 95% of our monitoring groups have conducted on-site interviews: 76% interviewed the public or private party that received the funds, and 56% interviewed residents of the local community to assess the project’s effectiveness from the perspective of the final beneficiaries of public policies. 38% were able to directly interview the public representatives responsible for the initiatives (mayors, town or regional councilors, province presidents, etc.) That’s not all: the ability to reconstruct the “administrative history” of funds provided, and the details of that reconstruction, are qualitative aspects that can be observed when reading the monitoring reports, beginning with the map or the list. In almost every case, you can find original videos containing the content of the interviews and each study’s principal findings – investigative data journalism on a small scale!

These results are largely the fruits of incredible work on the part of the project team from the OpenCoesione School (or ASOC), from the Italian “A Scuola di OpenCoesione), which uses Monithon during “Esplorare” (Explore), the most important phase in its educational programme in Italian high schools. It is where we can see how adept the students have become at interpreting, understanding and using public data, so as to hold institutions to account for the investments made in their neighborhoods or cities. In the most recent edition alone, spanning 2017-2018, around 5000 students were involved, under the direct guidance of 300 instructors working throughout Italy.  Nearly 88% of the reports you can find on Monithon.it are the result of these research activities.
The OpenCoesione School is constantly growing and raising its profile. Indeed, in recent years, the OpenCoesione initiative, which provides funding and coordination for ASOC from within the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers, has contributed to imparting an awareness of the practice of civic monitoring within regional public administrations and within national and European institutions.

There is no lack of similar programs at the university level. Thanks to the impetus provided by the Europe Direct center, every year the University of Turin holds a course devoted specifically to European policies and civic monitoring. The work carried out by the MoniTOcamera (2017) and MoniTOsitadela (2018) teams speaks for itself, taking its place alongside earlier studies, which are likewise of the highest quality. In Turin we also find a super interesting spin-off project, whose progress deserves to be closely followed: Monitorino.

In addition to providing support to schools and these early experiments in universities – of which the University of Pescara has recently become a part, with its course in Urban Planning – another of the Monithon community’s newest initiatives is the Sibari Integrity Pact (Calabria), which, thanks to Action Aid, has truly taken off, with the introduction of the first civic monitoring schools for members of the local community. This initiative is a game changer, not only for the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and for local communities, but also for the European Commission, which recently adopted it as a model (see p. 26) for similar future initiatives aimed to fight corruption and encourage civic engagement.

In this post, we would like to share with you some of the enthusiasm and enjoyment that we experienced, as well as some of the discoveries – both positive and negative – that were made while putting together these monitoring reports. Here, too, we will begin with an analysis of our civic monitoring results: Which projects were examined? What were the main “assessments” reached? Then we will move on to recommendations for public decision-makers.


Monitoring of European Funds to reduce regional disparities

From the end of 2016 to May 2018, the number of monitoring reports rose from 177 to 475 – quite a leap! Each report, with a few limited exceptions, provides detailed information on a project initially chosen by a monitoring group from a list of approximately 950 thousand projects published on OpenCoesione.gov.it.  Thanks to the open data, we can link the findings of the monitoring projects to the principal characteristics of the projects being monitored, such as scale, funding sources, and thematic categories.

We thus discovered that the total funding for the projects monitored amounted to over 4.5 billion euros, of which over 3 billions’ worth had been subject to monitoring in the last 2 years alone.  Over half of these projects are financed by European Structural and Investment funds (ESIFunds). These are funds managed by the central and regional administrations, intended to reduce the gaps that exist between the different parts of the country (which is why there are many more projects in Southern Italy than in the Central and Northern regions). However, the number of monitored projects funded using resources that the Italian government makes available with the same objectives (“national funds”) is growing.  Whatever the case, whether these funds are allocated from national, European, regional or local budgets, they are all taxpayers’ money.

Using open data from OpenCoesione, we can also categorize projects according to theme. It goes without saying that the enormous resources needed to build or improve transportation infrastructures are also reflected in the sample of projects monitored. Indeed, the 53 projects that fall into this category account for nearly 3 billion of the total amount of funding.  Take, for example, the Crotone Airport, which is expected to provide an essential stimulus for the local economy.

As in our last post, the theme that users once again found most interesting was culture and tourism. This category is comprised of 141 projects, for a total of 530 million euros – investments which are essential for our nation and to which the competent authorities, who might be encouraged to participate thanks to civic monitoring, could make a significant contribution. We are talking about a truly vast number of different projects: from the restoration of the Royal Palace of Caserta to the renovation of the Apollo Theatre in Lecce (here is a link in English), from the Capuchin Monastery in Grottaglie (Taranto) to the Chilli Pepper (“Peperoncino”) Festival in Diamante, in Calabria.

There is also a new entry to our list of themes: social inclusion, and it is the sixth-most monitored to date. 38 projects, for instance, finance the reuse for social purposes of property confiscated from criminal organizations (e.g. the creation of the Centre for Antimafia Studies in Calabria) or the development of welfare services (such as the “Casa della Salute” health clinic in Bosa, Sardinia).


The assessments from the monitoring groups

The monitoring groups’ assessments of the public projects they investigate is the most essential element of their activities. Taken as a whole, their assessment has remained largely unchanged over the last two years. The majority of financed projects (64%) earned positive assessments. Of these, over two-thirds have already been completed and deemed to be useful, while the remainder are still ongoing, but what has been observed so far bodes well.

Some investments came as a pleasant surprise to the monitoring communities, who had a chance to discover them and explore them in more depth. One such investment assessed during the 2017 and 2018 monitoring was the renovation of the historic town center of Barletta, in Apulia. According to the team, called Reconstructing History (“Ricostruendo la Storia”), the project “led to an improvement in the quality of life for residents of the historic center and a moderate increase in tourism flows”. The solar power plant in Montefiascone, near Viterbo, has also had a positive impact in terms of “economic savings and a decrease in pollution in the surrounding area”. Yet another example is the MArTA (National Archaeological Museum) in Taranto, which, thanks to public funding, “received its highest ever number of visitors in 2016”.

The young people from the team “Cristallo dello Zingaro” in Trapani, while monitoring the safety projects at the Zingaro Nature Reserve, were struck by what they found: “The first thing that captures tourists’ attention is the unparalleled beauty of the land and seascapes”. The “masterful skill of the expert laborers in attempting to make everything as natural as possible, without however forgetting the primary purpose of their work, which is to safeguard people who are walking there, unaware of the dangers that the local area may present, was clear to see.”

The projects that did have problems represented approximately one-third of the whole: 11% have been completed but appear to be ineffective, while the remaining 21% are still ongoing but are having difficulty moving forward.  The assessment remained deferred on 3% of projects, which had only just begun. In a little while, we shall go into more detail regarding the difficulties encountered.

First, however, let us examine whether or not assessments changed depending on projects’ geographical locations. In this post, we will focus on the 4 regions with the greatest number of civic monitoring reports.
They are the main Southern Italian regions in terms of total European and domestic cohesion policy funding received.  The region with the highest percentage of positive assessments (68%, just slightly higher than the national average), shown in green in the chart, is Apulia. The region with the greatest number of problems, on the other hand, is Calabria, where just over half of projects received negative assessments. The statistic relating to projects which have been completed is striking, since these are more difficult to remedy. Nevertheless, these assessments are not set in stone. According to the authors of the reports, as we shall see below when we discuss recommendations, actions targeting “surrounding conditions” may restore even these projects’ effectiveness.

Moreover, as a general disclaimer, it goes without saying that Monithon’s sample of monitored projects is not statistically representative of the projects funded in the 4 regions. The projects in this sample are way too few and their selection depends on the choices and interests of the students. So this comparison is not about the regions’ performances on managing ESI Funds.

What factors determine a negative assessment?  The 300 reports most recently included in our calculations all basically confirm the same problems. Aside from the projects which never even got off of the ground – for example due to issues associated with access to funds, the granting of permits or licenses – a large number of public projects (10.9%) became blocked when already underway, due to problems of an administrative nature.

The principal problem found, however, was once again a general delay during the implementation phase of projects with respect to planned schedules (on OpenCoesione, for example, you can find information on planned timetables). This issue affects 18.1% of total projects monitored.  This is the case, for example, with the construction of a biotechnology center, which should be quick to keep pace with the newest developments in scientific research, but at the time of the monitoring visit was already 7 years behind.  In some cases, funds are linked to a specific project, one which cannot be separated from its context of implementation. Thus, in the province of Milan, the redevelopment of the wetlands along the Olona River is 2 years behind, “because the park’s redevelopment is linked to other projects related to the river, which have been impacted by bureaucratic complications”.

There is no lack of projects which are entangled amidst different funding sources, public administrations which are only partially responsible for them or who do not provide direct access to the work undertaken. In some cases, the students’ dedication is not enough to help us understand whether or not the money has been spent. And if it has been spent, what for? Why, despite public data stating that a large amount of funds have already been spent and accounted for to the European Commission, is there still a “lack of funding”? Here below you can find the doubts expressed by the young people in the “newscast” they put together about the renovation of the old historic district of the village of Senerchia, in Campania (in Italian).

Let’s now take a moment to examine the final phases of public project monitoring, which are even more intriguing: results and impact.  It is during this phase that the assessments of residents can provide a valuable source of information for administrations. However, with the exception of the most notable projects, residents are unfortunately not able to accurately gauge the usefulness or effectiveness of every financed project. Bear in mind that, even taking into account only those cohesion policy investments made between 2007 and 2015, there were about 1 million financed projects! Civic monitoring groups, however, can come to our aid by applying the principles of “crowdsourcing”, in other words, the ability of “crowds” to collect accurate data by dividing up the work of an assessment – immense in and of itself – into small tasks assigned to individuals (or, in this case, one project per group), in the same way that Wikipedia is collaboratively written.

In our case, an analysis of the qualitative data collected shows that only 3.6% of the projects examined were found to be unsatisfactory. This percentage is in line with the findings of our last report, and is relatively low. These are cases in which funding did not lead to adequate implementation. One such example, it would seem, is the water treatment plant in the municipality of Paola (Cosenza), where “sludge disposal issues and problems relating to plant management continue to exist”.  We find a similar issue with the funding for the development of a social computing platform for the University of Milano-Bicocca. In this case, due to a lack of additional financing that the university had been counting on, it was unable to do anything beyond the creation of a prototype, which can no longer even be viewed, as it was created using obsolete technologies. Graver still is the case of the Papardo di Messina Hospital’s Oncology Centre, which has unfortunately featured on the news. It simply “does not exist”.

Much more common (10%) are those projects that were implemented with good results, only to be deemed ineffective when viewed in the wider context in which they were made available. Even if the funds allocated for these projects in and of themselves were spent correctly, the effectiveness of the projects for their final beneficiaries remains a fundamental criterion on which any assessment of the success of public policies must be based. This is the case with the Multimedia Mountain Museum in Sicily, which only was open on one occasion, “due to high operating costs and a lack of staff”. Three very similar cases are those of three civil protection plans, for the Municipalities of MarcianisePalomonte and Casalnuovo di Napoli respectively, which received development funding but invested nothing in communicating what they had done to their local communities – which, as was discovered in the course of the interviews conducted, did not even know these plans existed.  Another example is that of the redevelopment of Piazza Savignano in Aversa (Naples), which was a complete success but, according to the monitoring group “did not bring about the social inclusion which had been the true crux of the project”.

Here you can find the video by the extremely capable young people from the FreeDam team, who monitored the Lordo Dam project in Calabria, with the interviews they conducted with local residents and the press conference they organised with the mayor, the bishop, and the president of an environmental monitoring centre.

A considerable number of the projects described immediately above constitute a significant subgroup: successfully implemented but useless in the absence of complementary initiatives which could unlock all of their potential effectiveness.  The center for the terminally ill in Oristano is complete, but “is still not hooked up to the electricity grid or city water” and “has yet to receive accreditation from the Local Health and Social Services Department (ASSL)”. It is therefore unable to be used, “a cathedral in the desert”.  More glaring still is the case of the South Fort in Reggio Calabria, whose redevelopment left our young people “open-mouthed”. “The structure is welcoming and attention has been paid to even the smallest details. The Fort appears suddenly around the last curve in the road, in all of its restored majesty and military linearity.” What a shame it is that the public cannot get to the fort, because the road is impassable and there are no signs to show the way.


The most recent recommendations from our monitoring groups

In 2017 and 2018, the quality and variety of suggestions has continued to grow – a true goldmine of “good ideas” for local decision makers!
Overall, the types of recommendations have followed the same trend from year to year.

A portion of the projects monitored (12%) are so useful that the main recommendation is to continue to further develop these projects in order to have an ever greater impact. Thanks to public financing, some of the buildings in the “Oasi la Valle” nature reserve on Lake Trasimeno have been renovated. Other buildings in the park, however, could be repurposed to “serve as laboratories for the education of young people, including those with disabilities, to help them learn skills such as how to manage a small botanical garden”. Let’s look at another example. Once the renovation of the Santissima Trinità Complex in Torre del Greco (Naples) is completed, thanks to over 4 million in funding, a “virtual exhibition” could be created, “which illustrates the history of the local area and the places that are its heart and soul, through the creation of a special app that encourages visitors to visit those places in real life”. For another example, let’s take the repair and renovation of the Barletta stadium: after the initial 1.3 million invested, why not “increase the number of people who want to get more involved with sports, including through the many events organized by the different sports clubs that use the field on a regular basis?”

In other cases (7%), the monitoring groups complained of “governance” problems. These occur when public administrations “don’t talk to each other”, and political conflicts and a lack of coordination are piled on top of existing bureaucratic problems. Unfortunately, this was the case with the project for the improvement of the Messina-Palermo and Messina-Syracuse railway lines, worth 28 million in financing. According to the monitoring group, the work is stopped, with only 10% of total implementation achieved, given an absence of “clear objectives on an institutional policy level”. In addition, it appears “essential” that “a network that can coordinate the actions of all of the parties involved be created”.  In other cases, recommendations encourage the creation of a collaborative governance system, one which could involve local residents, schools and communities as active participants. For instance, the students from the “Dream Energy” group in Casal di Principe (Caserta) have offered to design and implement “projects that are in the interest of the community, with the active participation of local residents”, so as to raise awareness regarding the extremely useful “Pio La Torre” Centre for Environmental Education and Documentation, a bastion of legality. This is possible thanks to “constant contact between schools and public institutions”.

As in past years, the last two years have seen numerous (14%) recommendations for improving communication on the amount of good that public investments – including European funds – are doing for local areas. This applies to projects, both large and small, that have been monitored over the past two years. Even the simple construction of a multistory parking garage in Somma Vesuviana (Naples) can help to meet the need for improved mobility, but it is necessary to have “greater publicity for the project and encourage more people to use it”. Turning our attention to the Municipal Selective Waste Collection Centres in Martina Franca (Taranto), the “civic monitoring team intends to actively contribute to the implementation of an information programme, which has been planned to help raise awareness and communicate methods of use and the importance of this new service. The team is offering to create videos to disseminate this information, to participate in ‘environment days’ in the square, to organise and lead educational-play activities for children, [and] to implement a Telegram bot to inform people about selective waste collection services”.

Lastly, the bulk of recommendations focused on specific suggestions regarding individual projects, dealing with issues such as how to unblock a problematic situation or how to improve a key aspect in terms of effectiveness. Dozens of civic monitoring reports contain specific recommendations, which are at the disposal of the local administrations and the companies that are implementing these public projects. For example, with regard to the project dealing with the redevelopment of the Seveso in Sesto San Giovanni (Milan), the students are convinced that “one way to stop the Seveso from overflowing its banks would be to construct a stormwater holding basin, but before the water enters such a basin, it must first be filtered”. The excellent study conducted by the Corsari Assetati team contains a fair number of suggestions on how to use the wastewater generated by the Acqua dei Corsari water treatment plant in Palermo: “uses include irrigation, street cleaning, machine cooling, extinguishing fires, but it could also simply be used for periodic cleaning of the sewer system, so as to prevent the streets from flooding.”  These types of recommendations were also discussed on May 22, at a ForumPA workshop.


The potential of civic monitoring: assessing effectiveness from the user standpoint

The most interesting potential application of civic monitoring may, however, lie in its ability to determine to which specific project, within the broader area of implementation, funding should be allocated. In this way, it is possible to provide precise recommendations to enable a more fully effective use of public finances, one which includes not only those aspects related to the implementation of planning within predetermined timeframes and administrative and financial constraints, but also takes into consideration the actual usefulness of the project within its local area.

It is extremely interesting to note that many monitoring reports, especially during the last two years, have placed great importance on “surrounding conditions”, those which make it possible for financing to truly serve to meet the needs of community residents and local businesses.

A case in point is the Epizephyrian Locris National Archaeological Museum, “one of the most important archaeological sites in the world”, which is in need of commitment on the part of national, regional and local institutions for its development and promotion, for example to help “improve the quality of the roads that lead to it, making them more accessible to more effective modes of transport, and for more welcoming hotels and accommodation facilities”.   The funding for the Scalea (Cosenza) airfield is also of scant effectiveness if “the Regional public services and hotel infrastructures are not improved so as to better manage tourist accommodation during the summer season”.
The same is true for much smaller-scale projects as well, such as the expansion of the Restricted Traffic Area in Aversa (Caserta), which is useless without the “presence of traffic police at the entry points and constantly operating video cameras” or a “geolocation system for bicycles, to prevent them from being stolen”.

In conclusion, the potential applications of civic monitoring in the public policy sphere are becoming apparent. What began as a game in 2013 and gained structure as a method in 2014 has taken root, in following years, as a part of actual “classes for the citizens of tomorrow” that are being taught in schools, universities and civic communities, with more people trying it out in ever more useful ways. The monitored projects, while still far from representing any sort of statistically significant sample, have been the object of in-depth studies, which have led to the generation of new data and information and, in many cases, “good ideas” as well.  To the public administrations falls the task of knowing how to make the most of them!

The light and the dark side of the use of EU funding: the results of Monithon’s civic monitoring

It has been four years since the team of the Italian national portal of open data OpenCoesione, while taking part in the first gathering of the Spaghetti Open Data community, proposed to transform a hack-athon into moni-thon, that’s to say a civic monitoring marathon of public funding.

The idea was and still is simple: to choose a project that had received funding on OpenCoesione, organize ourselves into groups and personally go and verify how the money had been spent.

In this post we will discuss the results of the Monithon initiative four years after its first experiments in Italy: Which projects were monitored? How? What were the opinions of users about the public projects? What problems were detected and how can they be solved?

In a second post we will see what impact the monitoring had, in terms of creating new relations at local level and improvements in public decision making.


Four years of civic monitoring

On 19 January 2013 it was fun to organize the first civic monitoring visit in Bologna, Italy. We were a small group of journalists, public administrators and curious citizens. The “Bar Giuseppe”, right in the city centre, which had received public funding to renovate its premises, intrigued us immediately. The bar was closed! But we went back there the following year. We went to take photos and knock at the door of schools in Bologna that had received funds from the Province to finance works, putting all acquired information into a Google Doc.

The initial civic monitoring group in Bologna (2013)

It immediately became clear that just one day was not enough for a proper monitoring. We needed to make appointments for interviews, to analyze data before hand in order to find the exact address of the projects to inspect, to collect all the details in one place…. proper research work that requires weeks or months, as well as appropriate means. Basically what we call Slow Hacking.

The turning point was the Open Data Day in Bari and the Journalism Festival in Perugia in 2014 which followed. During the event’s hackathon, the website Monithon.it was created: at the time it was a large map that pinpointed the most interesting projects to monitor. The code was based on an adaptation of the open source project Ushahidi, which had been used to monitor elections in Nairobi. The group included data journalists, analysts, activists and open data enthusiasts.

The Monithon team at the EU Hackathon in Bruxelles (2015)

With a zero budget, a bit for the sake of it, a bit for civic passion and a bit for the pleasure of sharing this passion with an open and curious community, Monithon evolved into a methodology and a platform to share the results of monitoring initiatives. The Civic Monitoring Reports allow us to collect information that can be compared even when prepared by different monitoring groups. While these groups spread to almost all Italian regions, thanks to the campaigns launched during the Open Data Day of 2014 and the “Primavera di Monitoraggio Civico” (Spring of Civic Monitoring) of 2015, a central staff was involved in developing common instruments, in supporting activities on the field and validating reports that were being prepared for publication.

The first concrete results were celebrated by no less than the UN’s General Assembly during the Open Government Partnership Awards, which saw the participation of Barack Obama: here the partnership between OpenCoesione-Monithon representing Italy at the event was ranked fourth in the world. The judges were struck by the capacity of a government initiative for open data to actively involve so many people.

Monithon has continued to grow over the years thanks to the schools that take part in the project A Scuola di OpenCoesione, but also thanks to the involvement of universities, local communities and national associations, as a shared and open-to-all instrument and a format to plan and structure civic curiosity.


Who performs civic monitoring?

The authors of the report are mostly, and increasingly, the teams of high-schools that are involved in the project A Scuola di OpenCoesione (ASOC), one of the initiatives of OpenCoesione. The students – who are extremely motivated – have happily “taken over the control” of the Monithon platform with dozens of new reports each year, and with a quality level that has improved dramatically over the years!

We are also counting a lot on the future contribution of higher education students. In this post we discuss the adventures of the group of students in Turin of MoniTOreali.

In the period 2013-early 2014, while we were in the phase of defining the methodology, the majority of reports were prototypes created by the Monithon staff or by individual citizens, some of which members of the initial group that experimented with the tools in their cities.

The peak in the use of Monithon by local communities occurred in the spring of 2014 during the Open Data Day, when 12 cities throughout Italy did a “Monitoring marathon” simultaneously, all video-connected to Rome. Some of these communities remained active and continued to put pressure in order for problems to be solved.  This is the case of the association Monithon Calabria or of the informal community Monithon Piemonte, which were explicitly created to promote open data and the civic monitoring of European funds.

Over the last two years we have witnessed a strengthening of partnerships with major national associations. For example Action Aid Italia has participated with Monithon in a number of civic monitoring initiatives in the regions of Puglia, Marche and Emila-Romagna, which culminated in the joint participation in the Integrity Pacts tender of the European Commission, a huge project that has just started and offers great expectations! The networks Libera and the Gruppo Abele are another example of collaborations that have been ongoing for 3 years, thanks to which Monithon was able to develop a methodology for the civic monitoring of assets seized from criminal organizations, and of the relevant public financing, which was also used to start another grassroots project, Confiscati Bene.


What is monitored?

There are 177 Civic Monitoring Reports on Monithon.it. Each one of them examines a project financed with public funds: almost all of them (94%) were chosen starting from OpenCoesione.gov.it. Looking at the number of projects, 177 analyzed projects seems like a small number compared to the 930,000 currently listed on OpenCoesione. The truth is that the selected projects are often significant from a financial point of view, and this is why the total value of their funding exceeds 1.26 billion euro. It’s mainly resources that have been granted by the European Structural Funds and the connected national co-financing (which means the European Regional Development Fund and to a lesser extent the European Social Fund).

The majority of the Monitoring Reports put the spotlight on projects for the preservation of the Italian artistic and cultural heritage, often very interesting for the citizens themselves, such as the renovation of museums, theatres, castles or archaeological sites, for examples the House of Venus in the Shell in Pompeii.

In terms of public resources, however, it is transport infrastructure that holds the record with 714 million euro of monitored funding, equal to more than half of total funds. These are expensive and complex projects, which users have a lot to say about in terms of real impact. The Monithon.it post that was (far and away) most read by users discusses the 152 million euro allocated for Palermo’s rail circuit: a group of citizens, many of whom active in the Open Data Sicilia community, carried out an investigation to retrace its history.

But there are also other types of project. The environmental theme is close to many people’s heart and 21 monitoring reports deal with this field. These are interventions that tackle the risk of hydro-geological instability (also in Milan!), composting plants (for example in Salerno), purification plants (in BeneventoCatanzaro, etc.), networks for air quality control, sanitary sewers (see for example Palermo).

Monitoring groups are also interested in examining public interventions for the requalification of their cities or neighborhoods. With regards to urban policies, for example, a very in-depth analysis was carried out in March 2015 about the Walls of Pisa in the context of local territorial development.

The nine research projects that were monitored were rather significant from a financial point of view. They range between medical and biotechnology research, to the construction of prototypes for the energy sector or of Information Technology.


Who is monitored?

OpenCoesione calls them “implementing bodies”, as they are referred to in European Fund jargon. They include Public Administrations, bodies or state-owned, semi-state-owned companies or private companies that have the formal responsibility of implementing projects financed with public funding.

The monitoring has privileged the local dimension. There are few projects managed directly by Ministries (9%), Regions (11%) or Provinces (7%), while 43% are implemented by Municipalities, a level that’s obviously close to the interests of civic monitoring groups.

A 22% share of Reports came to grips with the fragmented and complex world of local governance, interviewing state-owned companies, in-house bodies, municipalized companies, hospitals. Others monitored local public authorities include park entities, mountain communities, government departments, schools.

Only 8% of reports examined financing provided directly by privately-owned companies. In many cases these are not public subsidies for enterprises, but privately-owned companies that implement public interventions, such as the construction of rail infrastructure.


Where are the monitored projects?

Those who live in medium to big-sized cities in the South of Italy, and who pick up on this kind of thing, will have noticed in the most unlikely corners – in metros, outside churches, in public parks – a signpost with the EU’s flag that indicates a European funding. This is because the majority of European Funds, as well as national ones for territorial cohesion  aimed at reducing the divide between Italian regions,  is concentrated in Southern Italy.

It’s no accident then that the majority of monitored funding is in the South, and especially in the provinces of Palermo, Naples and Bari, where the value of examined projects reaches 100 million euro. Among the greatest exceptions are Florence, Milan and Turin. The provinces of Sassari, Ragusa, Lecce, Cagliari, Nuoro and Monza follow with more than 20 million euro monitored.


What are the sources of civic monitoring?

How did the monitoring groups manage to collect the information? Almost all of them did desk research, so using the web to find information and pieces of news, starting with OpenCoesione’s open data. A special catalogue is represented by administrative sources, so public documents that often help to rebuild the project’s history and to answer questions such as: Why was the project funded? What are its objectives? Who is involved in the decisions that led to its funding?

An 88% share of the groups inspected their projects, physically going to verify the progress of the project or the accomplished results, with videos and photos. In some cases the site inspection was not performed simply because the project…. wasn’t there! For example, it hadn’t been started yet and had remained a dead letter. This mustn’t necessarily be seen as a negative factor: the projects are tracked by OpenCoesione from the exact moment when funding begins and the works  are yet to start, but will hopefully start shortly after.

Those interviewed include people responsible for the interventions, such as public administrators (74%), the final beneficiaries, such as users of an infrastructure or service, and public representatives, such as  town councilors, mayors or Province Presidents (28%).


The results of civic monitoring: the users’ assessment

Let’s have a look at the actual results of the monitoring. First of all, it’s never easy to describe the results of a complex project: for sure nothing is ever perfect, neither is it all to be trashed. The “grey” areas are often prevalent and the qualitative assessment of Monithon users almost always reflects the difficulty in being clear-cut. What’s more, it’s Monithon’s own methodology that induces users to give importance to different facets, highlighting both the strong points and weaknesses of what they are examining. To understand this, you just have to read individual reports of Monithon.it.

In 2014 however, during a presentation at the Center for Civic Media of the MIT in Boston, we were asked: “How do you think you will aggregately represent your results if you only have detailed qualitative descriptions?” Good point. So in 2014 we introduced the “synthetic assessment”. A way to force the monitoring team to choose between a defined set of synthetic options.

What emerges is that the badly perceived European Funds didn’t perform so badly after all. A total of 67% of projects is assessed – with all the caveats – positively. In particular, 44% had been completed by the time of the monitoring inspection and was seen as useful. 23% is still ongoing but without major hiccups.

Among struggling project, 24% is ongoing and is also facing problems during the implementation (for example, it has been blocked), while only 6% of those completed are seen as ineffective.  Only 3% could not be assessed because the projects had just started.

It’s also interesting to see the assessment differences according to examined fields. Among the most relevant themes in terms of monitored financing, those that generated a more positive overall assessment are (considering both projects “completed and useful” and those “proceeding well”) research, transport and urban policies.

The themes with a more negative assessment are those in the fields of environment, culture and tourism and education. However it’s in the field of projects for cities that the highest percentage of “completed and ineffective” results are concentrated (10%).


The problems

Moving on to the weaknesses, we can ideally position the projects in a time sequence which starts with the launch and the financial management, moves on to the implementation (the actual works), then to the result (so to see if what was promised was delivered) and finally to the impact (if what was created is effectively useful from the point of view of final users).

A total of 5% of projects was blocked during the launch phase and so they never started, for example due to a delay in the granting of a permission, or because of legal disagreements or judicial inquiries. For example the Municipality of Matera received a 2.2 million euro funding for a Museum that was never built, at least up until April 2015, when the monitoring took place.

Problems of an administrative nature affect 12% of monitored projects, for example due to failed transfers of financial resources, cut funding or to blocks caused by bureaucratic procedures. For example two major research projects are struggling because of problems in effectively accessing funding: a biotechnology research center in Palermo (22 million euro, monitored in April 2016) and a project for the creation of an ecological minibus in Catania (450,000 euro, April 2016).

The center for youth aggregation “Cura et Valeas” in Locri (Calabria)

Almost one fifth of projects had problems during the implementation phase, which led to longer or shorter delays. There are many reasons for this: technical problems, lack of financial coverage and delays in the provision of funds, ongoing judicial inquiries, etc. This is the case for example of an old people’s home in Monte Sant’Angelo (Foggia), where works were only partially completed and, at the time of the monitoring inspection in April 2015, there was an ongoing legal procedure between the municipality and the contractor.  A more serious case is the one of the restoration of the Church of Galatone (Lecce), which has been in progress for 20 years and has yet to be finished despite the European financing (monitored in May 2016). Things went slightly better with the “Su Siccu” bike lane in Cagliari, which was finally completed after 11 years.

Only in a small part of projects (3%) were the works finished, but the results were no longer what was initially expected. The difference between the result and the real effectiveness of the project is a thinner line. The impact of the project can be negative even if the result is completely compliant with what was promised on paper, something that occurs in 6% of examined projects.

First of all the project might not respond to user needs: in the spring of last year the high-school “Galante” in Campobasso  asked citizens for their opinion about the new service to match the demand and availability of work of the Employment Center. The verdict: the service is a failure.

Or the project might be finished, but not completely operational. Although the renovation of a centre to welcome refugees in Bovalino (Reggio Calabria) was completed successfully, the structure risks being abandoned due to “a lack of furnishing and staff for the management”. This is what was verified in April 2016. A similar destiny also awaits the centre for youth aggregation “Cura et Valeas” of Locri, which was created using a building seized from a criminal organization and specifically renovated. In order to become operative though an association needs to take over its management and for the time being the Municipality’s call for bids has been deserted and nothing seems to be stirring.

The case of the Ancient Thermal Baths of Castellammare di Stabia are also disturbing : they were restored with a 12 million euro funding, but at the time of the monitoring in May 2016 were still not open to the public and “ 4 years later have been left in a state of abandonment and serious neglect”, given that the “works financed with European funds was never inspected, also due to the crisis of the management company Terme di Stabia S.p.a., that went bankrupt in 2015”.

Lastly, an infrastructure can be created perfectly, but may lack the authorizations necessary for it to become operative. This is what happened to the helicopter rescue pad in Agira (Enna), visited in March 2016, when they were just waiting for a final approval stamp from ENAC to allow it to open.

Another emblematic case is the problem of the lack of complementary interventions, possibly financed by other types of public funds (national or local), without which also the examined project will not have the right impact.

This is the case of the renovation project of the Old Hamlet of Cerignola (Foggia), visited in April 2016: everything was completed in time and to high standards. Unfortunately due to a lack of adequate policies for urban valorization the hamlet suffers from “neglect”, “dirt” and “phenomenon of stray animals”.

Another example: a social innovation project has created a prototype , but in order  to have a real impact it needs further financing to be launched on the market and to generate positive effects on the life of people. This is the case of Energy@Work near Brindisi, which was monitored in 2014.


Users’ suggestions

“And what happens now?” Civic monitoring groups, having assessed the results and the impact of a project, are asked to provide the most precious component of the initiative: ideas, recommendations, concrete proposals that can lead to improvements.

The majority of user advice, which concerns 36% of monitored projects, are accurate and specific suggestions for the examined project. They can be of a technical nature (for ex. the materials to be used for a renovation) or of a procedural-administrative nature (how to improve relations between two institutions, or the verification procedures to release payments…). Some suggestions, for example, regard the possible use of renovated assets (for example, those claimed from criminal organizations), so that they are truly useful for the local communities.

Other suggestions highlight the need to improve the project’s communication (15%). This is a good sign. It means that the project, almost always assessed as useful, needs to be communicated in a better way to ensure greater effectiveness. Furthermore this is an old obsession of those in charge of the communication of European Structural Funds, who believe  that funds – so Europe – are only mentioned  when there are negative situations, while good things are not communicated or are communicated badly. This is also true for comments according to which the monitored project should be continued or developed further (6%), for example to transform an experiment into a “fully operative” reality.

Lastly, some comments (7%) concentrate on the need to improve the projects’ governance. This term indicates many things: to improve collaboration between institutions to resolve problems of an administrative nature, to improve coordination between public and private bodies, but also include the citizenry more in decisions about how funds are used, and in particular the final beneficiaries of the interventions.


A new power

All in all, this small journey in Monithon’s civic monitoring proves at least two things.

The first is that using public data for a real accountability action is a huge effort, as well as an amusement. The data, despite being open, does not answer the universe of questions for responsible administrations, but on the contrary raises more. The novelty is that the funds we explored have reached that critical mass of transparency that allows anyone, as long as he or she is well organized and willing to study (that’s right, to study), to use the available information as a base for further research. These generally lead to the discovery of something useful also for the administrations, for example the impact of financed projects on the life of people.

The second is that, having acquired new tools, local communities are willing to work hard. You can see this in the very adult faces of the young kids that thanks to civic monitoring projects start to understand how public policies can improve their cities or guarantee more opportunities for their future. You can understand this by looking at those entities that everyday work to achieve their civic objectives and that by learning how financing works are provided with new weapons, acquire new powers and are more effective in using their energies.

Are our public administrations ready for all of this? How many of them are in turn willing to make the effort to listen, be accountable and take the necessary steps? As they say, we will find out in the next episode. In the next post we will examine the impact of civic monitoring, so whether and how the results we have seen have been used and what changes have they generated. We will report some cases with the intention of starting a good discussion. Which, of course, can already start now.