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Let's manage the ambiguity in "Governance"

Nick Manning's picture

Ambiguity and uncertainty about the exact scope of the term governance is useful, not least because it opens up broad areas of discussion with governments and policy-makers, allowing difficult topics to be broached or skirted pragmatically. 

On the one hand, too much specificity creates problems as it might unmask a set of normative donor propositions that maybe are best left unsaid – maybe even exposing us as attempting to introduce notions of liberal democracy into the development debate. On the other, however, without some attempt to unpack the term it can smell of donor self-interest – allowing us to justify a new range of interventions without being held to account for results, broadening our working territory into areas that we find intellectually interesting but preventing any challenge about whether we are making progress. 

So there is thus a delicate balance to be found – recognizing the importance of ambiguity concerning the concept and avoiding any attempt at somewhat spurious precision, while unpacking it to at least signal the dimensions along which better governance could be recognized.

"Better" in governance falls within two broad areas, better results or better institutional practices; these areas correspond to improvements in the ends of political and economic authority, or the means that it uses to secure those ends.

Results-focused approaches to better governance are addressing questions of how effectively and efficiently economic and social resources are used for development. These types of governance dimensions capture how effectively inputs are transformed into results and at how well these results meet citizens' preferences. Such a purely results-focused definition of "better" in governance does not define the way in which power is to be exercised – it regards such governance processes as taking place within a black box. Governance processes are good if they produce good results.

There are three results-focused dimensions of better governance:

1. Capacity in delivering services and regulating
One dimension addresses the degree to which some social sector outcomes are achieved (adjusting for national economic circumstances), whether through direct public service delivery or facilitated by public sector regulatory oversight. Doing better in achieving the MDGs is thus a measure of governance improvements. 

2. The achievement of national public policy outcomes or goals
A further potential meaning of governance is that of governance as broader public policy achievements, - such as control over national territory, minimal crime and violence, access to justice, reasonable growth, reasonable year on year improvements in literacy, reducing corruption, etc. 

3. Governance as the subjective individual, household and firm perception of "being well-governed"
This dimension of governance differs from the previous in that it refers specifically to individual understanding and perception – which would have significance even if it were unrelated to objective policy achievements.  This is a primary meaning of governance identified in the Sarkozy Commission report. Trust in Government is such a measure, capturing the degree to which individuals feel that the machinery of government (not the incumbents) is structured to encourage better decisions. The citizen experience of fairness and impartiality in dealing with the public sector illuminates one of the basic citizen tests of better governance – am I treated the same as others in my circumstances? 

An "institutional practice" approach to "better" governance sets out a preferred set of institutional arrangements and capabilities (public financial management, civil service arrangements etc.). For example, PEFA indicators largely point to a set of arrangements that are seen as "good" in relation to "PFM".  

Again, there are three dimensions of better governance that focus on institutional practice:

1. Governance as the structure and functioning of institutions within the executive
Governance is often equated with a set of effective institutional arrangements measured by reference to some benchmarks of better practice (e.g. PEFA) albeit with the risk of implying a simplistic transfer of OECD institutional arrangements to other settings. 

2. Governance as the structure and functioning of political and judicial institutions
Governance is also often equated with a set of good political and judicial arrangements – particularly emphasizing formal institutions of representation and political accountability.

3. Governance as political and public service values
Governance can encompass a focus on putting values into practice.  In this usage, there is no checklist of (de jure) institutional strength or functioning, instead there is an emphasis on "determined opportunism", finding/creating opportunities to show that an emphasis on rights, accountability, transparency and legitimacy are being given some prominence.  In this sense of governance, expressing the values in (de facto) daily organizational life is an end in itself and does not have to be justified as a means to achieve other development outcomes.  

Both of these sets of governance dimensions are incomplete. Mixing and matching from this menu is inevitable at the country level. 

The results-focus approach to governance faces the criticisms that:
• It does not lead to action - evidence of what to do to obtain results in a particular situation is very weak
• It leads to discussion with government counterparts that are too open and unstructured to be productive
• It is short-termist – unlikely to be sustained without deeper institutional reforms

The focus on institutional practice is equally unsatisfactory:
• Processes are not the final outcome that is being sought 
• Evidence for unique institutional form is limited 
• "Fit" not considered – isomorphism tends to dominate 
• It is preoccupied with a focus on the long-term 

These conflicting pressures point towards a balanced scorecard in any attempt to define governance objectives at the national level. Such balanced approach might be called "informed pragmatism" in the sense that the approach is informed by allegedly "good" practices from other countries, and is pragmatic in its results emphasis on problem-solving.  Hardly ideal – but the alternative of not specifying what we mean by "better" in governance is a lot worse.

(These thoughts draw on work from Jurgen Blum, Graham Teskey and Colum Garrity (World Bank) and Ben Dickinson (OECD).  However, the direction of the comments and any misinterpretation is entirely the fault of Nick Manning.)

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