What exactly is 'governance' anyway?


This page in:

There is a lot of angst in the Bank at the moment over the role and functioning of the newish ‘cadre’ of governance specialists. This reflects the endless debate about just what governance is, what it seeks to achieve, and how it differs from ‘public sector management’.

Looking through some old newspaper cuttings and notes the other week, I came upon some comments made by Anthony Wedgewood Benn, better known as Tony.  Tony Benn retired from the British Parliament in 2001 after 51 years as an MP. Born into the aristocracy, he caused something of a sensation in certain elite circles when he renounced his title – he was the 2nd Viscount Stansgate – and joined the Labour Party, ultimately becoming a Cabinet Minister in the Wilson and Callaghan government of the 1970s. In his later years, he was the scourge of the ‘middle of the road’ politics that Labour came to represent. He became the de facto leader of the Labour party left-wing ‘opposition in government’ in the early Blair years.

Tony Benn was once asked about governance. After a few moments reflection, he answered succinctly, sucking on his trademark pipe: “well you know, I would ask five questions of anyone in a position of authority: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? And how do I get rid of you?” It seems to me that this is about as good a definition of governance as there is – and certainly public sector management tends not to ask these sorts of questions. I feel that these five questions could form the basis of any diagnostic: they could be asked of individuals, organisations, and institutions. Hiding inside them are issues around the principal-agent relationship, incentives and incentive frameworks, and so-called ‘deep or slow-moving’ institutional structures. This is governance indeed.

Tony Benn’s son, Hilary Benn, also served as a British Cabinet Minister. He was Secretary of State for International Development from 2003 to 2007. In 2006 he published a White Paper on Development. Its title? ‘Making Governance Work for the Poor’. It spoke to these questions directly, and furthermore, established the framework by which DFID now undertakes what it calls Country Governance Analysis. Clearly, Hilary had been listening to his dad.

Photo credit: Flickr user lewishamdreamer



Join the Conversation

Alan Hudson
November 03, 2010

Good questions Graham. I look forward to seeing them in an action-oriented diagnostic framework coming soon!

I wonder how Tony Benn might have responded to the following:

1) What role can those who don't really have a good understanding of local politics (eg. donors) - leaving aside questions of legitimacy or mandate - play in enhancing governance?


2) How can the impacts of efforts to enhance governance - when governance is complex and emergent and when improvements take time - be assessed and presented in ways that will persuade those who pay for the efforts that their money is well spent?

It will be interesting to hear more - perhaps on this blog? - about how the World Bank grapples with these and other questions about governance!

Richard Hogg
November 04, 2010

What you do not mention Graham is the word 'politics'. But that was what Tony Benn was getting at. Governance is about politics and of course once that becomes central to what you do the Bank inevitably worries that this new cadre of governance advisers is going to get you into all sorts of trouble. Not surprising that there is a lot of angst!

Assagaya lawson
November 11, 2010

I think the real question we should be asking our selves is why good governance and and not best governance.I agree with Tony Benn in is definition to governance.This is truly what it reflects but the real question in my point of view is why the talk on good governance and not rather best governance.We hear every day the emphasis on good governance especially in the LDC's but i think what should be propagated today should be best governance because good governance has proved over the years its shortcomings and its in adaptability.The best governance i refer here to today is governance that reflects the realities of the society to be governed.Reality in the cultural,sociological and economic frame work.Governance which is transposed could be good governance but the best governance would be one emanating from the people and reflecting the realities of the system.I think from this perspective the retarded growth in sub saharan african could soon be a thing of the past.