What exactly is 'governance' anyway?

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ImageThere 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

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