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Bringing Good Governance into Focus

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

I recently attended a very interesting conference on democratization in East and Southeast Asia, sponsored by the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy, during which there was some discussion of the differentiation between the terms we use to identify varying governance systems and governance-related phenomena. At times we use the terms "democratization," "political liberalization", "political opening," and "good governance" almost interchangeably, when in fact they of course can refer to very different things depending on the perspective and intent of the speaker. In particular, I got to thinking a bit more about the distinction between the field of democratization studies and the field of good governance studies. With respect to the former, there is a longstanding and well-referenced theoretical literature pertaining to political transitions, and a good number of competing "theories of change," each with its own backers, detractors, and robust line of argumentation.

But the concept of "good governance" is a bit fuzzier when you look at it from an academic point of view. What exactly do we mean by the term? Is it democratization "lite?" Is it some combination of voice, accountability, service delivery and state responsiveness without explicit political competition? If so, what is the particular value that this construct brings to the conversation? And, as is often brought up in conversations within the Bank and elsewhere, what exactly is the "theory of change" (or multiple theories of change) underpinning this work? As far as I can tell, the bulk of the literature relating to good governance is either drawn from subsets of the democratization literature, or is made up largely of donor-conducted or donor-funded research - that is, case studies and other applied research designed explicitly to extract lessons learned and best practices to improve implementation in the field. Perhaps the field of "good governance" is significant then mainly as an applied rather than a theoretical construct - in which case it is no wonder that we often come up against the thorny  "theory of change" issue.
All this was buzzing somewhat chaotically through my head when I stumbled across a ten year old IDS paper on citizen voice, "Bringing citizen voice and client focus into service delivery," by Anne Marie Goetz and John Gaventa. Despite its age, the paper reads like a fresh attempt to clarify the issue of citizen voice by: a) focusing explicitly on citizen voice in service delivery; b) categorizing "voice and responsiveness" initiatives by type; and c) drawing some preliminary conclusions as to the type of political environment in which such "voice and responsiveness" issues may be likely or unlikely to succeed. The paper contains a wealth of information (albeit now somewhat dated) on various types of service delivery-citizen voice initiatives, and for the categorization exercise alone is of value to anyone seeking to better understand how such issues may be usefully broken down and analyzed. For me, though, the most interesting section is the conclusion, in which the paper frames questions for further research that hinge directly on explicitly addressing the idea of political competition and its implications for citizen voice initiatives.
"Many participation and responsiveness initiatives are launched with scant consideration of their relationship to other institutions and processes for articulating voice or engineering state response - namely, political parties and political competition," the report notes. "The research in this report indicates that political competition strongly influences the way citizen concerns are articulated and the way public agencies respond." However, it goes on to say, the relationship between political competition, voice initiatives and responsiveness initiatives is poorly understood. It is a shame that, ten years on, these statements still seem accurate within the context of applied research on "good governance." Setting aside academic theory, if we are serious about achieving results in this field, it seems we would all do well at the very least to acknowledge these issues head-on rather than hide behind fuzzily articulated concepts.

Photo Credit: Sam Judson (on Flickr)

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Good post. I agree that the language of "good governance" tends to be a bit of a quagmire and that a focus on governance for service delivery provides a sharper focus. I strongly recommend that interested readers have a look at the work of Matt Andrews. He makes these points and provides the openings of a more constructive way forward and is well worth a read. In 5 years time, what he is saying will - I desperately hope - be common-sense and the basis for a constructive approach to improving governance to deliver services more effectively. best wishes, alan hudson Senior Policy Manager, Governance (Transparency & Accountability), ONE

Hi Shanti, A recent paper on PFM and procurement I did with Doug Porter, Matt Andrews, and Joel Turkewitz underlines the points you make in a different way. We argue that OECD countries have achieved highly functional PFM through a wide variety of formal arrangements, as they do with respect to practically every other feature of governance. This underscores the fact that there is no one-best way model around which rich country governments converge to manage revenue and expenditures, or the procurement process. All systems are continuously evolving in response to the limits of past policies, changing roles and responsibilities of government, theories of public management, political and economic ideologies, and societal contests. Why should developing countries be any different? See

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