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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, August 17, 2020

Whatever Happened to Governance?

Most people are confused by the word "governance" which crept into our language  some 30 years ago - and which indeed tends now to be used interchangeably with "government".
There is, however, a huge difference in meaning between the 2 words - with "governance" being a dangerous and slippery concept which, significantly perhaps, has now totally disappeared from academic discourseFor me, such sudden academic silences often offer important clues about our political culture - so bear with me while I muse.

An American political scientist by the name of Harlan Cleveland was apparently the first to use the term - as an alternative to the phrase "public administration" - although it was the late 80s before the word came into intensive use. In the mid-1970s, he suggested that:
What the people want is less government and more governance” (1972).
What he meant by governance was the following cluster of concepts.
“The organizations that get things done will no longer be hierarchical pyramids with most of the real control at the top. They will be systems—interlaced webs of tension in which control is loose, power diffused, and centers of decision plural. 
“Decision-making” will become an increasingly intricate process of multilateral brokerage both inside and outside the organization which thinks it has the responsibility for making, or at least announcing, the decision. Because organizations will be horizontal, the way they are governed is likely to be more collegial, consensual, and consultative. The bigger the problems to be tackled, the more real power is diffused and the larger the number of persons who can exercise it—if they work at it” (p. 13). 
He was, in other words, anticipating the "network" approach which I discussed last year in a review of Niall Fergusson's "The Tower and the Square"

It was, however, only in the 1980s that academic began to notice not just privatisation but the increased tendency of governments to "hive off" decision-making to technocratic "agencies" which were given vast managerial authority. These may still have been state bodies but were run increasingly like private companies.
"Partnerships" - with both private companies and other state bodies - were another device in which power came increasingly to appear "shared"

It was such developments that encouraged academics (and the World Bank) to invent the new term "governance" - not just as a neutral term for a new structure but as a celebration of a new concept of "networking" which, in principle, offered greater pluralism of thinking about an issue.....
Indeed, in typically helpful academic fashion, they added an adjective "multi-level" to most discussions to give us the acronym MLG
In a famous phrase, RAW Rhodes called the result "hollowed-out government" - with one of the consequences being that Governments were able to disown unpopular decisions (not least  of the EU) and Governance and Public Administration (2000) sets out that academic's argument
"Whatever happened to Public Administration? - governance, governance everywhere" was a useful paper which tried to explore (in 2004) what lay behind the word's sudden appearance. 

That's the background.
I now have two questions 
- did the new term actually serve any useful purpose?
- why has the term disappeared from academic discourse?

Recommended Reading
Peter Drucker's 6 sins of PA - a post with a very comprehensive annotated bib on the key readings
Time to Reclaim public services - an update
Governance in the 21st Century (OECD 2001) an interesting book whose summary suggests first that "old forms of governance in both the public and private sectors are becoming increasingly ineffective. Second, the new forms of governance that are likely to be needed over the next few decades will involve a much broader range of active players eg active citizens. Third, and perhaps most importantly, two of the primary attributes of today’s governance systems – the usually fixed and permanent allocations of power that are engraved in the structures and constitutions of many organisations; and, the tendency to vest initiative exclusively in the hands of those in senior positions in the hierarchy – look set to undergo fundamental changes"

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