What is Governance, Anyway?

(originally published at https://cpi.asu.edu/what-governance)

My short-hand response when asked what research area I work in is to say: “open governance”. When asked to explain what that means (or, when I make the bold inference that the asker is interested in knowing more), the explanation usually gravitates towards talking about government.

If the listener doesn’t surmise that I either mis-spoke or that I have an unusual and infrequently audible accent – perhaps causing me to pronounce “governments” as Sean Connery might – the implication is that governance is just a way of describing what governments do.

Except that it isn’t, really.

So what’s the difference between government and governance?

Starting with simple definitions, a government is an institution with formal authority in a geo-political jurisdiction. It is run by a combination of public servants and political leaders who have the power to enforce their decisions.

Governance describes how an organization or a society makes collective decisions and acts to realize its objectives. The use of the term “governance” acknowledges that a range of institutions, participants, rules and norms, often operating across geopolitical boundaries, come together to influence, negotiate and arrive at shared decisions. Governance is a broad term, referring to general processes rather than specific institutions, and it applies to a broader range of institutional types. It covers patterns of ruling, coordination and organization that are (or at least can be) independent of states.

(Interestingly, Francis Fukuyama explored “What Is Governance?” in 2013, but defined “governance as a government’s ability to make and enforce rules, and to deliver services”. While his approach looks like “governance is what governments do”, his question was really about how well governments do it.)

Mark Bevir, author of Governance: A Very Short Introduction (2012) (see also this video), points to four key features of the new governance configuration of how many states operate today:

  • hybrid: whereas traditionally government was about bureaucratic hierarchical organizations, governance sees the state operating through markets, contracts, networks and partnerships.
  • multi-jurisdictional: overlaps of authority and influence, where partnerships become important.
  • plurality of stakeholders: more actors are involved from private sector, public sector and civil society.
  • network-based: interactions amongst many actors.

The evolution of governance has moved from hierarchy through market mechanisms to networks. Network organization was a reaction to some of the limits of the market-oriented New Public Management, seeking to link the constituent parts in a holistic approach. Rather than try to predict that a particular governance approach or institutional form will deliver efficient and effective outcomes, Bevir argues the focus should be on procedural governance: i.e., novel forms of participation and empowering disadvantaged groups to participate fully in the policy making process. That is, good governance is more likely to emerge from open and inclusive decision-making processes.

Emergence of “Governance”

The use of the term governance is ubiquitous and pervasive – but it is also, outside of most “governance” circles, opaque and exotic. If you feel like you missed when this new term “governance” became popular, the reason is that it isn’t really (popular, that is).

This Google ngram view of three terms – government, governance and Government – shows their relative popularity in the English-language books published over the past century that have been scanned by Google. While the difference between “Government” and “government” is another story (Google ngrams are case-specific: “Government” may either be the first word in a sentence or may refer to a specific government – e.g., the Government of Canada), what is clear is that “governance” did not emerge as a term of any importance until the 1990s and is still relatively insignificant compared to the use of G/government.

Ngram of Government, government and governance

Ngram of Government, government and governance

What’s also apparent here is that G/government has been on a downward trend since the 1960s, and this in part is reflected in the emergence of governance. As governments have diminished in importance, governance has entered to fill the void. This is a key part of the government→governance transition over the past quarter century.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance uses the word governance intentionally, since its work extends beyond governments to include institutions of governance such as voluntary institutions, informal organizations, NGOs, universities and potentially standard-setting boards that are not government institutions per se. In addition, the workings of more open and collaborative institutions might look significantly different from the structures that we associate with government today. The Research Network is thus concerned with this broad process of governance, not with the political campaign processes involved in choosing representatives.  The workings of more open and collaborative institutions might look significantly different from the structures that we associate with government today.

Public servants risk becoming policy dinosaurs, David Emerson warns

I didn’t know David Emerson read my dissertation. Sweet!

Ottawa Citizen

Public servants are losing their monopoly on policy advice to government and will soon be considered irrelevant unless they change how they gather, analyze and shape their recommendations, says the man who led a heavyweight committee on the public service for Stephen Harper.

Former cabinet minister David Emerson, the outgoing chair of the prime minister’s advisory committee on the public service, said technology and big data are turning the world of policymaking on its ear.

“Government is a little information economy with lots of barriers to the free flow and use of information, so a big challenge for the public service will be how to adapt when the world is now able to access all kinds of quantitative and qualitative information is a split second on hand-held devices,” Emerson told the Citizen.

“And if they can’t do that quickly, government becomes less and less relevant because, by the time decisions are made, it will…

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The Citizen Science / Crowdsourcing Spectrum

(originally published at https://cpi.asu.edu/citizen-science-crowdsourcing-spectrum)

The Center for Policy Informatics was recently awarded two seed grants by the Arizona State University Office of the Vice President for Entrepreneurship & Innovation under their Citizen Science & Citizen Engagement (CSCE) Grant Program. One project is the “Citizen Science to Forecast the Future of a Desert City” and the other is the “Crowdsourcing the Next Great Citizen Science Project” project.

The CSCE grant program describes citizen science as involving public participation in research, which can include data collection, data interpretation and data analysis by community members. What is implied with the growth of citizen science in the past ten years is that the Internet is the likely or understood mechanism that facilitates this participation.

Crowdsourcing is a term coined in 2006 to describe the process of taking a task normally performed by employees and allocating it to volunteers – the crowd – using the Internet. You send out the request for volunteers, allocate the task and collect responses – all using the web.

So is citizen science the same as crowdsourcing? Why not?

I’d like to make the case here that there is an important connection between the terms “crowdsourcing” and “citizen science” – or, to be more precise, between what I call “scientific crowdsourcing” and “Web2.0-enabled citizen science”. My interest here is in trying to more precisely define the type of citizen science we’re talking about, and where it intersects with crowdsourcing.

First off, what strikes me as unhelpful is that there’s a noticeable preference in the citizen science movement against the term crowdsourcing, as though crowdsourcing were something less serious than citizen science. For example, the Citizen Science Alliance – the organization behind the Zooniverse – very precisely and carefully does not use the term crowdsourcing in its writings. Crowdsourcing is for making t-shirts, citizen science is for identifying galaxies. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there should be a more objective difference between the two terms.

The distinction I draw is that mass collaboration in science can be organized along a spectrum of intensity for participation intersected by a spectrum of technology mechanism.


On the one right-hand end of this spectrum is the tradition of citizen science; when supported by new technology platforms, I label this as “Web2.0-enabled citizen science”. This is closely aligned with the semantic meaning of the term “citizen scientist” – i.e., the citizen or member of the public doing the work of a scientist and contributing their observations to those with the position and authority to make use of them. When not reliant on new web technologies, this is how we used to think of citizen science: a great example of this is the amateur astronomer Robert Owen Evans who holds the record for visual discoveries of supernovae; or perhaps the volunteer who travels to an archeological site, learns the techniques of working carefully amongst a dig site and spends many hours contributing to that work. When mediated by web technology, the implication is that participation in the science endeavor requires a level of sophistication or commitment comparable to Robert Evans or the archeological dig participant.
At the other end of the spectrum are projects that require the powers of human perception, reasoning and pattern recognition (that still outperform the most powerful machine computers) – e.g., interpreting imagery or accurately transcribing handwriting. Pre-web examples are not very common, but would include the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. In the Web2.0 setting, this harnessing of human cognitive ability can be obscure to the individual (e.g., the reCAPTCHA system for helping to digitize text), presented in a game interface where the participant is motivated not by the output but by the game itself (e.g., the idea of “games with a purpose” or “serious games”) or focused on the engagement of public participants in science endeavors through low-intensity pattern recognition tasks (e.g., Galaxy Zoo). The best, earliest example of this approach is NASA’s Clickworkers project that has spawned a genre of volunteer scientific crowdsourcing.

The new citizen science movement has provide a range of ways for people to engage with science. This is a good strategy for maximizing contributions and follows the principle of “trajectories of participation” that allow participants to engage at the level of intensity they are interested and capable of. But we need to be a little more careful in what we call these approaches because that care will translate into better design approaches for engaging people in scientific collaborations (Tanya Kelley and I discussed more on design considerations for engaging participation in an earlier blog post). Calling every mass collaboration effort related to science “citizen science” will result in sub-optimal design choices and less effective participant engagement.

Scientific crowdsourcing examples usually include tasks that:
  • are comprised of a large number of discrete, simple human-based computations or applications of human pattern recognition,
  • require very little time on the part of the volunteer to learn how to complete the task and actually complete one instance of the task, and
  • give the volunteer some measure of reward, and a sense of accomplishment and of having contributed to a larger undertaking through a very simple, short interaction.

In marrying Web2.0 and citizen science, and changing the nature of the science / public interaction, a new paradigm of scientific crowdsourcing has emerged in which the medium for communicating science tasks, and the mechanism for amateur citizen scientists to communicate their responses back, is now embodied in a Web2.0 infrastructure. This combination makes possible the tapping of a distributed network of human processing power that can accomplish tasks of high-volume, low-intensity analysis.