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.


One comment on “What is Governance, Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the career of Rod Dobell, on the occasion of the west-coast launch of “A Subtle Balance” | Justin Longo, phd

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