Addressing classic problems in public administration through governance

For our course in Advanced Governance [link to JSGS syllabus], I started the first lecture by asking the question: so what’s this course all about? The syllabus talks about who decides, and how decisions get made. Those questions are, of course, important in any discussion about governance and are central to the Governance Cluster [link to JSGS Governance cluster page] here at the Johnson Shoyama School. But another part of governance is about how stuff actually gets done once the decision is made.

If you have seen the most recent episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, – first, do so – and second, Jerry Seinfeld asks President Obama what sport most resembles politics. His answer – football – is interesting in the oppositional sense – two sides trying to obstruct each other while trying to meet their objectives. And in that it’s mostly small yardage grinding back and forth, with very little action or breakthroughs (and, as Saskatchewan’s Deputy Minister of Justice has said on a couple of occasions – three hours of televised football only includes about 12 minutes of actual game play). But you can also think of football as a governance setting with leaders and support workers coordinated by rules, strategies, expectations and norms. If no one accepts the head coach and quarterback as legitimate leaders, coordination will fall apart. If ball carriers and receivers don’t follow the strategies that are communicated to them, there will be a failure to execute the intended plays. If people break the rules, there are consequences for the organization.

Coordination is the basis of organizations. People don’t create organizations so they can have big buildings with a name on it that they came up with. Organizations are the consequence of trying to scale up activity. And in that scaling up, it’s no use having a bunch of people working really hard and hoping it adds up to something. You have to coordinate their activity so it’s something more than chaos. This organization can be private or public, for profit or nonprofit. But the point is that you need to provide those people with an organizing framework – a governance framework – so that their efforts combine to make something useful whether that’s moving the ball down the field or providing public healthcare.

So why can’t we just tell people to do something and they do it? Problem solved, right? Governance has emerged as a way of solidifying the realization that exercising authority based on a position of power doesn’t really work anymore. I did an Ignite talk in Ottawa a few months ago and I tried to make the case in five minutes that we can understand the push towards open government by looking at the evolution of the tv family over the past 50 years – from Father Knows Best to Modern Family, where the idea of governance based on “because I said so” has morphed into family governance as an inversion of the pyramid with parents at the bottom. This highlights what I would argue to be the most basic governance unit we have all lived within at some point in our lives – the family, whether that involves just you and one other person, or multiple people. I suppose you could argue that a single person on their own constitutes a governance unit, except that the meetings tend to be shorter and the arguments easily resolved.

So now we’re left with a new understanding of governance where stakeholders, experts, advocates, public servants, clients, politicians and citizens all possess knowledge and perspectives that have to be taken into account in the governance process, how everyone has a role to play and how those roles need to be coordinated in order to achieve the objectives of whatever form the organization takes on.

What I will try to do for the next few minutes is to make the case that governance matters for your roles as public service managers, as public policy developers or as students of public policy. There are a number of classic problems or challenges in public administration that can be simplified to questions of:
effectiveness, and

Really – that’s about it. Everything else is filler.

The term governance has emerged as an overarching concept, with the idea that if we get governance right – i.e., achieve “good governance – we will solve these problems. Or alternatively, if we solve these problems, we will have “good governance”.

(As a bit of foreshadowing, I’ll suggest that you pay attention to that code phrase “good governance”, which is used in some contexts – usually when a developed country is lecturing a developing country [have a look at the Ugandan newspaper The Independent for an article called “Obama’s good governance lecture” to see what I mean] – to mean that your government is corrupt and you really need to get it together. It’s not that it’s a useless idea, or that many developing countries couldn’t do a better job of a broader distribution of power, and a better focus on legitimacy, effectiveness and accountability. I just wonder about someone talking about “good governance” when they let a bunch of armed thugs take over a government building and then ask them nicely if they wouldn’t mind turning out the lights when they leave, hopefully soon – but no rush).

Now you’ll be forgiven if you are confused about where the word “governance” came from. Often, when we talk about governance, we gravitate towards talking about government – the implication is that governance is just a way of describing what governments do. Except that it isn’t, really.

The use of the term governance is ubiquitous and pervasive – some might even say it’s overused to the point of being useless. But it is also, outside of most “governance” circles, opaque and rarely used. If you feel like you missed when this new term “governance” became popular, the reason is that it isn’t really (popular, that is). “Governance” did not emerge as a term of any importance until the 1990s and is still relatively insignificant compared to the use of “government”. What’s also apparent here is that “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. But after all the “governance without government” talk, there is the possibility that we are now witnessing a re-emergence of government in the form of neo-interventionist governance. Though this old school governance is tempered by an understanding that the father-knows-best type of governance doesn’t work anymore.

But regardless of who does it and how it gets done, there are a number of classic challenges in administration and policymaking that a focus on governance is meant to solve. This short discussion:
provides a quick scan of some of these challenges
describes some of the dominant models that have been used to understand how government might be understood as a mechanism for addressing these challenges,
and outlines how “governance” gives us a way of talking about these challenges and possible solutions
[Slide 2]
Classic Problems in Public Administration
Maintaining legitimacy
Responding to public expectations
Ensuring accountability

Legitimacy: People have been trying to figure out for quite a while what makes a ruler legitimate, beyond having an individual’s wealth or strength make the decision for them. Plato thought that a council of philosopher-kings was a good idea, though how we can identify the right philosophers to become kings, let alone hope that our current kings can become philosophers, remains unresolved. And despite the invention of participatory democracy by the Greek city-states, Aristotle also thought that that right people were just better suited to be in charge than the wrong people. Things got really dark with Thomas Hobbes arguing that the only thing that kept a zombie apocalypse at bay was a good king who could keep us all in tenuous agreement.
We’ve definitely moved past thinking legitimacy is purely a function of having the right ruler. Generally, we think of government legitimacy as people accepting that a government has the authority to make decisions that affect them – John Locke’s “consent of the governed” – and can make decisions on that affect the lives of the public. Whether this means legitimacy is a state of being (the descriptive view) or that legitimacy stems from our perception of ongoing decision processes (the normative view) is an open question, however. Max Weber described the legitimacy of a governing system as hinging on whether it had it been there for a long time, whether people have faith in the rulers, and whether they trust its legality. But digging more deeply into legitimacy, theorists like John Rawls focus on the processes that underlie how governments come to be seen as legitimate. There is, of course, a lot more that has been said on the subject, but that’s a basic distinction: sometimes the conditions we observe add up to legitimacy, and sometimes the governance processes themselves are seen as legitimate.
Responding to public expectations to competently solve public problems: Today’s society is characterized by a set of complex problems – such as inequality, climate change and affordable access to healthcare – that are seemingly intractable. People have looked to traditional societal institutions – like government agencies and advocacy groups – to tackle these problems, and they have become frustrated by the inability of these institutions to act effectively. Unsurprisingly, trust in existing institutions is at an all-time low. People expect to have their views heard, expect to have their values taken into account and expect to be able to contribute to the identification of solutions.
Ensuring accountability: decision makers should be accountable for their decisions, and those with authority should be able to trace back their discretionary decisions to some legitimate source. Accountability is multi-directional – from the elected to the electorate, and the bureaucracy to political leaders. The central challenge in the implementation problem is ensuring that administrative decisions adhere faithfully to the intention of the legislative process, while allowing sufficient discretion such that decision at the street level serve to best address the public problem.

[Slide 3]
Dominant models in public management
Progressive-Era Public Administration (PPA) – hierarchies
New Public Management (NPM) – markets
Neo-administrative state – networks
Neo-Interventionist Public Admin (NPA) – new governance?
Digital Era Governance (DEG)

Dominant models of public management reform of the last 100 years:
Progressive Era Public Administration (PPA): Weberian model, first paper-based, formal written file systems but increasingly digital since the 1960s; command and control in large hierarchical structures, closed to outsiders. Career public service professionals insulated from the general labor market; generalized rules that limited the discretionary power of public servants; and the equal treatment of citizens in a rule of law (Dunleavy & Hood 1994; Hood 1995). Belief in the ability of expertise and bureaucracy to solve public problems. Clear separation of politics from administration, with professional bureaucrats protecting the state from the excesses of politics, but democracy providing values and goals.
New Public Management, emphasized disaggregation of large-scale departments, increased competition within the public sector, and the incentivization of public officials along business lines. The New Public Management agenda arose in response to the political leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the neo-conservatism of the late 1970s / early 1980s, and became an umbrella term for public choice-oriented economic and managerial reform of government administration (Hood, 1991). Based on modern business practices and public-choice literature (Hughes, 2008), NPM had a significant effect on public administration in its heyday and enjoys continued support for its overarching principles and philosophy of public management (de Vries, 2010).
The dominant interpretation seems to be that legitimacy is compromised by a perception of government incompetence. The implementation of Obamacare – well, really, the problems with the website – is the latest challenge to the idea of government competence, and a further eroding of perceived government legitimacy. This perception is rooted in the New Public Management (NPM) – the idea that government should be run like a business and, if it can’t or won’t, businesses should run government programs. There is an assumption in NPM that we may need to stress here. it is not just that npm wants government run efficiently and like a business. it is also that if at all possible npm advocates wanted business to run government operations (usually operationalized through contracting). this means that the movement to improvement government also weakened government because of the preference for private sector work (hence hollow state, etc.). If NPM thought about legitimacy, its premise went something like this: better run government increases people’s confidence in the ability of governments to do things right. When people’s confidence in government increases, their perception of government’s legitimacy increases. But while NPM was focused on the ball of “doing things right”, it paid little heed to the long-game of “doing the right thing”. The challenge of procedural legitimacy is that it makes it very difficult to know what “the right thing” is and to show leadership in complex settings.
Activist, interventionist governments that seek to strengthen legitimacy by responding forcefully to threats such as global financial instability, chronic unemployment, climate change, war, political instability, refugees, natural and human-caused disasters, and terrorism. Prior to these challenges emerging, concepts like collaboration, partnerships, and networks were promoted and “governance” replaced “government”. Other concepts include: decentralization, devolution, debureaucratization and flat coordination, and reintroduction of politics into administration, and de-skilling of the public service. During the first decade of the 21st century, the state failed to keep up with the world’s challenges and crises, raising perceptions of government failure. In response, traditional state interventionists saw a window of opportunity for government activism. The economic success of emerging interventionist nations such as Brazil, China, and India were persuasive. The 2007-2008 global financial crisis was the key however (e.g., creation of the European Banking Authority; partial nationalization of major banks and automobile companies in the US. Do these moves constitute a neo-interventionist state?
Digital Era Governance (DEG) (Dunleavy et al., 2005; Dunleavy, Margetts, Bastow, & Tinkler, 2006) – a form of neo-interventionism – placed digital technologies at the center of bureaucracy, and reinstated government-citizen data flows. DEG is based on the complete digitalization of paper and phone-based systems; a citizen-based holism where services are reorganized around digitally enabled citizens; and a reintegration of governmental organizations fragmented after years of NPM change. It makes use of the incremental “build-and-learn” approach that Internet-based technologies afford. DEG has three key elements: reintegration (bringing issues back into government control, like US airport security after 9/11); needs-based holism (reorganizing government around distinct client groups); and digitization (fully exploiting the potential of digital storage and Internet communications to transform governance).
[Slide 4]
Addressing Public Admin Challenges Through Governance
Maintaining legitimacy
participatory platforms
Responding to public expectations
opening governance
Ensuring accountability
linking decision making and implementation

Good governance signifies the combined objectives of legitimacy and effectiveness. Too strong of a tilt towards effectiveness without the support of the people risks a slide into technocratic authoritarianism leading to popular revolt. Too rapid a move towards populism risks political stability leading towards chaos or paralysis.

Building Does technology offer a way out of the “legitimacy crisis”? Can we tap into the cognitive surplus in society and channel it towards democratic ends? Despite the premises of the legitimacy crisis, people have demonstrated their interest in being involved in projects bigger than their own capacity: collective efforts like Wikipedia, crowdsourcing efforts in medical research (Heywood, 2009; Khatib et al., 2011; McGonigal, 2012), leisure activities and interests, shared reviews of businesses, the sharing of ideas to improve local communities, and helping people throughout the world achieve their dreams and a life of self-sufficiency by providing micro loans for their businesses. What these and many other examples share is in providing a platform for participation. The individuals who created and contributed to these efforts completely contradict the perception of an apathetic populace.
Participatory platforms with a public intent build on the networked society and advances in new technologies that not only increase the capacity for citizen-to-government interactions but citizen-to-citizen as well. Participatory platforms use technology to lower the barriers to participation, and can improve procedural legitimacy by directly involving citizens in representing and influencing the decisions that affect their lives. Advances in computational technology enable the coordination of individual contributions into collective outcomes, which can improve perceived legitimacy through effective governance. Thus the concepts and tools that underlie policy informatics make possible new democratic innovations that can build procedural legitimacy at the same time that they achieve governance effectiveness.
By leveraging emerging communication and computation technologies, participatory platforms are designed to harness the democratic and cognitive surplus of the public to address shared issues. These platforms seek to inspire, organize, and utilize the public expression of questions, opinions, ideas, and solutions to pressing public issues based on their experiences, expertise, and enthusiasm. As such, platforms are a potentially powerful tool to reinvigorate the citizens with the enlightened and empowered capacity to represent their lived experiences in the political process and, thereby, legitimate government.
Although they possess the power to facilitate the legitimate participation of citizens, their current use tends to focus on increasing their effectiveness in addressing public issues (Desouza, 2012). But for participatory platforms to serve as a legitimate means for democratic government, they must actively engage citizens not only in information sharing, but in collectively representing, deliberating, reasoning, and deciding (Fung & Wright, 2003; Schugurensky, 2001), aspects which will increase their impact on procedural legitimacy.
It cannot be stressed enough that when it comes to participatory platforms, design matters. Design is more than the layout of the platform; it is the articulation of the entire participatory experience from start to finish and the structure and process through which it contributes to effective governance and procedural legitimacy. The way that administrators and designers present content and enable activities on the platform will impact whether or not a platform is entertaining, clear, meaningful, and usable.
Platforms design to increase procedural legitimacy engage citizens in a manner that not only informs, consults and delegates power, but engages them in the process of co-creation to address public issues. These platforms are often facilitated by multi-directional pathways for sharing, ideation, deliberation, and collaboration between citizens and government. For example, iMesa, ACTionAlexandria and SpeakUpAustin provide a virtual platform that engages individuals and organizations in the public with government in a process of ideation, deliberation, and collaboration to set the public agenda, develop public policy, and implement programs and services. Lastly, is the “what next” question: participatory platforms must provide a way for participants to connect with ideas, resources, and the ability to take action on issues that matter to them.

Responding to public expectations to competently solve public problems:
Advances in technology together with new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making provide for a unique opportunity to redesign our democratic institutions and make them more legitimate and effective. Seizing on this opportunity, leaders and citizens are increasingly collaborating to solve society’s biggest problems. This emerging paradigm is often called “opening governance.” From prize-backed challenges to spur open innovation, to open data portals that provide programmable government-held information to the business community, to participatory budgeting projects – adopted by 1500 cities around the world – that give citizens direct control over the allocation of a portion of discretionary public funds. This shift from top-down, closed government to decentralized, open and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century.
Yet we still know very little about what kinds of innovation work, when, why, and under what conditions. Work on diverse participation, collaboration and complex problem solving has been hampered by a lack of interaction and coordination across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The need for innovation is widely recognized, but meaningful change requires experts in fields as diverse as law, social psychology and computer science to work together instead of within disciplinary silos.
references to “good governance” (principally in developing country context) is a code phrase for greater diversity and openness in government decision making.
state actors should focus on steering (policy formulation) not rowing (implementation): giving public officials the freedom to manage subject to broad guidelines for policy objectives.
strengthening the link between decision making and implementation;
technology-based implementation monitoring
responding to the complex world that has emerged following NPM – spatially and functionally distinct networks across a range of organizational types.