Governance governing government - RSA

Governance governing government


  • Picture of Edmund Barrow FRSA
    Edmund Barrow FRSA
    Community Conservation, local governance of nature, ecosystem risk assessment & restoration
  • Public services

The importance of governance has gained momentum and wider meaning, yet it remains a confusing concept. Edmund Barrow FRSA looks at what it means in practice and suggests some ideas for understanding and supporting local governance.

Governance can enhance legitimacy, and is a way to analyse politics, governments, businesses and organisations. Governance helps balance the powers of members, their accountability and enhances the viability of organisations, which could be a government, company, NGO, a village – even a forest area – and so on.

To govern means to direct and control the actions, policies and functions of an organisation, village or nation. Government exercises political authority over the actions and affairs of a nation, a political unit and people. While government tends to act through laws, regulations and guidelines, other types of governing include an organisation, a socio-political group or other informal groups.

But governance and governing are often confused and used interchangeably. Governance is about democracy, representation, accountability, institutions, choice and participation. It is the how we do what we do. For example, a company or country might have good governing arrangements (for recruitment, financial processes and other procedures) but might not be accountable (poor governance). Likewise, a village ‘government’ may (good governance) or may not (poor governance) respect formal and informal local institutions or traditional leaders and women. In this example, building on the comparative advantages of village government and customary institutions results in greater recognition and respect for each other, as well as their knowledge systems. This is good governance.

In business, governance frameworks are built into contracts to foster collaboration and innovation. In an environmental context governance may refer to promoting environmental policies on the sustainable use of natural resources and the processes of decision-making in managing these.

Governance refers to the rules used to solve conflicts between actors and adopt decisions (legality). It describes the proper functioning of institutions and their acceptance by the public (legitimacy), and is used to promote consensus by democratic means (participation). Governance is broader than government, and refers to processes where elements of society wield power, authority and enact policies and decisions concerning public life. Governance can refer to a type of organisation, or a particular 'field' associated with certain activities (for example, environmental) or a particular 'model' (for example, participatory). 

Some different forms of governance

Participatory governance focuses on enhancing democracy so that citizens can play more direct roles in decision-making. Government officials should be responsive to such engagement and through direct involvement such an approach can supplement the roles of citizens as voters or watchdogs.

Corporate governance consists of sets of processes, customs, policies, rules and institutions affecting how people direct, administer or control a corporation or business. This includes the relationships among different players – including shareholders, management, and the board of directors, who are the main players involved – and corporate goals. Such corporate governance can be participatory.

If governance is about how public institutions ought to conduct public affairs and manage public resources, then why are governance failings common? For example, when it comes to natural resource management (for example, biodiversity conservation, sustainable forest management and carbon forestry) why does governance fail so often? Taking concrete steps to support governance involves complex problems, taking tough decisions as well as investing time and resources to understand and manage the various aspects of governance. Many projects are tempted to take shortcuts on governance to meet deadlines and budgets and many intervening agents (for example, donors, government agents and NGOs) may lack the skills and training to identify and support decentralised governance.

A first step to support local governance is to understand what it entails, which includes the following:

  • Responsiveness of leaders to people so decisions respond to local needs and aspirations;
  • Representation of leaders to people so decisions represent their needs and legitimacy;
  • Accountability so people can sanction leaders for their actions by rewarding or punishing them;
  • Public domain is the powers under public authority, i.e. powers of government; and
  • Citizenshipis empowering citizens to influence their leaders and hold them accountable.

Representative and accountable local decision-making requires supporting locally-elected government (which refers to forms of public administration existing at the lowest tier of administration within a given state). These are permanent institutions with long-term governance structures and can be the starting point for scaling-up successful actions. However, in many cases they are more accountable to central government, donors, international NGOs, shareholders than to local people or employees.

While decentralisation transfers responsibilities from central to local government, such local authorities may lack the capacity to take on such rights and responsibilities. For example, natural resource projects should empower local authorities to be more accountable to local people. There are a number of guiding ideas to enhance local governance.  

  • Choose democracy by placing public decisions with decision-makers who are accountable and responsive to local citizens by working through elected local government.
  • Strengthen local authorities where they are weak or unaccountable, ensuring that they have decision-making powers to respond to local needs and aspirations.
  • Give local authorities negotiating powerto represent citizens and negotiate effectively while retaining the right to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to outside interventions.
  • Do not treat local government as an implementation or service-delivery agency as the power to deliver services people need or demand is part of democracy.
  • Maintain the authority of local governmentwhen working on public decisions with groups outside elected government as they need to operate under local democratic authority.
  • Promote equity and use participatory approaches to engage with local organisations to ensure all classes, gender, orientations, castes, ethnicities and ages are represented.
  • Inform people of their rights and powersso they know which decisions are public, what powers local authorities hold and use, as well as which services they are accountable for.
  • Empower local people so they can hold government to accountby supporting the rights of, and provide the means for all local people to hold authorities to account.

Projects can be political and impact local power relations. When project designers and implementers choose to work with particular local institutions, they make choices as to whether and how they support local rights and governance, and whether decision-making process will be consensual (for example with traditional institutions) and/or on representation. How these choices and decisions are made are at the heart of good governance which is about decision-making, institutional choice, representation and accountability.

Edmund has worked in a range of countries for nearly 50 years on community-based natural resource management emphasising decentralised governance and respect for local and indigenous knowledge and institutions. He pioneered village-level environmental and land use planning at local and landscape levels and forest landscape. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya and is author of the book Our Future in Nature: Trees Spirituality and Ecology (Balboa Press 2019).


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