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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Understanding different aspects of 'governance'

Understanding different aspects of 'governance'

Suvojit Chattopadhyay (MAGov09) reflects on his work since IDS on what is good governance, where bureaucray fits in and what considerations need to be made in the study of goverance reforms.

Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay
Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay

I have always struggled with definitions. Back in school, we had to learn them by-rote. That was easy. Later in life, it obviously became more important to actually understand concepts, and 'definitions' became very difficult. This was primarily because I could not believe in a single interpretation being the only valid one, and crowding a definition for a concept with all possible meanings made it too unwieldy to use.

What is ‘governance’?

Take 'governance' for example. It makes complete sense to imagine 'governance' as what governments do. Governments are made of numerous politicians and several more bureaucrats who are organised in a hierarchical manner, command authority in the eyes of citizens, and occupy large government office buildings. They design policies, spend money, and regulate social and economic affairs, and ensure law enforcement.

The World Bank Governance Indicators (WBGI) captures these aspects in its definition:

"Governance consists of the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised. This includes the process by which governments are selected, monitored and replaced; the capacity of the government to effectively formulate and implement sound policies; and the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them."

A note that Mick Moore shared with our cohort as we started the MA Governance and Development  at Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex gives a broader meaning of the term (and not a strict definition). Here, Mick explains that 'governance' can refer to any organisational arrangement, cutting across sectors and types of actors. Individuals, whether they are in the government or outside, experience (and are part of) governance arrangements.

"A general term to refer to the process or arrangements through which any set of actors (the staff of Oxfam, the market for fertiliser in Ethiopia, all the government organisations in Thailand, the population of Uexapoptyl village, etc.) are coordinated or ruled.  This includes ‘corporate governance’, the governance of value chains (in the analysis of how specific markets work), the governance of Malawi, the governance of cricket clubs, etc).  Note that governance can be accomplished in a very hierarchical (top-down) way, in a very decentralised and quasi-voluntaristic fashion, or anything in between."

Having worked previously in NGOs and research organisations in India, when I got to IDS in 2008, I was most interested in learning about how civil society organisations are governed; what the relationship with people they serve is (their ability to genuinely represent people); how better synergies could be achieved between civil society actors and the state (along with managing accountability in both directions); and exploring what I as a professional could do to improve outcomes/effectiveness of civil society organisations.

My interest in the government then was limited to the direct interface between the bureaucracy and citizens or civil society organisations, and later that year, to studying how elected officials and bureaucrats interacted in democracies. The papers I wrote that year at IDS reflected my narrow area of interest.

Over the years, my interest shifted from non-governmental and civil society organisations to the ways of working in governments around the world. IDS made that switch happen. Subsequently, working in Ghana and India, I engaged quite closely with government and government systems, had the opportunity to watch how bureaucracies worked across contexts.

Good governments do exist!

One of the most influential books I read during that time - and one that expanded my understanding of ‘governance’ - was by Prof Judith Tendler. ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) presents rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’, where governments successfully delivered developmental outcomes. This challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about ‘governance’ in the so-called ‘third world’. It also showed that in order to be sustainable, reforms have to be home-grown, rather than being imported from other successful contexts. The practice of mindlessly importing “best practice” often midwifed by aid money and is what we often refer to now as ‘isomorphic mimicry’ - a term made popular in governance studies by the Building State Capacity team at Harvard Kennedy School.

Particularly insightful was the finding that service delivery improved not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This is a key factor in other contexts that are held up as developmental successes such as Kerala, India. This also speaks directly to the manner in which political leaders and bureaucrats interact, which eventually shapes what we see as government action.

Political leaders and bureaucrats - a turbulent union

This led me to look closer at how reforms are initiated and sustained in governments. Reforms initiated with public systems often overlook implementation, especially in terms of the response of the bureaucracy, as well as citizens. In the Weberian model, the struggle between the political leadership and the bureaucrats is an inevitable outcome. Bureaucrats will resist overtly and covertly, significant reform proposals floated by political leaders. For the latter, bureaucrats can never be agile enough (sometimes, an unfair assertion). A turbulent union is what this is. It is not without reason that “Yes Minister” is the cult classic that it has come to be.

Within the bureaucracy, depending on seniority, one should expect a variation in their responses to reform proposals. Whether as “experts” or as the masters of “processes”, bureaucrats spend their entire careers honing their skills to protect at all times (and expand when possible), the power and prestige of their organisation. See Michael Lipsky’s work on the ‘street-level bureaucrat’ (frontline workers) and Patrick Dunleavy’s work on ‘bureau shaping’ for excellent insights into bureaucratic responses. Senior bureaucrats could have expansive instincts, but are also sometimes prone to seeking a specialised niche. Where reform proposals end up with an over-reliance on tighter controls, which are usually input-based instead of focusing on outputs and outcomes, frontline workers and bureaucrats closer to the ground experience a lack of autonomy which can affect their performance.

Much of my recent work in Bangladesh, Somalia and Uganda has been on projects that support reforms in government agencies. In an interesting twist, it has been fascinating to observe governments of both donor and recipient countries. Of course, governments in different countries deliver vastly different levels of services to citizens, but when one considers the ‘governance’ challenges that underlie these governments, and especially their bureaucracies, there are several similarities in principle.

To conclude, a few areas to explore further on ‘governance’ and governments

While working on governance reform projects these days, I look out for the composition, motivations, and calibre of governments, including both political leaders and bureaucrats. I am also keen to study the relationship between governments and citizens, particular focusing on the ability to citizens to hold governments to account.

Below, are a few examples of areas that I am keen to explore further:

  • Take for instance, the type of political organisation that heads a government. A political organisation based on an ideological commitment is necessarily different from one that is based on patronage, whether the relationship is based on commercial interests or tribal identities. Yet other governments may be what we can characterise as nearly bureaucratic in nature. The impact of elite capture on these different forms of organisation will look entirely different. This will also have a bearing on the nature of citizen accountability in different contexts.
  • Similarly, authoritarianism and democracy lie on different ends of a fluid spectrum that contains within, various typologies of regimes. In this conception, it is possible to be of a particular type while reflecting some elements of another. The political settlement between elites in a country usually influences the quality of government, and affects what we call ‘stability’. In these varying contexts, what is the role for external intervention? For example, does trade always trump aid?
  • Bureaucracies are a fascinating subject. Take the example of ‘recruitments’, a core aspect of a bureaucracy. Democracies, more than other forms of governments, can be expected to follow a merit-based recruitment policy to staff their bureaucracy. Alongside merit, the degree of autonomy has a significant bearing on a government’s performance. Understanding these factors, and the effects they have on how governments behave, is critical.

Finally, when studying governance reforms, it is vital to balance three considerations - immediate priorities, short-term processes, and long-term outcomes. Governments on the whole need to strike a balance in order to operate. At the same time, as explained above, governments are not monoliths. This is what makes governance reforms a fascinating and challenging subject.


This blogpost was originally posted on Suvojit Chattopadhyay's own blog -Suvojit's Newsletter and reproduced here with permission from the author.

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