What is Good Governance?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( May 10, 2012, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Overall public interest in good governance is now a common feature in the modern state, and is not restricted to the academics and practitioners who bore the burden of evaluating governance in the past. The increasing concern and interest in good governance may be attributed to the public being more educated and aware than before, which is now popularly known as “civic literacy”, coupled with the proliferation of complex issues that have emerged with globalization and an international awareness that has spread to national boundaries. Therefore, an empirical demonstration of good governance has now become a compelling need that could provide the necessary tools for the public to develop their own desired models of governance which are capable of delivering goods that accord with their expectations. In this respect, while admittedly there are various methodologies developed at the local level to assess the quality of life and there exist global review processes such as the one employed by the World Bank to evaluate the quality of governance in whole countries, there are unfortunately no general indicators that could enable better understanding of whether a given governance is improving, nor has any conclusion been reached as to whether evaluating governance could go towards improving governance.
In the 1990s there was widespread interest in the public sector in achieving excellence in service delivery through quality governance. This trend went on the basic assumption that good governance resulted in improving the quality of life of the subject and governing processes. A system of positive reinforcement for the contributor through awards, financial rewards and quality control certification followed and for some time it was widely thought that a combined system of proactive governance and rewarding the contributing public sector would be the way toward progress. However, in recent times, governing bodies have come to realize increasingly that excellence of the public sector is not merely dependent upon the quality of services delivered if governance does not discharge political, social and environmental responsibilities. This new realization has given rise to the need for “ public governance reforms” to deal with what are administratively termed “wicked problems”. An example of a wicked problem is the funding for public sector education which is often unable to cope with increasing expenditure in the local government sector. In Germany for instance, many public agencies have been compelled to seek innovative approaches to reducing local welfare expenditure. However, recession has made it impossible to contain expenditure in the face of receding local resources. A public governance reform in such an instance could lie in partnerships with the private sector. The most compelling public governance reform would lie in the extent to which a governing body would involve the people, whose role in governance has been unacceptably thin and “consumerist”. As service users, citizens should be consulted and they should, as members of a community, be inextricably linked with the decision making processes that involve public initiatives.
In many recent instances of changes of government, it has often been seen that even when the voter has noticeably acknowledged improvement of services, he has not necessarily expressed greater trust in the incumbent government unless he had been drawn into the co-planning, co-designing and co-management of public initiatives. Therefore good governance is dependent on “trust” between the governed and the governing. Another aspect of good governance is the manner in which service is delivered to the governed. Major controversies in most governments around the world have often not been about low service performance but rather about ineptitude or self-interest of the person carrying out the task. Transparency plays a significant role in this area, where complaints are often received by governments about the citizenry not being properly informed of the background of decision making in given instances, thus exposing the politicians and officials responsible for such decisions, to charges of dishonesty and unfairness.
In early times, governance involved the “Social Contract Theory” in which the parties to the contract were the governing and the governed whereby the latter implicitly undertook to protect and arrange for the overall welfare of the former and the former undertook to accord privileges of governance, pay taxes etc. to the latter. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651), attributed great importance to organized society and political power and recognized that human life in the “state of nature” (apart from or before the institution of the civil state) is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and that it was a “dog eat dog world” where there was a war of all against all. According to Hobbes, this impelled the populace to seek security by entering into a social contract in which each person’s original power is yielded to a sovereign, who then regulates conduct. Hobbes maintained that, under the social contract theory, the sovereign’s power should be unlimited, because the state originated in a so called social contract, whereby individuals accept a common superior power to protect themselves from their own brutish instincts and to make possible the satisfaction of certain human desires.
The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, in his major work, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (1677; Ethics Demonstrated with Geometrical Order), introduced the idea that human reason is the criterion of right conduct deducing ethics from psychology and psychology from metaphysics. While asserting that all things are morally neutral from the point of view of eternity, Spinoza stringently argued that only human needs and interests determine what is considered good and evil, or right and wrong. Carrying this thinking further, Spinoza concluded that whatever aids humanity’s knowledge of nature or is consonant with human reason could be acknowledged as good. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that whatever all people have in common is best for everyone, and the good that people should seek for others is the good they desire for themselves. In addition, Spinoza contended, reason is needed in order to keep the passions in check and to achieve pleasure and happiness by avoiding pain.
Indicators of Good Governance
In comparison with the above philosophies, the modern interpretation of “governance” would take a completely new dimension and be described as the interaction of stakeholders with each other with the goal of influencing the outcome of public policies. Consequently, “good governance” would then be the interaction of the stakeholders taken to the ultimate destination of the implementation and evaluation of their interaction. It has been said that the commencement of good governance is analogous to the design of a violin. If the design is excellent, the violin would turn out to be excellent and produce excellent music. If the violin were to be used in an orchestra, the concert would probably be excellent. However, irrespective of the design and the product, the success of the performance would largely depend on the musician.
Public policy outcomes and interactivity of stakeholders are the two most critical indicators of good government. The first – public policy outcomes – have to be improved if a meaningful result is to be obtained toward good governance. In recent years, the interest of the citizen in public policy outcomes and the resurgence of security consciousness among the public has spurred both politicians and the public to seek evidence of whether their policies have made a difference in terms of achieving desired results. In order to assess good governance, the indicators should be looked at from a lateral perspective and not from a determinant of perceived adequacy. For example, in terms of his own security, the citizen would evaluate his government not by the quality of defence services provided but by the level of security from external attack perceived. In other words, however strong a military a government may provide, if it does not take measures to ensure that its citizenry is not exposed to danger (such as through acrimonious relations with other countries or from groups of individuals within the country), the citizen would not rate the government high in terms of governance. This is even more significant at the local or domestic level, where, however strong and sophisticated the police and crime prevention services may be in a State, if the level of community safety perceived by the citizen is low, the government would be deemed to be neglectful in governance. From an economic perspective, the quality of governance would be evaluated by the level of income and conditions of work rather than the economic development programs a State may embark upon. Health-wise, the indicator would be the level of health and feeling of well being enjoyed rather than the quality of health care and social services available. Health is connected to environmental issues, where it is not the environmental protection or improvement services that matter but the quality of environment the people live in.
One of the most critical factors in assessing good governance is education. The popular misconception that a State which provides high level educational services provides good governance no longer holds sway, as it is the awareness and understanding of the people of world and domestic issues and their level of competence at work are what count as results of good governance. Another determinant is the comfort that people enjoy in their homes rather than the sophistication achieved in house building and repair services. Finally, on the issue of recreation and social interaction, it is not the recreational and social services available that are considered as important but the quality of leisure and cultural experiences people enjoy.
Some of the other indicators are: involvement of citizens; accountability of actions of the governing body; transparency; equality in social inclusion (gender, ethnicity, age, religion etc); ethical conduct; integrity; ability to compete in a global environment; ability to work as partners with other governments or bodies; fair procedures and due process; and respect for the rule of law. A State’s adherence to the rule of law is extremely important as a determinant of good governance. It carries the principle that law (as administered by the ordinary courts) is supreme and that all citizens (including members of the government) are equally subject to it and equally entitled to its protection.
Given all these indicators, a government is faced with the inevitable question as to whether strict conformity with the principles of good governance would guarantee high quality achievement and the peoples trust. One yardstick could be the Corruptions Perception Index ( CPI) developed by Transparency International in 1995 which has so far covered 102 countries. .Transparency International dedicated its 2003 issue to fighting corruption through access to information. Information is the seminal and single factor that enables the public to be aware of corruption and the measures taken by the authorities to root it out. Information strengthens the public will as well as awareness of the legislative and practical efficacy of a government.
The first conclusion that one can reach is that good governance is no longer assessed by the provision of services by a government or other governing body but rather by the extent to which improvements were made possible to the quality of life of the individual. The second is that good governance has an international connotation, in that it should be assessed with the assistance and application of international standards. Also, good governance must be rewarded, for example through rewards along the lines of the Nobel Peace Prize for “best practices” in good governance. Recognition should be given through “satisfaction surveys” where a direct causal nexus could be drawn between the manner in which the governed was enabled to reach a level of satisfaction with governance provided.. Positive changes in expectation and results obtained should be weighed against perceived adequacies of government in the provision of services. Trust in government, through increased levels of health and wellbeing ( which must necessarily include a sense of security of life, habitation and movement) both from cultural and religious perspectives should be a primary indicator. The elimination of corruption is a key to good governance, and civil society, which has been overwhelmingly proactive in building awareness on human rights issues, has succeeded in persuading the international community of the value for transparency and honesty in public transactions. Arguably, the most important key to good governance is benevolence and understanding. A good government must assure its people that it has their wellbeing at heart and pro-actively move towards achieving that goal.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.