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Understanding Governance

D. Conor Seyle and Matthew Wilburn King

Over the past 30 years, the idea of governance (versus government) as a critical framework for understanding human society has taken root in the scholarly and policy communities. In the 1990s, political economist Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-winning work introduced the idea that systems created by local communities could lead to sustainable governance of natural resources. At the same time, scholars of international relations began to appreciate the way that many global systems were fairly well governed even in the absence of formal international institutions. International organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO began to realize that the quality of governance in the places they operated was a major factor in the success, or failure, of their programs. The result is an increasing shift in the research community toward talking about governance as a critical piece of understanding human collective behavior. (See Figure 2–1.)

Figure 2–1. Google Scholar Hits for “Governance” and “Government” in Literature Dated 1950–2010

But how could this concept apparently be all things to all people? What exactly is “governance”? Why is it a valuable lens for looking at human behavior, and how does it add to the global policy discussion about how to create a more sustainable, peaceful world? What is the result of all of this academic and research interest, and do the theories developed bear any relationship to the nitty-gritty details of how the world is governed today?

What Is Governance?

As a basic term, “governance” refers to the processes by which any complex activity or system is coordinated. Its roots are found in the Latin gubernare, an adaptation of the Greek word for the steering of a ship, kybernan. Any system in which many separate pieces must work together toward some end has some form of governance: early steam engines, for example, were made safer by the installation of a “governor” that maintained a constant speed and kept the engine from damaging itself. The specifics of governance mechanisms are diverse and can range from consciously designed devices like those used by steam engines, to hodgepodge and decentralized systems brought about through evolution. Ants, for instance, have evolved instincts that drive them to cooperate in ways that appear to be highly organized and well governed, despite having no central decision-making structure. (See Chapter 3.)

The same basic definition holds true for human society: human social groups are complex systems and so require governance systems to accomplish collective goals. The scholarly literature offers a variety of definitions of governance of human groups. A simple one is that governance encompasses any mechanism that people use to create “the conditions for ordered rule and collective action.” A more elaborate definition defines governance as “the constellation of authoritative rules, institutions and practices by means of which any collectivity manages its affairs.” An attempt to define governance at the level of the state describes “the exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country's affairs at all levels.”

In this chapter, we take governance to mean the formal and informal mechanisms and processes that humans use to manage our social, political, and economic relationships with each other and the ecosphere. These mechanisms and processes are embodied in social institutions and reflect social norms, values, and power relationships.

Governance therefore includes any system that humans use to make and enforce collective decisions. Consider the diversity implied in this range: families have governance systems that help establish things like bedtimes and table manners; communities have governance systems for natural resources, such as rivers, that regulate water use or establish catch limits; businesses have governing boards that set company policies; and cities, states, and countries have governance systems that set up the political means by which behavior within the system can be regulated. In short, the diversity of human social groups and their responses to collective problems leads to an array of systems to govern. And obviously, no one structure is able to effectively govern all of the different domains of human behavior.

As a result, the discussion of governance is necessarily complicated. The diversity of research on governance says more about the ways that it can vary than its universal traits. Governance systems can be structured as hierarchies with centralized and structured chains of communication, as networks with no chains of command but distributed collective decision making, or as hybrids of these two systems. They can be participatory or have few decision makers whose decisions are rigidly enforced. The jurisdiction of governance can be defined by physical terrain, or by issue: the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), for example, controls no territory but exists to govern international competitive soccer, regardless of where it is played.

The scope of the system governed can vary from the ultra-local to the global. Some governance systems control access to the water in a single lake, while others govern activity on all the high seas. Governance systems can be carefully designed, or they can be accidents of history. The “rational design” movement in the study of international relations, for example, has called for international organizations to consider carefully how their respective institutions should be structured to accomplish their specific goals. An alternate perspective posits that systems develop through evolutionary pressures— with systems that work persisting and multiplying, and those that do not work facing both internal and external pressures for reform.

Underlying this complexity, all governance systems have some basic elements: they must have some way of making decisions on behalf of the collective or allowing collective decisions to be made, and some way of ensuring that the decisions that are made are carried out. Governance systems are all ultimately variations on those two themes, and the dizzying array of specific structures reflects the diversity of problems that human society faces.

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