What makes public governance good?

If you are reading this you are probably involved in public governance in some way. Whether it’s national government, local government, health, housing or schools, decision making systems are critical to ensure that these public bodies operate as they should. But, as I’m sure you are wondering, how do we know if these decision making systems are doing what they should? What makes them good?

The first thing to say is that there is no universally agreed definition of what makes public governance ‘good’. While there is a fair degree of consensus about what ‘good’ should look like there is no off the shelf solution. What’s required is some careful reflection and a willingness to invest in improvements. The purpose of this post is to suggest some lines of thinking that might help with that.

Specifically I’m suggesting that, for a public governance system to be good, it needs to:

  1. Cover the essentials
  2. Meet citizen expectations
  3. Work in context

It’s also worth pointing out that that it’s public governance systems I am talking about here. Governance in its wider sense is a hotly debated and nebulous concept that has kept academics very busy in recent years. As Bovaird and Löffler* suggest; attempting to capture the quality of public governance is like trying to ‘nail a pudding on the wall’.

Nevertheless, from a practitioner perspective I think it is important to have a clear sense of what a good public governance system looks like. I feel this is an under considered topic.

So, let’s take each point in turn.

1. Covering the essentials

Like good practice, good governance is partly an objective thing and partly a subjective thing.

Let’s start with the objective thing first.

While there’s no universal definition of good governance it’s still possible to distill out a number of basic requirements that should form the bedrock of any public governance system. These essential items are objectively good in as far as they reflect a broad consensus in this field.

In the same way that the Government Digital Service has an overarching set of Design Principles, a set of public governance essentials can be used as a common reference point across a range of different types of public governance systems (much governance work tends to be sector specific).

Anyhow, drawing on the sources listed at the end of this post, here is my take on the essentials.

The 15 essentials of good public governance…

(last updated 8 March 2017)

  1. Accountability: Those responsible for taking decisions give public account for their actions and are held to account by independent minded non-decision makers in public.
  2. Impact: A visible difference is made for citizens through improved policies and services.
  3. Democracy: The system provides a degree of popular control by those affected (e.g. through representatives)
  4. Fairness: The system ensures everyone is treated equally regardless of social or economic status.
  5. Deliberation: Decisions are made through careful consideration of a broad range of views and evidence.
  6. Participation: Those affected by decisions have opportunities to be involved in the process of making those decisions.
  7. Delegation: Decisions are made at the appropriate level by the appropriate body or individual.
  8. Clarity: The purpose of arrangements, the operation of processes and the roles of all of those involved are clearly understood and stated in writing.
  9. Capability: Everyone involved in the process has the skills and experience required.
  10. Capacity: There are sufficient human and other resources to ensure that processes are effective and sustained.
  11. Legality: Processes comply with all relevant laws and rules and meet the expectations of government guidance.
  12. Integrity: Everyone involved in the process behaves ethically and honestly and is trusted to do so.
  13. Transparency: Everything takes place in public unless there is a cultural or legal reason otherwise.
  14. Integration: Clear connections are made with other governance systems for example layers of government or inspection regimes.
  15. Adaptability: Regular processes of self and external evaluation ensure responsiveness to external changes and lead to improvements to processes.

2. Meeting citizen expectations

While the list of principles provide some objectivity and some reassurance that all the bases have been covered, defining good public governance is also a subjective process.

As public governance systems are put in place for the benefit of particular groups of citizens so it is right that these citizens have a say about what good looks like.

The essentials of public governance only provide a minimum starting point and choices still need to be made about the interpretation and relative importance of each point — citizens, and those who operate the system, should help shape expectations about what the system does.

As Bovaird and Löffler put it, the evaluation of what makes governance ‘good’ needs to be ‘stakeholder specific’.

A further reason for setting expectations is that governance systems, by their very nature, can only be fully assessed with a degree of subjective judgement; good governance is not just about what is written on paper. You need to feel what’s good, not just measure it.

As Bovaird and Löffler suggest, thinking about good governance requires that attention is paid both to the mechanisms of governance and to the way they come together as a system; the later being more open to judgement than the former:

…while most music lovers would have no problems on agreeing what constitutes a good piano, it is clear from the daily writings of music critics that opinions vary considerably about what makes a good concert.

Defining what makes a good public governance system, then, starts with some agreement about what makes a good concert — not just confirmation that the individual instruments perform as they should.

In addition, judgement is required to account for the more qualitative and intangible elements of any governance system. Hence thinking about good public governance requires consideration of both the formal and informal, written rules and observed behaviours, strategy and culture.

In practice what might help is a statement of expectations, co-produced by all those involved. While governance systems typically have constitutions and terms of reference that deal well with how things should work, these documents don’t always deal well with what people expect from the system. A short statement, built from the essentials could clarify what good looks like for those involved.

In the design world this might be described as conducting user research to identify user needs.

3. Working in context

As with any other discussion of ‘what works’, context is critical.

Whether it’s the capabilities of the people involved, the resources at hand, the organisational culture or the wider social, economic and political conditions, good governance means working within the context that the system is set in.

While engaging citizens will do some of this work of making sure that the system is sensitive to context, further consideration will still be required.

Some good questions to ask include:

Is the system reasonable given the status of the people involved?

‘Good’ would look very different for part time school governors compared with full time salaried representatives of a national parliament, for example.

Is the system proportionate given the the number of citizens affected, the size of the organisation or the financial turnover involved?

For example, I’d estimate that a local council may have a budget for ‘governance’ that is around 1% of the total council revenue budget (Actually, it would be useful to have some accurate figures about what proportion of budgets is spent of ‘good governance’ — appreciating that these things can be difficult to disentangle — if it’s been done already please let me know!)

Is the system culturally sensitive?

For example, as As Bovaird and Löffler point out, ideas about what makes an appropriate level of transparency are different in Scandinavia than they are in Southern Europe.

A good way to identify what works in context is to capture what already works well, either in terms of aspects of an existing system or, for new systems, what has worked well for any participants who have been involved in other, similar systems.

Looking elsewhere, at similar systems, in similar settings can also provide a sense of what good looks like. The health warning here is that no two organisations are the same and neither are the contexts that they operate in. However, as long as it is principles rather than details that are imported, and as long as the similarities and difference in context are registered, then looking elsewhere can be helpful.

Don’t forget, as Billy Bragg says in his song North Sea Bubble; ‘you can borrow ideas but you can’t borrow situations’.

This returns us to the point made at the beginning that ‘good public governance’ is not something that can be taken off the shelf; there is no such thing as ‘best public governance’.

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In summary, I’d argue that ‘what makes public governance good’ is a combination of getting the essentials in place, meeting citizen expectations and being sensitive to context.

Ultimately these are questions that can only be answered by those involved with a given system making well informed and carefully considered judgements.

Thinking about good public governance: some sources

Here are some of the sources I have looked at. They will be useful for anyone who is thinking about good public governance.

In 2005 The Independent Commission on Good Governance in Public Services published the Good Governance Standard for Public Services.

CIPFA have published a framework for delivering Good Governance in Local Government.

The Good Governance Institute, with a particular focus on health governance, have produced a Good Governance Handbook including 10 good governance themes.

The Council of Europe have set out 12 principles for good governance at local level, with tools for implementation.

What is good governance? is an Australian take produced by a partnership of government institutions in Victoria.

*I’m particularly grateful to Tony Bovaird for pointing me to the article he wrote with Elke Löffler: Evaluating the quality of public governance: indicators, models and methodologies (2003). This has helped me to make a number of improvements from an earlier version.