Concept of governance

Published November 12, 2013

IN almost all accounts, Pakistan’s current travails are invariably traced to lack of governance. The trend towards offering poor governance as an all-encompassing explanatory category is worldwide.

The Pakistani media has shown little appetite for dissecting the term in the national context. Thankfully, scholarly debates have been under way for the last decade to unpack the term and forge some basic understanding on what constitutes governance and how it can be measured.

This year, Prof Francis Fukuyama, of The End of History fame, boldly waded into this debate, seeking to clarify definitional boundaries of governance and its constitutive elements.

In his celebrated short note titled ‘What Is Governance?’ , published in the academic journal Governance, he sets out not only to redefine the term but also to develop new ways of measuring and quantifying governance.

In the process he aims to shift the overwhelming focus of debate from power-checking institutions, such as accountability bodies, to power-accumulating and power-wielding institutions, such as the executive branch and bureaucracy — ie the government. This shift, he maintains, necessitates new tools for measuring the quality of government.

In Fukuyama’s view, previous measuring indicators focus not so much on state capacity as on the quality of democracy which is considered an essential component of the quality of governance.

Thus Fukuyama sets his face against the ruling orthodoxy that democracy and governance are linked and mutually supportive. In a radical departure Fukuyama defines governance as governments’ ability to make and enforce laws, and to deliver services, regardless of their democratic or authoritarian nature. This is significant since Fukuyama seems here to be ruling out democracy as an essential underlying condition of good governance.

In line with this thinking he proposes indictors such as governmental procedure, governmental capacity, and governmental outputs — provision of services such as education — and bureaucratic autonomy as additional governance measurement tools.

His short note attracted considerable commentary from scholars and specialists alike.

Much criticism has focused on his conception of good governance narrowly restricted to state and government without reference to the vastly transformed notions brought about by the rise of neo-liberal anti-statism and democratisation of the state.

Fukuyama’s new definition accords old-style bureaucracy too important a role in good governance. How does his new conception of government translate in Pakistan’s context?

In fact, it does not sit well with regard to the Pakistani experience where bureaucracy, despite its long occupation of the national driving seat, has not contributed to good governance.

In spite of running the country for much of its history, the quality of governance has continued to deteriorate.

In so far as the government-centred notion of governance is concerned, Fukuyama’s conception fits in more with a single-party state such as Singapore where the well-oiled and public-spirited bureaucracy works under the strict overall vision set out by the government.

Implicit in his conception is the expansion of the autonomy of bureaucracy if good governance is to be achieved. Again, this is fraught with danger in countries where party-based political systems are weak and where military dictatorship has ruled for a long time.

In such countries — and Pakistan is one of them — bureaucracies acquire unaccountable discretionary powers more under military dictatorships and slightly less so under institutionally weak party political governments.

This leads to retarded development of countervailing entities such as political parties and civil society.

Conversely, when huge autonomous bureaucracies take on the additional political management role as junior partners in military dictatorships they get distracted from their prime task of service delivery.

This is plainly on view in the degraded performance of our bureaucracy over the years. And this capacity continues to degrade despite vast sums being spent on training, education and professionalising the service in recent years.

Why this has been happening needs further research. One area of focus can be on the erosion of public service motivation in bureaucratic ranks. Kishore Mahubani, a Singaporean academic, traces improved governance in Singapore to the deeply embedded public service ethos in the Singaporean bureaucracy.

Most importantly, Fukuyama’s argument seems to suggest that simply because government outputs such as provision of education and good results are dependent on exogenous factors such as friends and families, this important deliverable of good governance should not be overstressed.

This again poses some problems since governments are judged by what they deliver in terms of service delivery irrespective of those who deliver the services being dependent on exogenous factors or on governmental inputs.

What Fukuyama seems to be suggesting is that a Weberian bureaucracy invested with additional powers of autonomy can furnish a solid basis for good governance. In this concept, democracy does not occupy the pride of place.

Governance minus democracy neither fits the tenor of our times nor that of our recent history. In our history, the military has repeatedly stepped in with the proclaimed intention of sorting out the governance created by democratic governments.

Yet we did not see much of an improvement in governance when democracy was missing. Even in China, where government has delivered on good governance, the call for democratic participation in the governance structure is becoming louder.

While appreciating progression on improved governance under the authoritarian regime in China, Fukuyama is also critical of the discretionary powers enjoyed by the party bureaucracy which seems to vitiate his argument for enhanced autonomy of the bureaucracy as a key determinant of good governance.

Such contentious views of governance will continue to be debated heatedly in the coming days.

The writer is a development consultant and policy analyst.

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