Governance and Global Affairs Blog

What is Good Governance, and Who Decides?

What is Good Governance, and Who Decides?

What is Good Governance, and Who Decides?

Good governance is a contested concept: academics, consultants, and practitioners passionately disagree about what it means.[1] Is good governance mostly about democratic input (elections and how they are organized), process and throughput (how decisions are made and laws are executed) or ultimately about outputs and outcomes (economic growth, equality, happiness)? And who decides?

A few years ago, renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama approached the question empirically in a commentary titled: “What is Governance?”[2] He concluded governance is about two, mutually reinforcing functions: bureaucratic autonomy and state capacity. Various reputed colleagues engaged Fukuyama in the weeks that followed. Christopher Pollitt critiqued his overemphasis on input and process by stressing impact: shouldn’t we judge governance by what it produces for citizens?[3] Bo Rothstein cited various examples to argue that impartiality in executing policies and laws and recruiting officials ultimately matters more than bureaucratic autonomy.[4] [5]

These exchanges show that it may well be impossible to separate empirical arguments from normative arguments in discussing good governance. This is even truer when we start to compare different parts of the world. In the end, the “elephant in the room” is whether good governance can be achieved without Western-style, competitive electoral democracy and a free press. Conventional Western thinking does not allow this possibility. However, in recent decades, various Asian countries with limited democracy – or no electoral system at all – have not just achieved remarkable economic growth but also widely recognized progress in education standards, literacy levels, and life expectancy; the reduction of corruption; and public service delivery.

China is a key example, just like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan. “Guided democracy” Singapore, governed through a Westminster system inherited from its former British colonizers yet ruled by one dominant political force for decades, tops almost any global governance ranking and is the envy of many of its Western peers. Critics (usually from the West) are quick to point at deficiencies in the human rights records of these countries, and the way in which they deal with political opposition, labor rights, and minority views.

As just as these critiques may be, one may also argue holding developing or ‘non-Western’ countries to the standards of the world’s most developed countries is fruitless, and even unfair. Not only do cultures and traditions differ; countries simply have very different starting positions. For this reason, Harvard Professor Merilee Grindle introduced the concept of “good enough governance”. She argues we should assess the real progress of countries within their specific context[6], rather than measure how far they are “on their way to Denmark”[7]. Her argument illustrates the need for more inclusive and comparable good governance criteria.

More so, perhaps these criteria should not at all be defined by Western experts anymore. In a recent piece, Gilardoni accuses the West of being “ignorant” for not paying more attention to Chinese cultural traits and how they have contributed to the country’s recent success[8]. Like other influential thinkers, he argues that leaders in the West have much to learn from their Eastern counterparts if they would only open their mind to the possibility of successful systems and models that are different from theirs[9].

Clearly, many fascinating questions lay bare:

  • How do public officials in the East and the West view and define key components of good governance, such as integrity, impartiality, and meritocracy?
  • Is it at all desirable to strive towards a universal definition of good governance, or should we just try to establish a set of criteria that allows us to meaningfully compare different countries and regions?
  • What are the commonalities between successful governance cases within different political regimes: meritocratic recruitment and promotion of bureaucrats, tough anti-corruption regimes, a clear separation between the political and administrative domain, to name a few?
  • What is the potential for enhanced knowledge exchange and mutual learning between the East and West, and how should meaningful and inclusive comparative research efforts look like?

Join us for a lively debate about these questions on 28 September 2017 at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs (FGGA), guided and inspired by recent research by various colleagues from Leiden University. Register here:   

[1] See: De Graaf, G. & Z. Van der Wal (2010). Managing Conflicting Public Values. Governing with Integrity and Effectiveness. American Review of Public Administration 40 (6): 623-630; Van der Wal, Z., G. de Graaf & C. van Montfort (2011). Introductie: Goed Bestuur als Management van Spanningen tussen Publieke Waarden. Bestuurskunde 20 (2): 2-4; De Graaf, G., A. Reynaers, V. van Doeveren & Z. Van der Wal (2011). Goed Bestuur als Management van Spanningen tussen Publieke Waarden. Bestuurskunde 20 (2): 5-11.

[2] Fukuyama, F. (2013). What is Governance? Governance 26 3: 347–368.

[4] See also: Rothstein, B. & J. Teorell. 2008. What is Quality of Government: A Theory of Impartial Political Institutions. Governance 21 (2): 165-190.

[5] Intriguingly, Rothstein recently quit his job at the Blavatnik School of Governance at Oxford because the school’s namesake – Britain’s richest man – was an alleged Trump supporter, with critics responding that Blavatnik had openly enjoyed close ties to Putin years before Rothstein joined the school in the first place. The episode shows once more how individuals have different triggers for deciding whether they’re operating within a ‘good’ regime or not!

[6] Grindle, M.S. (2004). Good Enough Governance. Poverty Reduction and Reform in Developing Countries. Governance 17 (4): 525-548.

[7] Andrews, M. (2008). The good governance agenda: beyond indicators without theory. Oxford Development Studies 36 (4): 379-407.

[9] See for instance: Jacques, M. (2009). When China rules the world: The end of the western world and the birth of a new global order. New York: Penguin; Mahbubani, K. (2008). The new Asian hemisphere: The irresistible shift of global power to the East. New York: Public Affairs; Mahbubani, K. (2013). The great convergence and the logic of one world. New York: Public Affairs.  

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