From government to governance and onward to adaptive governance

by Andra I. Milcu

“Governance” is now fashionable, but as old as human history (Weiss, 2000). The World Bank (1991) played a major role in popularizing the term as “the manner in which management power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development”.

Ruhanen et al. (2010) identified two fields of studies originating in political sciences and corporate management that attempt to define governance. These two bodies of work were confirmed by a quick search on ISI Web of Knowledge and started recently being complemented by a third: resilience thinking. In this post, I am going to talk about governance in the light of political sciences and about what the recent resilience perspective can bring to the debate on governance.

In the political sciences, governance has been defined as the ‘‘conscious management of regime structures with a view to enhancing the legitimacy of the public realm’’ (Hyden, 1992 quoted by Ruhanen et al., 2010). Another highly cited paper on governance (Rhodes, 1996) developed a definition that was strongly influenced by the political context in the UK at that time. It relates governance to self-organizing networks characterized by interdependence between organizations, continuing interactions between network members and a significant degree of autonomy from the state. Interestingly enough the author kept his definition unchanged in his 2007 article, “Understanding governance: Ten years on”.

The meaning of the term “Governance” evolved significantly since its being a synonym for the word “Government” (Stoker, 1998) to being ultimately concerned with creating conditions for ordered rule and collective action (ibid.). Today Governance is distinct from Government. Governance is a way to manage power and policy, while government is an instrument to do so. Governance is seen as an alternative to conventional top-down government control, yet issues of legitimacy and accountability abound in the literature on governance. “Governance clearly embraces government institutions, but it also subsumes informal, non-governmental institutions operating within the public realm” (Bøås, 1998 quoted by Weiss, 2000). In the same vein, environmental governance is best understood as the establishment, affirmation, or change of institutions to resolve environmental conflicts (Paavola, 2007).

As a process, governance may operate at any scale: from a company (corporate governance), to EU institutions (European governance) or to all of humanity (global governance). Governance emerges from negotiation and interaction between numerous different national and supranational actors and institutions spread across multiple sites in the state-society complex and “can be institutionalized or expressed through subtle norms of interactions or even more indirectly through influencing agendas and shaping contexts in which actors contest decisions and access resources” (Folke et al., 2005).

It is increasingly recognized that environmental governance is often neither small-scale nor large-scale, but cross-scale (Berkes, 2002 quoted by Adger et al., 2003). It is still unclear how local-level, bottom-up, participatory approaches can be congruent with international and national top-down regulatory strategies in a consistent way (Adger et al., 2003). Some part of the response lies in the transdisciplinary framing of scale and governance so that a broad variety of stakeholders can join the decision making process (Kok and Veldkamp, 2011). Ostrom (1999 quoted by Adger et al., 2003) highlights the utility of local and global lessons in managing large-scale environmental problems added to which institutional diversity and redundancy are essential. A better matching of the scale of governance to the scale of ecological and social processes leads to increased capacity to adapt to change (Walker et al., 2009).

The most pressing contemporary environmental challenges involve systems that are intrinsically global. Global governance has enticed and startled humankind from its dawn and kept crossing the centuries. The idea was strongly resisted when questioning national boundaries, yet more easily embraced when facing global menaces. Consequently, nearly 1000 international environmental agreements are now into force (Biermann, 2007).  Yet “how to create a global and effective architecture for earth system governance that is adaptive to changing circumstances, participatory through involving civil society at all levels, accountable and legitimate as part of new democratic governance beyond the nation state, and at the same time fair for all participants” (ibid.) is the holy grail of today’s world. The UN has made some attempts in this direction, e.g. its strategy for climate. It is based upon multilateralism, interstate negotiations and quantitative targets but bears the failure of effectiveness, legitimacy and above all scale matching. However, in light of its universality and scope, Weiss (2000) credited the UN with a special role, albeit not a monopoly, on future leadership for global governance.

Aside from the UN, Europe represents a mandatory case study when it comes to supranational governance and it may be not so far-fetched to see the EU as trend setter in environmental governance. The EU was among the first actors going from government to governance. The rhetoric of deliberation, the engaging with science and technology (STAGE project 2001-2005), the “good governance” (White Paper, 2001), the label of multilevel governance are all part of the EU’s history and built its claim to have developed a distinct progressive model: the European governance (Shore, 2011). Even if is limited and hampered by divergent cultures and political preferences, there is still a strong number of EU supporters pledging in favor of a common baseline of administrative tools and practices.

With its overarching tool box of policy instruments and cross-cutting strategies, the EU is one of the best examples for regarding governance as a complementary way to pursue environmental objectives and to operationalise sustainable development by dealing with strategic aspects. In the nexus between conservation and development, Governance provides an opportunity for rethinking multi and cross-scale relations in meaningful ways for the livelihoods of individuals and communities (Hyden, 2002). In the complex policy issue of sustainable development, governance points to the need for changing institutional relations and rules.

Change is creatively but rigorously addressed by the resilience perspective. The approach focuses not only on the social dimension of development but on coupled social-ecological systems. Its contribution to the present quest for new models of governance is called “adaptive governance” and is mostly about being both flexible and stable at the same time. Adaptive governance has the capacity to cope with, and make use of external perturbations and challenges in the broader social-ecological environment (Folke, 2005, Dietz et al., 2003). Hence, it needs strengthening social capital and operationalization through adaptive co-management, a process by which institutional arrangements are tested and revised by stake-holders operating and collaborating at different levels. Bridging organizations, polycentric institutions, active learning, collective action and trust are emphasized as particularly important in this context. The relationship between governance and resilience is found to be bidirectional. Explorations by Lebel et al.(2006) indicate that the capacity to manage the resilience of social-ecological  systems may influence the form that governance takes and that ecological feedbacks may constrain both governance and this capacity

Weiss, T., 2000. Governance, good governance, global governance : actual challenges governance conceptual and actual challenges. Third World Quarterly 21, 795-814.

World Bank, 1991. Managing Development: The Governance Dimension A discussion paper. World Bank, Washington DC.

Ruhanen, L., Scott, N., Ritchie, B., Tkaczynski, A., 2010. Governance: a review and synthesis of the literature. Tourism Review 65, 4-16.

Rhodes, R.A.W., 1996. The New Governance: Governing without Government. Political Studies 44, 652-667.

Stoker, G., 1998. Governance as theory: five propositions. International Social Science Journal 50, 17-28.

Paavola, J., 2007. Institutions and environmental governance: A reconceptualization. Ecological Economics 63, 93-103.

Folke, C., Hahn, T, Olsson, P., Norberg, J., 2005. Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30, 441-473.

Adger, W.N., Brown, K., Fairbrass, J., Jordan, A., Paavola, J., Rosendo, S., Seyfang, G., 2003. Governance for sustainability: towards a “thick” analysis of environmental decision-making. Environment and Planning 35, 1095-1110.

Kok, K., Veldkamp, T.A., 2011. Scale and Governance : Conceptual Considerations and Practical. Ecology and Society 16.

Walker, B.H., Abel, N., Anderies, J.M., Ryan, P., 2009. Resilience , Adaptability , and Transformability in the Goulburn-Broken Catchment , Australia. Ecology and Society 14.

Biermann, F., 2007. “Earth system governance” as a crosscutting theme of global change research. Global Environmental Change 17, 326-337.

Shore, C., 2011. “European Governance” or Governmentality? The European Commission and the Future of Democratic Government. European Law Journal 17, 287-303.

Hyden, 2002. Operationalizing Government for Sustainable Development. In Jreisat, J. E. (eds.), Governance and developing countries. Brill, 13-32.

Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., Stern, P.C., 2003. The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science 302, 1907-1912.

Lebel, L., Anderies, J.M., Campbell, B., Folke, C., Hatfield-dodds, S., Hughes, T.P., Wilson, J., 2006. Governance and the Capacity to Manage Resilience in Regional Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society  11.

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4 thoughts on “From government to governance and onward to adaptive governance

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