Tag Archives: Local government

Government and Governance: What is it All About?

Malathy Madathilezham analyses the political and social significance of the terms ‘government’ and ‘governance’.


The terms governance is used liberally by us and around us in media and public discussions but it is important to understand the concept to understand the significance of the same social, economic and political context. Therefore what is governance, how did the emphasis shift from government to a broader term governance, where government is just one among the players. I shall try to explore some of these aspects in this post.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘Government is the, agency, through which a political unit exercises its authority, controls and administers public policy, and directs and controls the actions of its members or subjects.’ According to Heywood (as cited in Jordan, Wurzel, & Zito, 2003), the ‘core functions’ of government is to ‘make law (legislation), implement law (execution) and interpret law (adjudication).’ For Richards and Smith (as cited in  ordan, Wurzel, & Zito, 2003), ‘government is bureaucracy, legislation, financial control, regulation and force’.  Government is also referred to the formal institutions of the state and their monopoly of legitimate coercive power. The notion of government implies that there is only one centre of power in a unitary state, but in reality there are many centers and diverse links between many agencies of government—at local, regional, national and supranational levels.

There are various forms of governments such as democracy or autocracy but here I am exploring the concept of government as used in social sciences. In a broad sense, government would involve representation which is somewhat inevitable where there are large numbers of people and this representation may be imperfect too. Imperfection may mean that the representative may not be actually be elected through a majority by all those eligible to do so but only those who cared to vote. For e.g.: the recent BMC elections where the voter turnout was only 45%! Anyhow, it is this representative government that plays the central role in overall policy framing for development and management of resources and provision of basic services to the society. Thus government is associated with regulation. It can be seen that there is often a gap between the citizens and the representatives due to various reasons and for effective implementation of the policies and laws the government cannot function in isolation and therefore it is imperative to include the citizens in the process of development and formulation of policies. Therefore, as one of the government’s roles it has the responsibility of developing necessary cooperation at all levels.

Governance: Definitions
It is interesting to see the way governance is defined by the international organizations. According to the World Bank it is the “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s social and economic resources for development” with key dimensions being public sector management (stress on capacity and efficiency), accountability, the legal framework for development and information and transparency. The Asian Development Bank says about governance that “it encompasses the functioning and capability of the public sector, as well as the rules and institutions that create the framework for the conduct of both public and private business, including accountability for economic and financial performance, and regulatory frameworks relating to companies, corporations, and partnerships”.  Accoding to Kitthananan, this shows the interest of the international organisation is to strengthen  domestic institutions for policy development and implementation while Niraja Jayal argues that the governance agenda is closely linked to the neo-liberal principles of politics and economics with a strong case for ‘rolling back’ of the state and also withdrawal from its redistributive commitments.

According to her this aspect of governance is not acceptable due to moral considerations. Al-Habil here takes a more neutral stand by saying that while generally governance is finally about creating conditions for ordered rule and collective action but agrees that  it entails in it the desire to cull out functions away from government and contract out to private sector and non profits organisations in the belief that they would run things ‘better’ and more efficiently. In this context, it has been also contended that government and governance are not fixed entities but can be seen as the two ends of a continuum of different governing types.

Analysis of Governance
Kitthananan goes on to give the framework for analysis of governance through various perspective which would help to understand the theoretical and pragmatic concerns of governance. He refers to Stoker who has provided interrelated propositions that help understanding governance theory which are:

  1. Governance refers to a set of institutions and actors that are drawn from, but also beyond, government
  2. Governance identified the blurring of boundaries and responsibilities for tacking social and economic issues.
  3. Governance identifies the power dependence involved in the relationships between institutions involved in collective action.

These help us to understand that with the increase in the number of actors, centralised government became only one among others when it came to making of policy and the process of governing.


The political nature of governance is obvious because it depends on interaction between different stakeholders who will have diverse interest and differential power. This has been sidelined and the focus has been on participatory approaches. While the principles behind participatory mechanisms this can be appreciated but then the effectiveness of this can be contested because on the ground this process remains largely influenced by the political and social fabric which dictates who is ‘able’ and ‘allowed’ to participate. What this has also led to increased alienation of people who resorted to ‘political’ mechanism because of other factors which restrict their participation.

There were existing informal and formal participatory mechanism but the shift to governance has resulted in new opportunities for non-government actors to participate. The challenge is here to build the capacity of those who are to participate and at the same time reduce the risk of capture by vested interest groups. This can be particularly important at the local level where a certain person of group exercise unchallenged power and can manipulate the local government.

Decentralization offers certain opportunities for improved governance through local level planning and implementation, citizen and community participation, improved efficiency through involvement of private players etc. There is greater acceptance, in fact, invitation for citizen and community participation. For e.g.: the Slum Sanitation Programs which focuses on a demand led approach to sanitation and envisaged involvement of community right at the planning stage. Also increased powers to the ULBs and local governments, brings governance closer to the people, with a bottom up approach.

The local governments are subjected to both central and state control and do not operate in isolation. These could be administrative, financial and political. Local administrative bodies have municipal commissioners and other officials who are bureaucrats. The state/central budgets, policies and laws are applicable on the ULBs which may or may not be conducive to their conditions. The political control could be significant due to party links which would be largely ‘vertical’ (party system is evident in all three tiers and people at times vote for the party rather than individuals). In addition, they are dependant on state departments like PHED, PWD etc for technical assistance, development authorities, electricity boards and financial institutions. This could be horizontal to part of the government within a given locality. The challenge here is how to implement the concepts of governance in this intricate web of interdependency with the opportunities provided.

It is also interesting to look at aspects of equity while analyzing the shift to governance. How have been these addressed on the ground? Does participation, increased efficiency, roll back of the state, transparency, accountability actually lead to better equity?

For the shift to governance to be beneficial, the steps have to be taken to ensure that aspects of equity are not ignored in the rush to implement ‘best practices’ in order to attract aid and investment which are conditionally linked to most of these good governance practices.