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Governance: What Does It Mean? And, What Is Good Governance?

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

We hear the term governance all the time. Sometimes it is used to characterize corporate relationships among stakeholders, stockholders and boards of directors.  It is often used in international circles as a way of characterizing relationships among sovereign nations — who are not obliged to defer to a higher authority — or among governmental and non-governmental organizations who interact, but are on very different levels. Sometimes governance is used mistakenly as a synonym for government; but, government refers to the structure while governance refers to the style or method by which decisions are made and conflicts among actors are resolved. Politics is related, but different.  It refers to the exercise of power within governance. Governance is about hierarchy, custom, style of interaction and decision rules. When organizations or groups of actors are chided about the way they govern themselves, it often means that they are not paying enough attention to the way they involve (or communicate with) their members prior to making decisions.

Imagine a large trade association made up of hundreds of members who have chosen to join because membership guarantees them a range of direct and indirect benefits. As members, they expect to have some say about the policies, standards and rules by which the association governs itself.  They may try to be appointed to sub-committees or volunteer to join a working group to draft a report or suggest changes in policy. The full assembly, though, or an elected Executive Committee must make the final decisions.  Regardless of the size of the group, they will rely on explicit rules to control how decisions are made.  They may develop parallel unwritten customs by which certain tasks are handled (and the formal rules are by-passed with the tacit concurrence of the membership).  And, over time, every group or assembly  need a process by which it can amend its formal rules and informal customs. Above all,  members want to be able to be able to hold their elected and appointed leaders accountable for operating “according to the rules.”
Most organizations rely on some combination of voting and informal conversation.  They might appoint task forces or sub-committees to produce proposals by consensus, but require a majority (or even a two-thirds) vote of their Executive Committee or the full membership to make a formal decisions.  They might use weighted voting to ensure that there is a minimum level of support from various sub-categories of the membership before any action to be taken. The combination of formal decision rules (like majority voting) and informal procedures (like an informal commitment to continue talking until consensus is reached) constitute an organization’s governance style.
I often wonder why more groups, organizations and associations (at every level) don’t formally adopt a consensus building approach to governance.  I presume they rely on voting because they are worried that consensus won’t guarantee a clear result when they need a decision.  But, these same organizations are likely to expect their task forces, working groups and sub-committees to operate on an informal consensus building basis. Their worry, I guess, is that factions will form and internal politics will make it impossible to take formal action if they operate on a consensus basis.  There are three ways of heading off such problems.  First, important problem-solving and group decision-making efforts should be facilitated or mediated by trained professional neutrals. Most people don’t realize that skilled mediators can help with consensus building long before an impasse is reached.  Indeed, their involvement can be the key to avoiding a confrontation. When someone who knows what they are doing (and is not trying to steer the group toward a particular outcome) is managing the conversation, it is much easier for a group to reach agreement.  Second,  the facilitator or mediator should undertaken confidential and not-for-attribution conversations with as many of the participants as possible before any important meeting.  This will make it easier for the neutral to help the group set an appropriate agenda, manage time, make sure that everyone is heard, and think ahead about how fundamental conflicts might be re-framed for the good of the group or organization.  Third, the way that decisions are posed has a lot to do with whether or not consensus can be reached.  If a group is given a package of proposals (or a set of contingent alternatives) to consider at one time, it is much easier to get the group to accept what is being proposed.  It is when agenda items are considered one at a time, and each becomes a knock-down, drag-out battle that consensus building becomes difficult.  Rather than fight about who is right regarding an uncertain future, “if-then” options can allow the group to proceed with contending sides each certain they have gotten their way.  Once participants know that issues of greatest concern to them will be addressed in a manner they find comfortable, they are much more likely to let others in the group “win” on issues they find most important to them.  
We know all this, yet, most governance processes are not professional facilitated or mediated. They do not begin with an agenda, time table or neutral manager working to ensure that the important concerns to participant will be addressed.  And, they tend to take issues up one at a time, exacerbating conflict and making it harder to reach agreement. A great many groups say that are committed to collaborative governance, but they are not.  If they make decisions by majority voting, then they are not committed to collaborative governance.
Governance that relies on a consensus building approach is more likely to satisfy all its members.  (Their interests are guaranteed to be met.)  For those concerned about the efficiency of collaborative governance, there are simple ways of ensuring that even the most divisive issues can be framed and discussed in ways likely to yield informed agreement in a relatively short time. 


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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