Governance Triangle goes into Government

Article / Leadership

Governance Triangle goes into Government
deji toye , Director, Nigeria

David Cameron's Big Society policies bring into public policy an idea that has circulated in business and corporate governance for sometime now - thus besting Barack Obama to recast the debate between Big Government and Big Business and legitimating the roles of the civil society and citizen initiatives in policy formulation and implementation.

It’s Big Society, Stupid!— ‘Governance Triangle’ Goes Into Government

By Deji Toye

“David Miliband said that "unless government is on your side you end up on your own." "On your own" - without the government… For Labour there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance. You cannot run our country like this… Many people wrongly believe that the Conservative Party is all about freedom. Of course we care passionately about freedom from oppression and state control… But freedom can too easily turn into the idea that we all have the right to do whatever we want, regardless of the effect on others. That is libertarian, not Conservative – and it is certainly not me. For me, the most important word is responsibility. Personal responsibility. Professional responsibility. Civic responsibility. Corporate responsibility.” — David Cameron, Wednesday 6 October, 2010.

Those who saw Prime Minister David Cameron deliver his first conference speech to the Conservative Party on Wednesday would have heard the above quote. Though couched in partisan terms, as should be expected in a party conference speech, it adumbrates the ‘Big Society’ philosophy on which he ran for office and on which the key policies of his government will now be founded.

It is the kind of speech that one would wish to hear from the community organiser himself, President Barrack Obama, these days. After all, ‘Big Society’ refers to the need (for it yet remains an aspiration) to cede some power and, in essence, responsibilities of governance to communities. In his inaugural speech, Obama has spoken to Americans about a “new era of responsibility.” In his acceptance of Democratic Party nomination, he spoke about “individual responsibility and mutual responsibility.” Only that these musings have not now resulted in clear policy proposals on how power could be ceded to the people.

Obama is not entirely to blame for this as he is merely caught up in the melee of the ideological battle that these debates have become in his country. For some time now, debates on public governance in the ‘West’ have been couched as a contest between policies that either favour state control or business. In America where these debates have practically and, in some cases, literally become a public affray, economic policies are a zero-sum game between ‘Big Government’ and ‘Big Business’: what government gains has been lost by business and vice versa. Those who argue for progressive taxation, closer regulation of business and demand-side stimulus spending favour ‘Big Government’, even socialism. Conversely, those who argue for less regulation and less tax (and in essence supply-side incentives) favour ‘Big Business.’ For effect, the imagery of Washington stacked against Joe the Plumber or of Wall Street ranged against ‘Main Street’ is thrown in.

Nonetheless, that Obama has caved in does no good to his aspiration, even his promise as a transformational leader. While his background, campaign strategy and verbiage had promised the restatement of the debate to accommodate a third force, it is now Cameron’s lot to articulate reform proposals which clearly set out the ways in which power and responsibilities could be devolved to the people.

Big Society
At the core of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ are the communities. Broadly defined, communities here refer to those elements of the civil society which continue to bind individuals in pursuit of shared aspirations which are manifested in cooperative activities including advocacy, charity, mutual aid, micro-enterprises as well as the promotion and defence of other shared civic experiences – be they social, economic, cultural or spiritual. Such entities would include community associations, religious groupings, non-governmental organisations, charities and social enterprises. Theoretically, these communities predate either government or business and, in some sense, retain a closeness to the people which makes them more veritable barometers for sensing their, the people's, aspirations and conduits for channelling their energies.

Cameron’s proposals articulate devolution of powers along two lines. The first is a horizontal devolution through cession of powers and responsibilities to the communities in the areas of education, healthcare and policing. Not-for-profits will be allowed to establish and fully govern new schools or existing schools restructured to participate in the reform. These schools will enjoy government subvention per pupil as long as they continue to meet the requirements of serving public education needs as articulated in the government policy. In healthcare reforms, cooperatives of General Practitioners will be facilitated to manage a system that emphasises preventive healthcare and cut the overall secondary care cost on the National Health Scheme.

It is in the policing reform that the horizontal devolution crosses the vertical – the devolution of power through the strengthening of the democratic culture at that level of government. From 2012, not just will key local police heads be directly elected, they would have the power to determine the security priorities and budget for their jurisdictions. The swathe of directly-elected Mayors will also be expanded. These are radical reforms in view of the constitutional structure of the UK as a unitary system in which local government have merely existed, where they do, at the mercy of and as administrative units of the central government (The Greater London Authority only became democratic in 2000).

These proposals cut the ground under some the arguments that have provided the mainstay for the right and left positions in the ideological battles. For example, government assistances to not-for-profit service providers appropriate the finest points made for the supply-side argument without taking along the baggage of ‘state-support for the private profit’. This is why it will be difficult to put the broad stroke of right-wing fiscal squeeze on Cameron’s austerity measures.

It’s ‘governance triangle’ gone into politics
The idea that governance is a triangle with a third vertex of participation and not always a tug-of-war between business and the state is not a new one. Those who have been following our articles in this series would have noted our previous characterisation of the forces which drive Corporate Governance along three lines (what we called imperatives) – legal/political, business/commercial and social. In discussing social imperatives, we have noted the following:
“[the social imperatives are] reflected in the pressure mounted by civil society institutions, non-governmental organisations, foundations, institutes, associations and other groupings of experts, activist and advocates of good Corporate Governance. These constituencies … represent neither state nor commercial interests and so have neither public, legal responsibilities nor commercial self-interests to further.” (See our article of Sunday 30 May, 2010).

More recently, in answering the question ‘where do civil society organisations (CSOs) derive their legitimacy as a force for good Corporate Governance?’ we also noted the following:
“It has been argued that the ostensible want of authority or self-interest is exactly how the CSOs bought a seat at the table. In the tensile relationship between the state and the market, or government and business, with regards to advancement of Corporate Governance principles, a third constituency is required to mediate between the parties within the so-called ‘governance triangle’.”(See our article of Sunday 29 August, 2010).

The ‘governance triangle’ is a construct applied in the study of the regulatory governance of business in which “states, firms and NGOs” occupy the three different vertices representing their individual share of the regulatory pie. But more importantly, it is a method for dimensioning the tension amongst these entities within the triangular construct and how, through implicit and explicit negotiations, these tensions are resolved in favour of a greater share of authority for one of the vertices or, more significantly, in favour of an even more enlarged shared sphere of influence as is now increasingly the case [Kenneth Abbott & Duncan Snidal, 2008].

In essence, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea merely brings into public governance, to help resolve the current ideological impasse, principles that have been earlier articulated and applied to business. It is hoped that, in applying these principles, these two important lessons would not be lost: (i) that in the natural tension generated between state, market and the civil society, a resolution is best achieved through negotiations and (ii) that such negotiations are not necessarily constructed in zero-sum, adversarial terms but are better seen as an exercise in achieving an integrative result.

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