Government or governance? It all depends on who governs

The study of government has long been a central preoccupation of the discipline of politics to the extent that the two are often viewed as synonymous. Many now embark on a politics degree after studying for an A-level in Government and Politics. On arriving at university students are often confronted with a bank of textbooks designed to provide an introduction to government and politics, or to the government and politics of different states (UK, USA, the Netherlands etc). In recent years, however, there has been a growing tendency to use the word governance, in addition to, or in many cases in place of, government. The widespread acceptance of this trend was perhaps best illustrated when, in a break with tradition, Michael Moran chose Politics and Governance in the UK, as the title for his standard undergraduate politics text book.

So what is governance and how does it differ from government?

The word government has the advantage of not only describing the activity of ruling, but also providing some indication about who is responsible for doing it. Thus while we can talk about government as being the activity of ruling, we can also talk about the government as that group of people with the authority or mandate to do so. In short, governments govern.

However, this also hints at the limitations of  the word government in that it implies that governing is an exclusive activity carried out by a particular ruling group. While distinctions are sometimes made between different levels of government such as national, regional or local government, it nevertheless implies that government involves directing things from above and is the carried out by institutions with certain defined formal responsibilities.

The word governance on the other hand refers to the process of governing without implying that any particular group enjoys a monopoly in that process. Indeed, the more widespread use of governance has emerged out of an understanding that governing is a process which may involve a range of different actors which share power or arrive at decisions through a process of bargaining or negotiation.

The word began to be more widely applied to UK politics in the 1980s when the policies of the Thatcher governments sought to diminish the role of the state through privatisation and the contracting out of public services. This process received a new impetus, albeit  in a different direction, under New Labour when responsibility for key decisions was allocated to non-state actors, such as the Bank of England, and further power was devolved away from Westminster with the creation of new legislative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Another important driver has been the pooling of sovereignty involved in Britain’s membership of international bodies such as the European Union.

The creation of new institutions involved in the process of governing has led to the widespread use of the term ‘multi-level governance’. This differs from traditional ideas about central, regional and local government, which still perhaps imply a top down distribution of power and certainly a formal division of responsibilities. In contrast multi-level governance implies that power is widely distributed between different levels or institutions involved, and that decisions may be made across the levels rather than at one level or another.

All of this means that in many areas governments no longer govern, or at least they don’t govern on their own. This does of course raise questions about who we can blame when things go wrong, but that is a question for another day.

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