This module is a resource for lecturers  


What is good governance?


Gradual global recognition of the need for good governance emerged only from the 1990s onwards. Although different meanings of good governance exist, the term is generally associated with political, economic and social goals that are deemed necessary for achieving development. Hence, good governance is the process whereby public institutions conduct public affairs and manage public resources in a manner that promotes the rule of law and the realization of human rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights). In 1996, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared that "promoting good governance in all its aspects, including by ensuring the rule of law, improving the efficiency and accountability of the public sector and tackling corruption, [are] essential elements of a framework within which economies can prosper." Today, the term good governance is commonly used by national and international development organizations. However, its meaning and scope are not always clear. While this flexibility enables a contextual application of the term, the lack of conceptual clarity can be a source of difficulty at the operational level. In some cases, good governance has become a "one-size-fits-all buzzword" lacking specific meaning and content (Johnston, 2002, p. 7).

Johnston (2002, p. 1-2) defines good governance as "legitimate, accountable, and effective ways of obtaining and using public power and resources in the pursuit of widely accepted social goals". This definition links good governance with the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and embodies partnerships between state and society, and among citizens. Similarly, Rose-Ackerman (2016, p. 1) suggests that good governance refers to "all kinds of institutional structures that promote both good substantive outcomes and public legitimacy". Good government is also associated with impartiality (Rothstein and Varraich, 2017), ethical universalism (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2015) and open-access orders (North, Wallis and Weingast, 2009).

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the key question for assessing good governance is: Are the institutions of governance effectively guaranteeing the right to health, adequate housing, sufficient food, quality education, justice and personal security? Core elements of good governance include transparency, integrity, lawfulness, sound policy, participation, accountability, responsiveness, and the absence of corruption and wrongdoing. For a discussion on the relationship between integrity and lawfulness and a further discussion on integrity in the public sector, see, respectively, Module 12 and Module 13 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

The World Bank defines good governance in terms of the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised. This includes 1) the process by which governments are selected, monitored and replaced; 2) the capacity of the government to effectively formulate and implement sound policies; and 3) the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them (Kaufmann, Kraay and Zoido-Lobatón, 1999). This definition is one of the most frequently used definitions of good governance, and forms the basis of the World Bank's widely used Worldwide Governance Indicators , which are discussed below.

Yet, this broad definition has been criticized for mixing together policy content ("sound policies") and procedures ("rule of law") as well as citizens' evaluations ("respect"), and for referring to both institutions that provide access to political power and those that exercise and implement laws and policies (Rothstein and Teorell, 2008). The inclusion of "sound policies" in the definition raises the question whether international (mostly economic) experts can really be expected to know what constitutes "sound policies"? For example, should pensions or health care or education be privately or publicly funded or should it be mixed? To what extent and how should financial institutions be regulated? Obviously, some political institutions or aspects of politics are more important than others when determining the quality of government (Rothstein and Teorell, 2008).

Similarly, Keefer (2004, p. 5) warns against broad definitions that extend the study of governance to all questions related to how groups of people govern themselves, as this would cover all areas of political science. This is also in line with Grindle's critiques that the term encompasses so many "good" things that it has become a catch-all phrase, serving as little more than an additive checklist. As a result, development practitioners and government officials "continue to confront long lists of 'things that must be done' to achieve good governance, with little guidance about how to pick and choose among them as priorities" (2007, p. 571). Grindle further argues that its strongly normative tenor means that, first, the prospect of achieving good governance can be overwhelming, especially for poor countries; second, the term fails to distinguish between various institutional particularities and more basic principles that can achieve similar ends; third, by overlooking key issues of political economy and power relations, the concept does not provide useful guidance on how it can be achieved.

In line with these critiques, the Quality of Government Institute (QoG) of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, avoids using the term "governance" on the grounds that its remit has become so broad that it serves little analytic purpose. Instead, it focuses on the quality of government per se, particularly in relation to a number of specific policy areas, such as health, the environment, social policy and poverty. The point of departure of QoG is that in all societies the quality of government institutions is of utmost importance for the well-being of its citizens. The QoG developed a dataset of political institutions and processes with over 2,500 variables, including indicators of formal and informal institutions that may affect levels of corruption such as a country's rule of law, equity, political pluralism, and access to knowledge, information and education.


Good governance and sustainable development

Good governance is considered key to achieving sustainable development and human well-being. Empirical studies show that good governance, in contrast to democratization, has strong positive effects on measures of social trust, life satisfaction, peace and political legitimacy (Ghosh and Siddique, 2015; Rose-Ackerman, 2016; Rothstein and Teorell, 2008). Studies also show that good governance improves life evaluations either directly, because people are happier living in a context of good government (Ott, 2010), or indirectly because good governance enables people to achieve higher levels of something else that is directly important to their well-being. This is in particular related to the control of corruption, which has been demonstrated to affect well-being both directly and indirectly. The absence of corruption has often been shown to increase the efficiency of public and private enterprise and thus create favourable conditions for economic growth. There is also evidence that the higher levels of general and specific trust increase the happiness of people even beyond higher incomes (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2015). For instance, Helliwell and others (2018) found that changes in government services delivery quality contribute positively to citizens' life evaluation.

Accordingly, modern notions of good governance are necessary for attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of particular relevance is Goal 16 of the SDGs (or SDG 16), which is titled "Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions" and aims to "[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels". Other SDGs are also strongly linked to good governance: for example, SDG 10 refers to reducing inequalities and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all people. More generally, the attainment of all SDGs depends on good governance. After all, sustainable development requires that those in power have respect for human rights and work towards eradicating poverty, addressing hunger, securing good health care and high quality education for their citizens, guaranteeing gender equality, reducing inequality, and so on. For a related discussion on how corruption affects the SDGs, see the Appendix of Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.


Principles of good governance

Good governance is tightly linked to the fight against corruption. Accordingly, some of the core principles of good governance are also principles of anti-corruption. The literature identifies good governance with political systems that are:

  1. participatory;
  2. consistent with the rule of law;
  3. transparent;
  4. responsive;
  5. consensus-oriented;
  6. equitable and inclusive;
  7. effective and efficient; and
  8. accountable (Rothstein and Teorell, 2008; UN, 2009).

When political systems do not adhere to these eight principles, their institutions might be incapable of delivering public services and fulfil people's needs. The sixth principle is especially worth emphasizing as it ensures that the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. All eight principles are elaborated upon in the following paragraphs.

1. Participation

refers to the opportunity for active involvement by all sectors of societyin the decision-making process regarding all issues of interest. Participation is fostered by enabling environments where pertinent information is appropriately disseminated in a timely fashion so that all concerned people can voice their opinion in an unconstrained manner. For an example of indicators of access and citizen participation, see Linares (2016). In terms of the fight against corruption, it is noted that article 13 of UNCAC requires all States parties "to promote the active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector, such as civil society, non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption". For a further discussion on this topic, see Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

2. Rule of law

is the exercise of state power using, and guided by, published standards that embody widely supported social values, avoid particularism and enjoy broad-based public support (Johnston, 2002). It means that legal frameworks exist, there is law and order, the justice system is independent and effective, property rights and contracts are enforced, human rights norms are implemented, and there are constitutional constraints on the power of the executive. In addition, laws need to be responsive to the needs of society, fair and impartially enforced. It is noted that virtually every state, including corrupt and repressive ones, can enact and enforce laws that do not guarantee the requirements above. However, genuine rule of law requires the cooperation of state and society, and is an outcome of complex and deeply rooted social processes. Fukuyama (2013) distinguishes between "rule of law" and "rule by law". "Rule by law" refers to the executive use of law and bureaucracy as an instrument of power, while "rule of law" is when the executive itself is constrained by the same laws that apply to everyone else. Bringing all these elements together, the UN defines rule of law as:

a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency ( United Nations, 2004).

Examples of relevant indicators and measurements include the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index and the UN Rule of Law Indicators.

3. Transparency

exists where the process of decision-making by those in power can be scrutinized by concerned members of society. Transparency rests on a partnership: officials must make information available, and there must be people and groups with reasons and opportunities to put information to use. Key among those are an independent judiciary and a free, competitive, responsible press as well as an active, critical civil society (Johnston 2002). Rules and procedures must be open to scrutiny and be comprehensible, which implies that a transparent government makes it clear what is being done, how and why actions take place, who is involved, and by what standards decisions are made. Transparency is also one of the most important principles underlying the fight against corruption. In this regard, article 10 of UNCAC requires State parties to take the necessary measures to enhance transparency in their public institutions. Transparency requires significant resources and a system that provides for the free flow of relevant and easily accessible information to stakeholders in a manner that is understandable, so that decisions and their implementation can be easily monitored. For a review of global indices of transparency, see Williams (2014) and the Index of Public Integrity, which includes, for example, Budget Transparency. For a further discussion on this topic, see Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

4. Responsiveness

exists where institutions and processes readily serve all stakeholders in a prompt and appropriate manner so that the interests of all citizens are protected. Responsiveness also refers to identifying and addressing built-in discriminatory practices affecting ethnic or minority groups, including gender responsiveness, and the participation of all genders in governance. Mechanisms to improve responsiveness may include selective decentralization, so that local governments supposedly are more in tune with the needs of their constituents and can more promptly serve the people, who in turn could become more involved in decision-making. Citizens' charters and facilitation laws can also increase responsiveness by providing timeframes for every step in attaining frontline services, hotlines and staff dedicated to receiving and attending to complaints and grievances promptly. Responsiveness is difficult to measure for purposes of comparison, particularly at the international level. For a sector-specific framework to indicate responsiveness in health care, see De Silva (n.d.). For a further discussion on gender responsiveness in the context of governance, see Module 8 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption, Module 5 and Module 9 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics, and Module 9 of the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

5. Consensus orientation

ensures that the existing systems serve the best interests of society. This may be one of the most difficult principles, as any action or policy is likely to affect different groups in society in different and often opposing ways. Therefore, different viewpoints must be taken into account. To arrive at a compromise, there needs to be a strong, impartial and flexible mediation structure, so that the best interests of the whole community can be served. Public hearings, referendums, forums for debate, citizens' legal right to petition leaders about policy and consultation mechanisms are examples of means to work towards achieving consensus or at least compromise.

6. Equity and inclusiveness

exist where everyone has opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. This means that all members of society, especially the most vulnerable, are taken into consideration in policymaking, and no one feels alienated, disenfranchised or left behind. Good governance demands that preferential attention is given to the plight of the poor, marginalized and needy. This is consistent with Rawls' principles of fairness, according to which the worst-off in society must receive a fair deal. According to Rawls (1971), social and economic policy ought to satisfy two conditions: firstly, that offices and positions are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and, secondly, that they provide the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle). Progressive taxation, free medical care and subsidized housing are examples of equity mechanisms. The most common measure of inequality, however imperfect, is the Gini index, which measures the statistical distribution of income or wealth of a nation's residents. Another measure is the percentage of people living below the poverty line, adjusted to reflect local situations. Further discussions of equity and equality, particularly in the context of a diverse, globalized world, can be found in Module 5 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

7. Government effectiveness and efficiency

exist where processes and institutions make the best use of resources to produce results that meet the needs of society. Effectiveness and efficiency require the enhancement of quality and standardization of public service delivery, the professionalization of the bureaucracy, focusing government efforts on vital functions, and the elimination of redundancies or overlaps in functions and operations. For public service delivery, agencies must promptly and adequately cater to the needs of citizens, simplifying government procedures and reducing red tape, using appropriate technology when feasible, as well as coordinating processes among various government agencies to eliminate redundant information requirements. There is arguably a normative imperative underpinning good governance, to employ resources and powers in an ethical and professional manner that demonstrates integrity, maximizes public values and public goods (for a further discussion on public values, see Module 13 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics). Effectiveness and efficiency also demand that individual performance goals are aligned with the programmes and objectives of the agency. Adequate remuneration and non-monetary compensation may likewise be necessary to sustain competence and boost morale. See Government Effectiveness as included in the Worldwide Governance Indicator for an example of an indicator.

8. Accountability

is based on the principle that every person or group is responsible for their actions, especially when their acts affect the public interest. It refers to the answerability or responsibility for one's actions so that systems exist for decision makers in government, the private sector and civil society organizations to answer to the public, as well as to institutional stakeholders. Accountability is partly a matter of institutional design, implying that formal checks and balances can and should be built into any constitutional architecture (Johnston, 2002). Promoting accountability is also important for corruption prevention and is one of the main purposes of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (see article 1 of UNCAC).

Accountability also requires political energy, in the sense that "people, interest groups, civil society, the courts, the press, and opposition parties must insist that those who govern follow legitimate mandates and explain their actions" and that "[t]hose demanding accountability must be confident that they can do so safely, that officials will respond honestly, and that social needs and demands are taken seriously" (Johnston, 2002, pp. 3-4). Sometimes a distinction is made between horizontal accountability (checks and balances within the public sector) and vertical accountability (accountability of governments towards their citizens). For a further discussion on horizontal and vertical accountability see also Module 3 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

An example of a governance mechanism or tool designed to promote accountability and professionalism is a code of ethics or a code of conduct. Such codes are essential tools for promoting integrity, honesty and responsibility among individuals, and are recommended under article 8 of UNCAC ("each State Party shall endeavour to apply, within its own institutional and legal systems, codes or standards of conduct for the correct, honourable and proper performance of public functions"). For a further discussion on codes of ethics or conduct see Module 13 and Module 14 of the University Module Series on E4J Integrity and Ethics. For indicators of accountability, see Holland and others (2009).


Measuring good governance

It is a complex and challenging task to measure the extent to which different jurisdictions adhere to good governance principles. Some of these principles may, in fact, conflict with each other. Effectiveness and efficiency, for example, may have to be compromised, in order to achieve equity and inclusion. Commonly used indicators give scores to the following group of proxies: a) existence and quality of procedures, such as in budget formulation and procurement, and clear job descriptions in the bureaucracy; b) levels of capacity, such as average educational attainment, technical qualifications and professionalism; c) output, such as health and education outcomes and availability of services; and d) estimates from direct observation.

Some of the most popular indices related to good governance are the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), the Index of Public Integrity and Freedom House's Freedom in the World report. There are also indices with a regional focus, such as the Ibrahim Index of Africa Governance. These indices measure good governance by examining different aspects of governance and their various indicators. For example, the World Bank's WGI, which is widely used around the world, attempts to quantify good governance by measuring the following six aspects of governance based on "views of a large number of enterprise, citizen and expert survey respondents in industrial and developing countries" (WGI website):

  • Voice and accountability: implies citizen participation and independent media including political and media freedom as well as civil liberties
  • Political stability and absence of violence/terrorism: threat of state coup
  • Government effectiveness: quality of civil service
  • Regulatory quality: market-friendly policies
  • Rule of law: perceptions of crime, an effective judiciary, enforceable contracts
  • Corruption: control of corruption, measured through composite survey instruments

To take another example, the Index of Public Integrity (IPI) seeks to assess "a society's capacity to control corruption and ensure that public resources are spent without corrupt practices" as well as "to hold its government accountable" (Mungiu-Pippidi and others, 2017). In this context, the IPI measures the following aspects: judicial independence, administrative burden, trade openness, budget transparency, e-citizenship and freedom of the press. Given its holistic approach to assessing integrity, the IPI provides useful data on governance issues. Another index that provides data on governance is the World Justice Project  Rule of Law Index, which "measures how the rule of law is experienced and perceived by the general public worldwide based on more than 120,000 household and 3,800 expert surveys" (WJP website).

An additional source for assessing good governance is the World Values Survey which provides a worldwide ranking of countries based on how citizens perceive the governance quality in their own countries (Ivanyna and Shah, 2018). Furthermore, localized studies of specific situations provide considerable insight but are limited in their general applicability (see, e.g., Moore, 1993; Olken and Pande, 2012).

However, the reliability of all the indices above has been criticized because of their subjective assessments and possible sampling biases due to different degrees of willingness on the part of survey respondents to participate. It is therefore important to keep in mind that each of these measurements has its own limitations. Every measurement of good governance is designed to detect certain things and ignore others. Students should ask: What exactly is each methodology claiming to measure and how are its parameters phrased and constructed? The latter part of the question goes to what each index or ranking is actually measuring, as opposed to what it claims to measure.  

One major reason for the difficulty in defining and measuring good governance is that theoretical, methodological and empirical approaches each conceptualize the term "governance" differently (Andrews, 2008). A possible solution is to use the term "quality of government" instead of good governance, as suggested by researchers such as Rothstein and Teorell (2008). However, as long as the term good governance is widely used, attempts to define and measure it are important, despite the challenges described.

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