The Move Towards Governance

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The Move Towards Governance

Since the early 1990’s most Western democracies have moved from a traditional government model to one based on the concept of ‘governance’. This is a term derived from the Latin ‘cybern’ meaning ‘steering’ and, not coincidentally, the same root as the contemporary ‘cybernetics’. Given the real and perceived loss of control of the economy by the nation state due to the rise of economic internationalism (globalisation in short) it is now seen as more appropriate to see the state as ‘steering’ the economy. The new governance theories stress ‘steering’ over control and focus more on processes and outcomes rather than on formal institutional arrangements (see Pierre and Peters, 2000) [1] Given the complexity of contemporary information/network/global society, governance is seen to provide a more adequate response than traditional government approaches focused in existing institutions. The governance approach would see itself as more flexible, innovative, more in tune with a market society. It would, in keeping with the ethos of a cybernetic-information society, stress the effectiveness of networks and non-bureaucratic modes of regeneration.

An interesting development of governance theory is the concept of multi-level governance, which is particularly illuminating for our study of e-governance. It reflects the growing complexity of the government function, that is more geographically diverse now (occurring at multiple levels) but also more differentiated horizontally insofar as it is now more often provided by multiple agencies. This is particularly the case in relation to so-called ‘wicked issues’ such as the environment or urban crime that are not amenable to traditional departmental-based government solutions. Multilevel governance then ‘stresses the complexity of policy-making implementation and accountability relationships between a variety of state and societal actors at the level of supranational activity (EU), central government, devolved administration, local authorities and quasi-government’ (Carmichael, 2003: 6) [2]

From the point of view of a theory of democracy the most important issue to emerge from these debates is the nature and quality of social involvement. While there is a top-down conception of governance (conceived of as a more market-friendly version of government in the era of globalisation) it also takes a more participatory or bottom-up variant. From this conception, governance is seen to emerge from social interactions rather than be imposed from above. Society is seen to have the capacity to act autonomously and organise itself in pursuit of social interests that may conflict with those of government or the market. Government cannot simply impose its authority on a well-organised networked and informed society. Thus the move in recent years, in pursuit of a modernising governance agenda in many countries to create various forms of ‘social partnership’, particularly in the management of public sector activities.

In conclusion, the concept of governance allows us to grasp the transformation of democracy and participation in the era of the globalised network society. The political process today in Ireland, as elsewhere, involves much broader networks of governance than in the earlier Westminister model of government. While the loss of control by the state of the economy – the loss of sovereignty argument – is often exaggerated, the capacity of governments to manage their economy and society is threatened by globalisation. On the one hand there is this threat form above, or outside, but there is also a groping challenge from ‘below’ as social groups and communities organise on behalf of their own interests. So there is now a diversity of moves towards a more ‘modern’ form of governance, some from a market perspective, others from a social empowerment agenda. The results, as in all social and political processes, are mixed and complex.


  1. Pierre, J., & Peters, B.G. (2000) Governance, Politics and the State, London: Macmillan.
  2. Carmichael, P. (2002) ‘Briefing Paper: Multi-level Governance’ in Review of Public Administration. Northern Ireland: Office of the First Minister/Deputy First Minister.