How Realistic is it to expect Good Government?

Peripheral Vision column #2

Clare Daly is a fearless and outspoken Irish MEP who recently commissioned from Albena Azmanova a critical report which accused EU member states of hypocrisy in the charges they have raised to the practice of Rule of Law in some newer member States  – particularly Hungary and Poland. Surely such things as transparency, rule of law, accountability and effective public bodies, the notions that lie at the heart of “good governance”, command everyone’s support?

But after 1989 these became largely Western ideas (some of them very recent) which were being imposed on nations which were expected to imitate them when even its authors have proved incapable of living up to these high standards

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ralf Dahrendorf had warned that it would take at least a generation for the Rule of Law to become properly embedded and enforced in ex-communist societies. Thirty years later that’s looking a shade optimistic!

In the new millennium a Harvard Professor, Merilee Grindle, suggested in an article entitled Good Enough Governance that we tone down our expectations and gave us what is probably the definitive paper for this discussion – Good Governance Revisited (2005) – particularly with its tables and diagram detailing the variety of issues and stages at stake….  

Grindle’s paper focuses on what we used to call the “developing” nations and fails to recognise that the Eastern bloc of new EU member states still lack the basic standards of “good governance” – she is, after all, more of a specialist in Latin American systems. The paper offers a five-fold typology of government – “collapsed”, “personal rule”, “minimally institutionalised”, “institutionalised, non-competitive states” and “institutionalised, competitive states” but seems a bit crude to me and to need nuancing. Countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Romania perhaps need a category of their own.

For the moment, I offer some generalised comments on the difficulties all countries face in seeking to achieve better government. This, of course, begs the question of how many countries are genuinely seeking to improve their systems

Why progress toward Better Government is difficult

Key PrinciplesWhat it should meanReality
AccountabilityElections allow the electorate to get rid of governments pursuing unpopular policies
Ministers take responsibility for departmental performance
Government propose and oppositions dispute
Globalisation and neoliberalism have homogenised policies – “they’re all the same” 
No one resigns nowadays

opposition increasingly cast as disloyal
TransparencyThose in power accept responsibility for their actions 
Mass media take their responsibilities for exposing misdeeds seriously
Public Relations cover up mistakes

Media focuses now on spectacle;whistle-blowers prosecuted
Rule of LawNoone is above the law

Justice is neutral and judges fair-minded

Money can’t buy favours

People respect the law
Various legal scandals have demonstrated judicial incompetence –  and that justice commands a price.Judges have been socialised into the elite and find it difficult to challenge their own – and in ex-communist countries belong to networksThe US system is based on massive transfer of corporate money to politicians 
Even the basic issue of political succession is now open to doubt; and US Republican states bar blacks from voting
Effective public institutionsPublic bodies adequately funded
Their performance measured and open to challenge
Politicians propose and civil servants advise
Austerity programmes have weakened the efficacy of state bodies
The traditional notion of civil service independence now questioned
increased politicisation
auhtor of the table: Ronald Young

We have, of course, become much more cynical since 1989 – our trust in both public and private institutions has crashed spectacularly. On Thinking Institutionally (2008) was one of the very few books to explore this issue with pages 18-20 of the link giving a very useful timeline of the past half-century’s growth of political distrust in the USA  

Even people understood to be conservatives—at least in the way we conceptualize political ideology today—assail institutions. Free market economics places a premium on self-interest and assumes institutions stifle innovation and entrepreneurship.
But institutions provide reference points in an uncertain world. They tie us to the past and present; furnish personal assistance; and institutionalize trust. 

Few paid much attention to the book at the time but “A Time to Build” has recently used it to pick up the argument about the importance of institutions and the priority which needs to be given to developing a greater degree of integrity in their operations. The author is a traditional conservative in the US – a rare breed these days – and has written recent papers (on such issues as journalism and the Congress) which apply one of his basic points – that institutions can be seen either as a “mold” which shapes an individual’s character or as a “platform” to launch a personality or brand. And that social media reward the latter. 

…….Journalists should recognize that their profession may have a particularly important role to play in any partial recovery of American confidence in institutions. This is because journalism stands to offer a means by which to channel our mistrust of other institutions, and so to filter our skepticism in ways that might keep it from further curdling into cynicism. The self-image of American journalists as valiant muckrakers speaking truth to power is frequently exaggerated. Most journalists are highly educated and culturally elite, and much of what they do implicitly involves defending the preconceptions of the powerful, which they share 

But too many journalists succumb to the temptation of muckraking – on the basis that it’s what sells newspapers

In his final Presidential address in 1960, Eisenhower left us with this warning 

We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

The most useful books/articles on the subject

Photo 161864223 © motortion | via

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