Governance in Context: Putting principles into practice

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By Alan Hudson — February 17, 2015.


Last week, I attended a workshop on multi-stakeholder governance initiatives, organized by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, with support from the World Bank. Building on an earlier workshop, an excellent paper by Professor Jonathan Fox, and a very useful blog by Brendan Halloran about thinking politically about the role of multi-stakeholder initiatives, the theme of the workshop was “What do we know and where do we go from here?”

The workshop brought together people involved in various different multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). The MSIs represented at the workshop included the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency, the Open Contracting Partnership (the newest kid on the block, very eager to learn – see here for an early iteration of their thinking – and to complement rather than duplicate existing initiatives), and the Open Government Partnership uber-initiative.

Hassane Cisse, the Director for Governance and Inclusive Institutions at the World Bank kicked off, emphasizing the Bank’s commitment to citizen-centered governance. Tom Carothers then provided a very useful framing, suggesting that questions about MSIs are a subset of a broader set of questions discussion about whether and how governance matters (see here for Duncan Green’s review of Carothers’ must read paper with Saskia Brechenmacher).

Learning about the effectiveness of MSIs was a key theme at the workshop. Despite pockets of resistance, there was broad and welcome acknowledgement that the foundation for learning is clarity about goals and strategy. If “theory of change” makes you queasy, you might prefer “hypothesis”, “tentative assumptions about how change happens”, or  “framework for learning”. And if you think that the mechanisms for learning about how governance reform plays out in different contexts are already in place, and working well, I’d be interested to chat.

Brandon Brockmyer and Jonathan Fox helpfully outlined the theories of change at the heart of five key MSIs. A next step in this endeavour might be to systematically collate information about the characteristics and functioning of the various MSIs. This could help to inform efforts to design new MSIs, to improve existing ones, and to make the most of overlaps amongst MSIs, including in countries where MSIs dealing with, for example, extractives, contracts and open governance are all in operation. A number of participants in the workshop expressed interest in developing such a typology, building on work that has already been done, for instance in relation to a possible land transparency initiative.

One of the defining characteristics of an MSI is that it operates at multiple levels, both at the global level, where norms, standards and principles are defined, and at the country level, where efforts are made to apply those principles. As such, it seems to me that a key column in a typology would provide information about how a particular MSI puts principles into practice at country level. For instance, what sort of analysis of the governance landscape does the MSI undertake, what sort of country-level plan does the MSI produce, how does the MSI relate to country-level institutions and legislative processes, and how does the MSI use learning from country-level practice to inform the evolution of its principles?

As the workshop progressed I found myself thinking back to the differentiation that Tom Carothers had made between questions about governance and questions about MSIs. To my mind, while there is value in separating them out, fundamentally questions about both governance and about MSIs are about how standards, norms and principles are developed, play out in particular contexts, and evolve as a result of that experience.

Governance is about the implementation, adaptation and iteration of principles in practice in particular contexts. MSIs are a particular model – a harder-edged, institutionalised model – for supporting and encouraging governance reform and for putting principles into practice. Exploring how MSIs play out in particular contexts has potential spillover benefits for our understanding of governance, helping to move the debate about governance beyond the unhelpful extremes of “context is king” or “one size fits all” and towards more useful guidance about what might work in particular contexts.

As a step in this direction we’re excited about leading a cross-country piece of research about how the Open Government Partnership is playing out in particular places, to generate guidance – signposts, not blueprints – for open governance champions in different contexts. Watch this space for more!

For more on doing development – and governance – differently see my earlier piece, Duncan Green’s summary, and the Doing Development Differently manifesto, which Global Integrity has enthusiastically endorsed. Thanks to Brendan Halloran of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for helpful comments on an early draft of this blogpost.

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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