Defining Governance

Circle of Youth & AdultsAs we look to improve our American institutions, including our schools and even our families, I believe we need to get more comfortable with the word “governance” and analyzing those institutions in terms of their governance models. I submit that the governance model often gets short shrift as we look at our institutions and how they can be reformed or transformed to better address life in the 21st Century.

According to Wikipedia…

Governance is the activity of governing. It relates to decisions that define expectations, grant power, or verify performance. It consists either of a separate process or of a specific part of management or leadership processes… [It] is the kinetic exercise of management power and policy.

Certainly this concept applies to the work that a government does. In a republic like ours, “decisions that define expectations” include the mandate perceived by our collective decision as citizens on who to vote for, and resulting election of legislators (e.g. city council, state legislators, and our national Congress) and executives (e.g. mayors, governors, the President, etc). Those decision also include the collective decision-making process of our elected legislators and executives to consider and change (or not change) the body of law that regulates how our government and the rest of society functions.

Based on the law and its modifications, our elected officials take further collective and/or individual actions to create or update policies and procedures to implement and enforce those laws. They (or the agents they employ, bureaucrats, police, etc) may even employ coercion where necessary, but it must be done within the rule of law and based on the consent of the governed.

We citizens “grant power” proactively through whom we vote for and elect to office, or passively by choosing not to vote or otherwise get involved in the electoral process.

Our media plays a major role in helping citizens “verify performance” of our elected officials and their effective execution of policies and procedures based on our body of law. Citizens then have the opportunity to redefine expectations through lobbying elected officials and/or continuing to support them (or/not) in future rounds of the electoral process.

All of the above (and a lot more) are aspects of governance, the “kinetic exercise of management power and policy” (I really like that phrase!) at the local, state or national level of government in a republic like ours.

In more authoritarian governments, the governance model is going to be different. Decisions may be made by leaders that come to executive power through violent force or coercion (perhaps even with popular support). Though there may be a legislative lawmaking body, it may be appointed by the executive or even elected in some narrowly circumscribed process (like in Iran where a religious council decides who can run for legislative seats). Power is more likely to be exercised outside the rule of law and the consent of the governed, which is why authoritarian regimes tend to be rife with corruption.

In terms of my ongoing quest (some might say obsession) to call out the human evolutionary transition from “patriarchy” to “partnership”, a well realized republic (like America, at least arguably) represents the latter. America aspires to be a circle of equals (citizens in the political arena, legislators in the legislative halls) exercising power collectively under the rule of law which limits power and frames it as more facilitative (of individual liberty, commerce, etc) than directive.

A more authoritarian country (Iran, for example) exhibits more of the traits of patriarchy, including a hierarchy or “pecking order” of superiors and inferiors (rather than peers) exercising more directive (rather than facilitative) power directed from the top down through the hierarchical framework. In essence shepherds tending to, and taking full responsibility for their sheep. When it suits the agenda of the powerful, they are more likely to operate outside the rule of law and without the formal consent of the people.

Continuing with the Wikipedia definition of governance…

In the case of a business or of a non-profit organization, governance relates to consistent management, cohesive policies, processes and decision-rights for a given area of responsibility.

This is where analyzing the governance model gets into territory that many people have perhaps not thought of going; looking at individual institutions (e.g. our education system or an individual school, family life in general or even an individual family). Who are the decision-makers and what is the process they follow to make decisions? How is power granted to those decision-makers? How is the institutional performance and the performance of individuals within the institution evaluated?

Given my focus on the evolution from patriarchy to partnership, does the institution (whether an education system or individual school, collective family life or individual family) employ a governance model more closely aligned with hierarchical control or collective decision-making by a circle of equals?

When it comes to schools or families, I think most people assume (based on conventional wisdom) that these institutions are appropriately hierarchical, with power exercised in a directive fashion from the top down, with coercion used where necessary and often without the consent of the “governed”.

In the education system and the individual schools within its umbrella, the important policy decisions about who goes to school, what they learn and are made at the state level, the top of the hierarchy. Those decisions are interpreted and implemented at the district level in terms of budget authority to set up and staff schools. Thus empowered individual school executives (principals) exercise generally directive power over the school’s teachers who are responsible for imparting the state’s curriculum to the students in their classrooms.

In this hierarchical education system, the people near the bottom of the pyramid (the school teachers) generally have no role (or a very limited one) in the decisions made at the levels of the hierarchy above them. Further, the people below them at the very bottom of this governance pyramid (the students) have no governing power at all.

I put forward that most people accept this governance model for schools because historically most teachers have been women and the administrators above them have been men, and in patriarchal governance, men make decisions that women are expected to follow. And further in that patriarchal model, adults make all the decisions that children are expected to follow. That was the model for our grandparents’ schools and our parents’ schools, so it is the path of least resistance that it should still be the model for our kids’ schools.

But times are actually changing; women have made a concerted, and to a large degree successful, effort in our country (and other western countries) to achieve a level of equality with men. This is reflected in our political process and the work world. But for whatever reason we continue to mythologize the older governance model of schools with administrators (the traditionally male-dominated profession) with the lion-share of the decision making power relative to the teachers (the traditionally female-dominated “pink collar ghetto” profession).

And in family life, though we have to a large degree moved away from the governance model where children are “seen but not heard”, we still have a ways to go to acknowledging that, to the extent that they are able, children can navigate the path to adulthood best when parents adopt more of a facilitative role than the traditional directive one, giving our youth as much agency as they show they can manage directing their own development.

It’s all about governance; a well kept secret to many, but perhaps the key attribute to look at in making our society and its institutions more effective as we move forward into a new century. There are so many things that are profoundly impacted by the governance model, including:

1. The participatory energy of the people involved – The people in the bottom rungs of a hierarchical system of superiors and inferiors tend to have little ownership and tend to lack initiative and simply await direction from above.

2. Corruption – As the old saying goes, “Power corrupts”, particularly directive power that is exercised from above (power-over) rather than more facilitative power (power-with) granted by and monitored by participants. So how much corruption does particular governance model engender in a given context?

3. The relationship between decision-makers and the people impacted by the decision – What is the nature of the relationship and communication (if any) between those deciding and those impacted? What are the degrees of separation? Do the decision-makers answer to a constituency different than those impacted?

4. The process and participants in evaluating an institution – Who makes decisions on the effectiveness of an institution or its individual units, based on what input and what standards of judgment.

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