What is governance?

In the 1990s, scholars seized on the term ‘governance’ to make better sense of the situation that had arisen in many countries after the 1980s, when ‘big’ government had retreated under the pressure of neo-liberal reformers like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The figure below depicts the ‘shifts in governance’ that have ocurred since then. In essence power and authority from the nation state has been transfered to markets, to civil society, to independent bodies and the courts, and to both higher and lower jurisdictional levels (based on Huitema, 2005).

Some have suggested that the turn from government to ‘governance’ was driven by big business and its desire to weaken the regulatory powers of the nation state (e.g. Swyngedouw 2005). Others offered more prosaic explanations, including the financial crisis of the state in the 1970s and 1980s, and the associated ideological shift towards the market and ‘new public management’ (Pierre and Peters 2000). Whatever the reason, it is clear that some of these shifts in governance have also occurred in the water sector. Huitema and Meijerink (2009), in an overview of major policy changes (‘transitions’) around the world, note that many countries have moved towards greater levels of market involvement (privatization of water services), greater levels of civil society involvement (water user associations, more public participation), and more independent bodies (such as river basin committees). There is also a clear movement towards greater levels of international involvement, with the number of transboundary water agreements increasing, and the growing influence of organizations like the European Union, World Bank and Asian Development Bank

What attracts scientists to the term ‘governance’ is its ability to ‘cover the whole range of institutions and relationships involved in the process of governing’ (Pierre and Peters 2000: 1). Clearly, ‘governance’ is not the same as government: while government centers on the institutions and actions of the state, the term governance allows non-state actors such as businesses and civil society to be brought into an analysis of societal steering. When we study governance, we are interested in ‘the totality of interactions, in which public as well as private actors participate, aimed at solving societal problems or creating societal opportunities; attending to the institutions as contexts for these governing interactions; and establishing a normative foundation for all those activities’.

With this conference we aim to further discussions on adaptation governance. Applying the term as just defined, this means we are interested in the efforts by private and public actors to steer, control, or manage climate adaptation, but also in the institutions they found to take up this task, and the normative underpinnings of these efforts and institutions. 


When it comes to developing institutions to respond to water issues, societies have several different basic chocies to make. One key choice is to decide whether to entrust responsibilities to governments (the public sector), to companies (private sector), or to depend on self-provision and self-regulation (civil society) (Dicke and Meijerink 2008).  Obviously,  combinations of these three basic forms of institutions are possible and probably even necessary. It is increasingly clear that governments cannot provide for water on their own, but also that markets do not operate effectively without government oversight, and that self-regulation ad self-provision also require a certain legitimate authority to back them up. The figure below for instance (based on Bouwer et al. 2007) shows how public and private responsibilities for flood insurance are divided in Europe.

We are also interested in the normative underpinnings of efforts to manage water and institutions building. Various criteria can be applied to evaluate governance, including effectiveness, efficiency, legitimacy, legality, coordination, etc. The shifts in governance that have taken place over the past few decades have indeed not gone without consequences. Authors such as Chris Skelcher note how the various shifts in governance have affected the ‘ jurisdictional integrity’ of the nation state. This in itself is not something to worry about, however it is noticeable that the norms that apply to the nation state, especially in developed democracies, imply certain guarantees (about transparency, democratic procedure) that need not apply to other levels of government, or the private sector and civil society. There is thus potentially a loss of democratic control associated with these shifts in governance, and this needs active monitoring and perhaps mending. And, in a situation where responsibility for the provision of collective goods is shared, it may not always be so easy to determine who does what, and who is responsible for what. This implies a certain risk for issues falling between the cracks and a risk of inefficiencies. It is also increasingly clear that shifting water tasks to the private sector can have effects on equity in societies.

We kindly acknowledge that this post was previously published on www.watergovernance.eu, your source for information on water governance.



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