Public Administration, Local Governance & Participation: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Defining public administration

Some experts suggest conceptualizing public administration as "an organizational structure, a system, a function, an institutional construct, procedures and processes or just a set of practices in the exercise of public authority."1

It also refers to a much broader process, in which the notions of public policy and civil service are contained and sequenced, an aspect particularly important in the post-conflict reconstruction period, as a government cannot implement all components of these changes at once. Hence, phases need to be distinguished in the building or rebuilding of a public administration.2

Notions encompassed in the public administration process

Public policy:
The allocation of resources, services and opportunities.3

Civil service:
The organization, performance, and working conditions of employees paid from central, provincial or state government budgets.4
A certain number of values are generally associated with civil service, such as impartiality, integrity and dedication to public service.5

Three broad models of public administration are usually distinguished: traditional public administration; public management, including new public management (NPM); and an emerging model of responsive governance that emphasizes networks, greater openness and partnerships with civil society and the private sector.6 NPM is often contrasted with a more participatory local governance approach. A new approach in e-governance is also being encouraged, as a move away from the classic NPM strategy. Each model offers different principles, tools and techniques.
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Defining forms of governance

Three interrelated notions regarding issues of governance must be laid out, over which there is much controversy: governance, 'good' governance, and local governance. There is a great deal of debate over (a) the definition of the term 'governance' itself, and what it entails; and (b) the misuse of this term, in that it is often equated with Western liberal practices of governance.


While they vary in details, most scholars would agree with the definition of governance as "the formation and stewardship of the rules that regulate the public realm-- the space where state as well as economic and societal actors interact to make decisions. Governance is a voluntarist activity that helps define the terms and conditions, under which policies are made and implemented."7 It should be observed that governance might also be conceived of as a wider coordination system of various actors engaged in this process that enable public policy. This includes the role of government, an entity, therefore, that should be noted as a component of, but not synonymous with, governance. Finally, most scholars include, in their approach to governance, formal as well as informal rules that apply to how issues emerge in the public and are handled by the political system.8  Go to Notions encompassed in public administration

Good governance

In many policy papers and concept notes put forth by bilateral and multilateral actors, governance has normative values attached; more often than not, they actually refer to the notion of 'good' governance. In its most objective form, the quality of governance may be "measured in terms of how well the various actors handle the rules that make up the basic dimensions of the political regime."9 Many of the criteria for assessing governance are subjective, making it difficult to clearly delineate and understand 'good' and 'bad' practices.

The notion of good governance started to be used when, in the mid-1980s, the World Bank studied the conditions of success and failure of adjustment programs (comparative study contrasting success in East Asia with greater difficulties in Sub-Saharan Africa). During this period, international support was conditioned upon 'good governance,' related to the functioning of state structures, and to the states role in the market and relationship to civil society. The notion of 'good governance' has since progressively expanded and is now used by all donors who generally rely on the following normative indicators articulated by the World Bank: 10
  • Voice and accountability: the extent to which a country's citizens are able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media
  • Political stability and absence of violence: perceptions of the likelihood that the government will be destabilized or overthrown by unconstitutional or violent means, including domestic violence and terrorism.
  • Government effectiveness: the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the governments commitment to such policies.
  • Regulatory quality: the ability of the government to formulate and implement sound policies and regulations, which permit and promote private sector development.
  • Rule of law: the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, the police, and the courts, a well as the likelihood of crime and violence.
  • Control of corruption: the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as 'capture' of the state by elites and private interests.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) premises its characteristics of fragile states on the same foundation, observing that "fragile states exhibit a mix of institutional and policy implementation weaknesses. They tend to under-perform across all the dimensions of the World Banks Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA) index (economic management, structural policies, and social policies, with particular shortcomings in the quality of public sector institutions)."11 Thus, the notions used to measure of quality of governance are the same as those indicating state strength, a concept that may actually be misleading. The use of the notion 'good governance' by the World Bank and the IMF is often associated by its critics to the ideas of 'liberal democracy' and 'market economy,' an orientation that some consider to have ultimately been detrimental to peacebuilding in a number of countries. 

Even when roughly following these criteria, bilateral donors often tend to propose their own definition and qualifying characteristics, which may introduce additional normative concepts such as participation and deliberation as a central feature of governance. For instance, research undertaken by the United Kingdom Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA) argues: "governance is the sphere of public debate, partnership, interaction, dialogue and conflict entered into by local citizens and organisations and by local government."12 This tenet is seen as widely acceptable. Yet, in certain circumstances, or where used inappropriately, an over-reliance on participation may inflame cleavages. As with the 'market economy,' the measure of 'good' adheres not to objective, or context-based 'rules that regulate the public realm,' but rather to externally determined criteria for assessment.

As some critics have noticed, "the common denominator for all these agencies is the idea that 'good' governance is a reflection of what works in Western democracies. This normative or ethnocentric tendency is very much apparent in the recipes that the agencies provide to developing countries. So called best practices include multi-party politics, competitive market economies, decentralization, a 'lean' public service, and several other such ideas that are currently mainstream in Western countries and dispensed with through various institutional mechanisms in the international community. Their use of governance, therefore, is open-ended in its scope of coverage, yet normatively confined in orientation. It makes no real distinction between governance and other concepts such as policymaking or policy implementation."13

"Governance, in the end, is just a synonym for getting the political machinery to work better. 'Good' governance is to get it to work more specifically along lines identified as preferred practices by the donors and their supporters in Western Europe and North America."14

Local governance

Debates on governance and 'good' governance are influential when attempting to define local governance. As an analytic notion, scholars have defined local governance as, "the set of formal and informal rules, structures and processes defining the measures with which individuals and organizations can exercise power over the decisions by other stakeholders capable of affecting their welfare at the local levels."15 However, for many practitioners and policymakers, the ideology of 'good governance' has permeated the very definition of local governance, as exemplified in the description used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP): "Local governance comprises a set of institutions, mechanisms and processes, through which citizens and their groups can articulate their interests and needs, mediate their differences and exercise their rights and obligations at the local level."16 This UNDP definition places a much higher emphasis on the participatory nature, having the normative theme of participation as central to the very definition of local governance. While participation may be a vital feature to successful local governance, this is a debated subject in its own right.

Another issue has to do with how the 'local' is defined and by whom. Definitions of 'local' may be problematic if they copy/replicate structures of the past. In fact, so-called 'traditional' institutions and figures of authority have an evolving role, and may not always positively contribute to governance. In all cases, the definition of the 'local' has a strong impact on the forms of political structure and modes of governance that are supported and should be carefully assessed.
Link to case studies on Sierra Leone and South Africa

In many policy and practitioner publications, 'local' is defined very loosely, and is at times mistakenly correlated and conflated with the notion of 'local democracy,' definition of which is given greater specificity. An International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) publication exemplifies this, observing: "The first insight is that the local is a location where there is the capacity for great numbers of people to be actively involved in politics. Secondly, local politics and the need for local democracy can be justified on the grounds that it is only local institutions that have the capacity, interest, and detailed knowledge to oversee services and make decisions in tune with local conditions. In short, local democracy helps deliver effective accountability. Finally, the case for local democracy can be made by recognizing the sheer diversity of situations and needs between different localities. Local democracy enables us to cope with difference."17

The notions of local governance and local democracy are often associated with a series of other concepts such as citizenship and community, deliberation, political education, good government and social welfare.18 However, despite their commonalities, they do not represent the same idea.

Local Democracy: Key Concepts

Citizenship and community
Local community participation is the cornerstone of modern notions of citizenship because its institutions and decision-making procedures may allow for a more direct form of democracy in which the voices of ordinary individuals can be heard most easily.

Democracy is more than elections. It involves meaningful dialogue, debate, and discussion in an effort to solve problems that arise in the community. Deliberation is more than listening to citizen complaints. A truly deliberative democracy is a give-and-take dialogue among all interest groups in a community about the key decisions and actions they face together.

Deliberative Democracy
A method of determining the popular will through discussion, dialogue, and give-and-take. This may be seen as a supplement or as a replacement for electoral democracy.

Political education
Local democracy facilitates political education. That is, citizen participation allows individuals to gain knowledge about community affairs that otherwise resides with elected public officials and professional city administrators. More informed and educated citizens make democracy decision-making by the people possible and more effective. Participation is about closing the gap between the political elite and members of the community.

Good government and social welfare
John Stuart Mill and other advocates of participatory democracy at the local level argued that unlocking the virtue and intelligence of the populace would foster good government and promote social welfare. That is, democracy tends to enhance good relations among the citizens, building a community that is self-reliant and public-spirited.

Source: Sisk, T. et al (eds). Democracy at the Local Level: The International IDEA Handbook on Participation, Representation, Conflict Management and Governance. Stockholm: International IDEA, 2001: 13, 222.

Administration, governance, and government

It is important to briefly delimit notions of and interplay between administration, governance, and government. Whereas public administration deals with those bodies that comprise the core of largely appointed officials that manage public processes and policy, and government refers to those officials appointed typically to the legislature or executive, governance is the space in which these actors operate. Thus, both administration and government are actors of governance.

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Defining participation

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) observes: "Participation refers to the active and constructive engagement of people. It is a bottom-up process within which people enter (and often help to create) spaces for interaction with and influencing of decision-making mechanisms. Participation is an action undertaken by citizens."19 This is a particularly localized approach to the notion of participation. Other conceptions, such as that employed by the World Bank, which views it as "the process through which stakeholders influence and share control over priority setting, policy-making, resource allocations and access to public goods and services,"20 conceive of this term in a broader way. In this regard, there is divergence between 'popular' participation, which refers specifically to engagement of disadvantaged populations, and stakeholder participation, which highlights that other actors are involved beyond beneficiary groups.21 Conflation over the breadth of actors included may influence interpretations of recommendations on these themes. Many groups working on participation issues, however, encourage participation specifically of beneficiary groups.

Close to the notion of participation is the idea of participatory democracy, a form of government which political philosopher John Stuart Mill qualified, noting, "There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general."22

These defining and qualifying characteristics encourage debate on the use of mechanisms of participation, such as electoral democracy, versus those of deliberation, defined as "a method of determining the popular will through discussion, dialogue, and give-and-take. This may be seen as a supplement or as a replacement for electoral democracy."23  While these points may not always be mutually exclusive, practitioners may come across contexts where one tenet requires prioritization over the other, highlighting the importance of context in determining which mechanism of participation is most appropriate.

1. Protais Musoni, Reconstructing Governance and Public Administration Institutions for Effective, Conflict-Sensitive Rule of Law (United Nations Network in Public Administration "Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting," Yaound, Cameroon, July 2003), 5.
2. Dennis A. Rondinelli, Reforming Public Administration in Postconflict Societies: Implications for International Assistance (Bethesda, MD: The Mitchell Group, Inc. for the United States Agency for International Development, 2006), 2.
3. T. Sisk et al (eds), Democracy at the Local Level: The International IDEA Handbook on Participation, Representation, Conflict Management and Governance, (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2001), 78.
4. Rondinelli, Reforming Public Administration in Postconflict Societies: Implications for International Assistance, 3.
5. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Unlocking the Human Potential for Public Sector Performance: World Public Sector Report 2005 (New York: United Nations, 2005), ix.
6. Ibid., iv.
7. Goran Hyden, Julis Court and Kenneth Mease, Making Sense of Governance: The Need for Involving Local Stakeholders (London: Overseas Development Institute,2003), 5.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. World Bank, A Decade of Measuring the Quality of Governance: Governance Matters 2007 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2007), 2-3.
11. International Monetary Fund, The Funds Engagement in Fragile States and Post-Conflict CountriesA Review of ExperienceIssues and Options (Washington, DC: IMF, 2008), 8.
12. United Kingdom Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA), "Definitions of Sustainable Governance: Governance."
13. Hyden, Court and Mease, Making Sense of Governance: The Need for Involving Local Stakeholders, 2.
14. Ibid.
15. Keng-Ming Hsu and Chun-Yuan Wang, "The Institutional Design and Citizen Participation in Local Governance," (In Jak Jabes (ed). Selected Papers from the Launching Conference of the Network of Asia-Pacific Schools and Institutes of Public Administration and Governance, The Role of Public Administration in Alleviating Poverty and Improving Governance, Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, December 6-8, 2004), 335.
16. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Decentralised Governance for Development: A Combined Practice Note on Decentralisation, Local Governance and Urban/Rural Development (New York: United Nations, 2004), 4.
17. Gerry Stoker, "Local Governance and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century," (In T. Sisk et al, eds, Democracy at the Local Level: The International IDEA Handbook on Participation, Representation, Conflict Management and Governance. Stockholm: International IDEA 2001), 29.
18. Sisk et al (eds), Democracy at the Local Level, 13.
19. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Participatory Dialogue: Towards a Stable, Safe and Just Society for All (New York: United Nations, 2007), 11.
20. World Bank, "What is Participation?," World Bank Participation and Civic Engagement.
21. World Bank, The World Bank Participation Sourcebook, (Washington, DC: World Bank), 6.
22. John Stuart Mill, Chapter 3: "That the ideally best Form of Government is Representative Government," (In Representative Government. By John Stuart Mill,1881), 31-32.
23. Sisk et al (eds), Democracy at the Local Level, 222.

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