Alan Hudson from ONE (www.alanhudson.info) recently asked me to summarize my core ideas on what a future governance agenda should look like in development. He suggested I start with the concluding sections of my 2008 paper on Governance Indicators in Oxford Development Studies, follow it with reference to the 2010 piece on Good Government Means Different Things in Governance, and close by pointing to proposals in the 2010 Oxford Development Studies article on outcome-based governance indicators.
It is a good challenge.
To shorten things, here are two basic ideas on new ways of thinking about governance indicators and doing governance reform.
First: Governance work needs to be contextualized. We know that context influences what governments are challenged to do, what scope there is to adopt specific processes etc. We don't always know how context matters, however, or what dimensions of context make the biggest difference. We need better research on this. In the mean-time, all governance indicators and governance work must be adjusted for context to give fair and reasonable perspectives on quality of government.
What I mean is that, while we know the USA has better scores on all indicators than Pakistan, does this matter? The question is whether the USA has governance quality that reflects its developed context--and if Pakistan's governance quality is lagging, leading or middling when compared with other lower income countries. Roger Hay used to speak about measuring the ability of a country's governance to 'box at its weight'. The USA is a heavyweight but may box like a lightweight in some areas. Pakistan may be boxing above its weight.
I am not aware of any measures that allow us to see this kind of picture (apart from the 2010 ODS paper), and I am certainly not aware of reforms that account for this; systems in the USA are routinely seen as relevant to places as different as Pakistan.
Second: Governance needs to be focused on functionality and not form. What I mean is simply that governance indicators that reward countries for 'looking better' often complicate the process of making countries better in a functional way. Indicators reward countries for having liberalized financial sectors on paper, for example, or laws that require meritocratic civil service, or light regulatory burdens on businesses. But in many countries these formal processes, laws and systems exist in form only and are not functional. They create a picture of effectiveness that is not necessarily real and make it hard to move towards achieving real functionality.
Measures should assess whether governments are doing the job, with less focus on how they do this. It matters more if countries are keeping infant mortality rates low, for instance, than if they are introducing the most transparent health system. It matters more if countries' budgets are effectively implemented than if they have a multi-year budget that no-one takes seriously. It matters more if small business is growing with government support than if the regulations to start a business are low or high.
I am not arguing that form and function are divorced, and there may be cases where measuring the former helps give us a picture of the latter. We know very little about this, however. Given the influence of context, many countries do not find lower regulatory burdens leading to better business (even though indicators promise it will be so). Similarly, modern management systems have improved budgeting in some countries but many countries have reformed to the hilt on the advice of international actors but without improved functionality.
Focus on function...and let the answer about appropriate form emerge with time.
These are basic ideas. Are they too basic?