If we focus on Governance Outcomes, we need to focus indicators on specific Organizational Fields: Whole of government indicators—or government only indicators—make little sense
Last week I did a blog post on my ideas about linking governance indicators to outcomes. A range of people have responded positively to the idea, though most via email. Try writing comments in and let’s get a conversation going on the topic.
Anyway, I thought I would provide some more discussion on what I see as the implications of focusing governance indicators on outcomes and share specific examples of how this may be done. I will do this in the next few days. I aim to be a little provocative and get some responses…so fire away, please!
What is the appropriate unit of analysis in governance?
To kick things off, I thought it might be useful to think about the way in which an outcomes focus might challenge the unit of analysis in governance discussion and measurement. Given the theoretical approach I outlined last week, it is my belief that governance can, by definition, be assessed only in the context of specific fields in which outcomes are produced. I mean something specific about ‘field’ here, building on the definition in organizational theory: “The particular set of organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life” (see DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). The field includes “suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations” involved in getting things done in a particular functional area.
Such a system is an appropriate unit of analysis for governance research because it is the domain in which outcomes are produced (yes, a bit repetitive but important). Note a few things. First, The Government is in a sense too large a unit of analysis for a governance indicator. Governments are engaged in multiple fields producing multiple outcomes. Governance indicators that pretend to say something about an entire government are problematic from this perspective. Do they refer to governance as it relates to child health outcomes or to educational outcomes or to safety and security outcomes. Or do we think that one set of questions gives valid information about governance issues relating to all three? Second, The Government is in a sense too small a unit of analysis for a governance indicator. Fields involve multiple players, particularly principals and agents, who are constantly engaged in allocating, receiving and managing authority to do specific things, with particular functional results expected. The quality of governance is reflected in how well the entire field engages to produce these results. National governments (the focus of many governance indicators) are usually only one player in any given field. We need to go beyond measuring governance within and through national governments to link outcomes and governance indicators.
The implication, therefore, is that it really makes no sense to have a ‘governance score’ for governments in Mauritius or Botswana or China or Bolivia. We should have indicators for the fields in which outcomes are produced in these countries, thus ‘the child health sector in Mauritius’ and ‘the safety and security domain in Botswana’ etc.
If we focus on fields, we need to expect variation and complexity
One should note some additional important features of organizational fields (as discussed by Richard Scott in his classic text on organizations). They come in different sizes and with different relational structures (often driven by resource access). This can yield fields that are placid and do not change very much with time, disturbed or turbulent and subject to many shocks, randomized, reactive or clustered (See Emery & Trist, 1965). In each variation the relational and normative governance challenges may be different, and one should expect very different governance processes to have become embedded. One should also expect different structural and process solutions in each.
Organizational fields also reflect different authority typologies—or ways in which authority is cognitively and normatively influenced. In some places one should expect social choice to determine who has authority and how it is exercised. In others authority will be more coalitional, and in others it will be federative. Authority structures could also be unitary. Once again, the different authority typologies will probably yield different solutions to governance problems. These differences also emerge because of physical differences in fields—some being geographically centered and some being dispersed. A central organizing mechanism may make the first work. A decentralized mechanism may be appropriate to facilitate best outcomes in the second.
Building on this idea, governments can be expected to play different roles in different fields, largely because the sets of players and institutional logics differ in different fields, rates of change in fields vary, and demands on controlling and shaping behavior are not always the same. The education and health care fields look very different in the USA, for example. The roles of federal, state and local governments differ between these two fields, as does the relative size and scope of engagement by private and non-profit players.
These differences matter because public sector governance is about the exercise of authority by government agents, on behalf of citizen principals, to maximize the welfare of those principals; and all of these elements are field-specific. In some fields citizens delegate authority to government to regulate, in other fields to provide services directly.
So, governance indicators should focus on fields…where outcomes emerge…but with flexibility to reflect context.
As a result of the expected variation in structures between fields within and across countries, and the implications of such for governmental roles, we believe that governance indicators should be defined by the field in which outcomes are produced, players can be identified, and authority structures delineated. This allows governance indicators to look like specific rather than general health measures. Prominent governance indicators pay indirect homage to this, including the WGI, which separates “government effectiveness” from “rule of law” in its components; but these are categories of interest and not defined areas in which authority is exercised—the key driver of the governance definition. As a result, the measures become difficult to interpret. Practitioners, policy-makers and researchers would be better served with indicators focused on specific outcomes in specific fields that make immediate sense and can be acted upon.
I see the child health arena as one field, with identifiable outcomes and navigable organizational fields—where one can identify key agents, organizations, organizing logics and systems connecting and structuring such (even though these do vary across countries and over time, shown in studies on changes to health care fields). Child health is the complex product of multiple players bringing multiple inputs to bear in these fields, under specific authority structures, with different effects in different settings. (Other field-based studies include Beaumont, 2003, on anti-poverty systems and Parto, 2005, on waste subsystems in the Netherlands and the UK and Knill & Lehmkuhl, 2002, on regulation of the internet.)