A view of the Philippine House of Representatives. Policymakers and institutions need to balance the traditional perspective with citizens' perspective for the governance agenda to evolve from just being the “flavor of the month.” Photo by: Victor Villanueva / CC BY-NC-ND

Ever since the governance issue became a focus of the international development community in the 1990s, many scholars, donors, policymakers and international organizations have struggled to turn it into a concrete policy agenda.

While the statistical association between different measures of institutional quality and development indicators is well-established, building good governance in a way that drives meaningful development remains a huge challenge.

How do you improve governance? How do you assess the development impact of such improvement? These are burning questions that for decades had to be addressed without hard evidence, indisputable success stories or simple recipes.

Under these circumstances — and under increasing pressure from political leaders — many policymakers and development agencies turned to what was at hand: the professions, disciplines and crosscutting systems that are the core of government bureaucracies. So civil service reforms, audit systems, public budgeting and administrative streamlining dominated the stage in the so-called second and third-generation of development reforms.

Many of these reforms were necessary in countries hit by inefficiency and corruption. However, policymakers were too often confronted with the difficulty of demonstrating success, sustaining reforms over time and moving from localized interventions to more systemic change. This created a very unstable role for governance in the development agenda, with the issue dropping in and out of fashion so often that there never seems to be enough focus by politicians to make a lasting impact.

Changing this pattern may require to get back to one basic tenet: Governance is not about bureaucracies; it is essentially about citizens. After all, governments, public institutions and civil servants are expected to serve citizens, right?

Citizenship encapsulates the essence of the interaction between people and institutions: rights and obligations that should be guaranteed, delivered and enforced by public bodies and agencies. But while many public servants would be ready to acknowledge that they work to serve citizens, public administrations are too often self-centered and obsessed by their rules, procedures and positions.

For the governance agenda to evolve from being a policy flavor of the month into a discipline that is taken seriously, it’s time for policymakers and institutions to balance the traditional government perspective with a citizen’s perspective.

A citizen’s perspective of governance does not demand a huge theoretical leap or a political revolution. It should be enough, when confronting institutional issues, to ask, “OK, but what does this mean for ordinary citizens?” This simple question may unleash many new ideas for the substance, the process and the measurement of what should drive institutional reform.

On the substance of the governance agenda, specialists and policymakers may start by asking what it takes to be a citizen here and now. In most countries this is reflected in constitutional and legal guarantees, but many people can be prevented from exercising them because they lack legal identity. The World Bank estimates that more than 2 billion people currently lack a legally recognized ID in developing countries. Citizenship should also involve personal security and protection from hardship, which people persistently rank as top concerns in opinion surveys in developing countries.

A citizen’s perspective can also enrich some of the more traditional areas of governance work. If professionalization is better linked to the quality of public services or public procurement to service delivery, these agendas can gain the attention and the relevance that they need to succeed.

A citizen’s perspective can catalyze new thinking in shaping how a country makes and enforces its laws. Embracing a fair, transparent and inclusive approach to designing public policies and programs, as well as transparency and consultation throughout implementation, may matter as much as technical excellence or administrative rationality when it comes to their success.

Citizens should also be seen as the final judges of what we mean by good governance. Public opinion is far more than volatile or fuzzy perceptions, especially when it shapes trust in institutions. Institutional trust can and should be considered the ultimate impact of governance reforms to the extent that it changes behavior in ways that improve well-being and reduces the costs of implementing public policies. Citizens’ trust in institutions may in fact be the missing link between governance reforms and development that policymakers have been seeking for a long time.

A citizens’ perspective approach to governance is especially challenging for some developing countries. Many rely on small states with very limited resources to address a multitude of economic and social challenges. In some countries, states are very fragile or they are perceived by citizens as more of a threat than an ally. But nothing could be more wrong in these places than to start the long road of institution building by walking in the wrong direction.

Thankfully, there is strong evidence today that this is well-understood by a growing number of developing and emerging countries. The geotagging of reconstruction projects in the Philippines, the plan to provide unique identification to 1.2 billion people in India, the Participatory Anti-Corruption Initiative in the Dominican Republic and the drive toward decentralization in Morocco are all efforts that reflect growing attention to citizens and civil society.

Similarly, the academic community’s growing attention to inclusive institutions and the potential inclusion of peaceful and inclusive societies as part of the 2015 sustainable development goals reveal a greater recognition of the powerful role citizenship plays within the development agenda.

All this suggests it is time to acknowledge that the governance agenda is going back to the citizens it essentially belongs to. The World Bank aims to be part of this fundamental change.

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About the author

  • Mario Marcel

    Mario Marcel, a Chilean and Spanish national, is the senior director of the World Bank's Governance Global Practice, where he works on financial management, procurement, open government, social accountability, judicial systems and inclusive institutions, among other topics. Prior to this, he served as the deputy director for Public Governance and Territorial Development at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also previously worked at the Inter-American Development Bank.