Our urban governance

Between Complication and Complexity The word governance is used frequently, and with widely varying meanings, by international relations specialists, experts in political-administrative systems, media commentators, sociologists, geographers and economists.
Dr. Peter Butera Bazimya
Dr. Peter Butera Bazimya

Between Complication and Complexity

The word governance is used frequently, and with widely varying meanings, by international relations specialists, experts in political-administrative systems, media commentators, sociologists, geographers and economists.

The term good governance has also become a quality mark iissue by international organisations.

Among this plurality of users and uses, and multiple possible meanings and definitions, the concept of governance is sometimes used to evoke opposing realities.

For example, certain economists who promoted the concept a few decades ago used it to describe ways of structuring a company which would enable it to avoid the transaction costs imposed on it by the market.

In the 1990s, the time when different financial scandals were being exposed, it cropped up in the expression corporate governance, to affirm the need for control by principals (the shareholders) over agents (management bodies).

In its more recent use by political analysts, it describes an approach to public administration which uses forms of public-private partnership in order to improve the way in which market mechanisms are integrated.

In other words, while different disciplines use the concept, it does not necessarily always refer to the same reality or the same subject of research, and therefore cannot be given a strict definition which is shared and adopted by all.

In the fields of political science and sociology, as well as the fields of geography and urban planning which interest us more particularly here, the concept of governance describes a process of transforming and reformulating approaches to public affairs which involves developing systems for ordering the various players at local level in societies.

The success of the concept is apparent in two different movements which have arisen out of it simultaneously: (1) a relative withdrawal of central powers and traditional forms of government, and (2) a strengthening of local governments and their various instrumented, within the regions, and especially within the big cities, hence the notion of urban governance.

This notion, which is often spoken of as an alternative to traditional approaches to government (centralised, hierarchical, top-down, bureaucratic); puts forward or promotes an approach based on public action networks and mechanisms aimed at cooperation, organisation and even integration in the systems and mechanisms of a wide diversity of public and private stakeholders.

This integrated interpretation of governance is close to the first meaning given to it by economists in relation to transaction costs.

But while for the economists it was a case of creating a transaction cost-free zone through firms, for the public authorities it is a question of actually forging links with other players in the market through public-private partnerships.

The vision is to improve coordination between players in the public and private sectors that are operating relatively independently of each other in a particular local area and within their own particular constraints.

This type of integration is often what current urban policy aspires to in its partnership-focused, cross-disciplinary, locally-based policies that seek to go beyond the traditional partitioning of public life and the bureaucratic and corporatist approaches which are a feature of it.

The new approach aspires to cities being a joint production by all its various players.

It is worth mentioning, however, that few of the political definitions of governance make explicit reference to democratic systems, which are however alluded to in the second definition of governance suggested by the economists.

We will, therefore, sketch a broad definition of governance, in order to bring different variations on the theme together.

Governance may be seen as the conscious and deliberate formation of formal or informal coalitions of a variety of different interests or players for the purpose of provision of goods and services, which could not be done through the separate actions of the players taken in isolation.

It implies new approaches to decision-making at different levels, based on multilateral relations between players, within structures perceived as being increasingly complex and fragmented.

According to this definition, the dimension of representative democracy, either participatory or, as we will be suggesting in this article... contractual democracy, should therefore play an important role.

Why is urban governance needed? There are a number of different theories usually put forward to explain the emergence of the concept.

They are based on the various problems and changes in society which the concept attempts to address.

The first theory put forward emphasises the fact that the main explanatory models have run out of steam, and that approaches to action have been partially reconfigured along genuinely multidisciplinary lines.

It is a case of questioning models which are too simplistic in relation to the real situation; which appear to be more complex than these overviews implied.

From this perspective, the notion of governance is being developed not so much to consider processes for ordering societies that have become more complex, but rather to finally address a complex situation which until now has gone largely unacknowledged.

Is it not the case that until now, the reality of the situation has been seen simply as the operation of certain abstract mechanisms, such as the supposed omnipotence of state intervention, the domination of capital and even... of divine powers?

The second group of theories relates to certain major changes in the way in which developed world societies are governed.

The first theory relates to what is seen as a proliferation of power structures in advanced capitalist societies, with the state no longer acting as the sole guarantor of the general interest (neo-liberal theories).

Fragmentation and redistribution of powers and multiplication of decision-making centres are supposedly the norm.

This loss of the state’s centrality, which is affecting some countries more than others, is seen as going hand in hand with an increase in power for certain other bodies, notably the major industrial and financial companies (the internationalisation and globalisation issue), supra-national bodies (such as the East African Community), and local level authorities, including those in the big cities.

Whereas at one time the cities were the ground on which state-devised regional policy was put into action (social and town planning policies), they now appear to be in a prime position to play an innovative role in reinventing and reformulating public policy.

Towns and urban areas therefore seem to the ideal place in which to reconcile the contradictions vexing global societies which are nonetheless rooted in separate cultures and territories.

It is at this scale and within these local areas that the tensions at play within a triple system of interactions and often contradictions between the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) can be managed.

This management relies on conflict cooperation mechanisms. The first system of interactions to be managed by this type of cooperation concerns the relationship between the economy and social affairs.

Economies play an active role in worldwide competition, thus creating wealth, as well as generating unemployment and various types of exclusion.

They therefore need to ensure that social cohesion in the country is maintained, while running the risk of restricting the performance and adaptability of their economic players through taxes. This is the equitable dimension of sustainable development.

The second set of interactions to be managed concerns the relationship between the economy and the environment.

Economies in competition with each other cause fragmentation of their respective territories, as well as wastage and pollution, and while running the risk of exacerbating competition for space, it is necessary to implement public policies aimed at territorial cohesion, which would also be funded by the taxpayer, thus holding back the momentum of the economy.

This is the viable dimension of sustainable development. Finally, the third set of interactions concerns the relationship between social affairs and the environment.

Public policies aimed at social cohesion and territorial cohesion are certainly not always compatible with each other.

Social equilibrium in some areas can only be established by foregoing the satisfaction of some demands, which leads to social confrontation within urban areas, but also within socio-political coalitions, meaning that careful diplomacy is required in the local forums.

This is the liveable dimension of sustainable development. Urban authorities must address these three major factors, as they need to reinforce citizenship and democracy in their localities perhaps more than at other levels, amid rapidly changing socio-economic and political environnements.

The need to address these three sets of interactions raises the question as to the most appropriate levels and methods of managing them.

They cannot be managed simply by relying on market forces, or simply by issuing regulations centrally.

In fact, if we assume that the areas of social and environmental affairs are not to be restricted to merely undoing the damage or  horrors wrought by economies, but are areas of work with issues in their own right, neither the market nor legislation are really capable of finding a balance between these three interwoven, contradictory elements.

In order to coordinate and harmonise them, political choices need to be implemented at all local, regional, national or continental levels, mostly on a joint, subsidiary basis, especially at the level of local communities, towns, regions or urban networks.

There is no single relevant politico-administrative scale. At each of the levels, compromises need to be found on which relevant socio-political coalitions can be built, but it is clear that towns and urban areas have increasingly become the major collective players able to organise these systems of checks and balances.

For the time being, in spite of many different initiatives taken by joint regional institutions, member states remain reluctant to devolve more power to urban areas, in the form of direct partnership between the urban regions, which could lead to the states losing a degree of control.

There is a third, and often neglected explanatory theory which can be called upon to explain the emergence of these new forms of urban governance.

It relates to the transformation which has taken place in urban development, moving away from the making cities concept of the boom era of urban development (the 1930s and 1970s) to the concept of making with the cities, in other words working with the geographical area, the inhabitants and the various stakeholders involved.

This shift is characterised by a movement away from production-oriented development on virgin sites (mass urbanisation of the first agricultural belts), whose features were more or less ignored, towards a reclaiming of previously developed spaces (renovation of buildings, urban renewal and redeployment, transport), which involves working with the local areas’ basic elements, in other words, place, people living there and institutions responsible for managing the interactions between them.

This reclaiming requires that these basic elements of urban areas be taken into consideration, and that the actions of the various stakeholders are more synchronised and complementary of each other.

In terms of public affairs, this shift in perspective has had various different ramifications that are at the centre of what is referred to as governance, and borrows from certain approaches which in some instances first appeared a very long time ago at local level in the different countries.

Very often, the new is nothing more than the old in new packaging. And so, there is a shift from the principle of fragmentation and balkanisation of urban spaces to the principle of cooperation between communities, a movement which actually began in the late 19th century.

This movement towards reinventing politico-administrative boundaries has never stopped and still continues, with cross-border, interregional or transnational cooperation; from the principle of hierarchy to that of subsidiarity and vertical integration (contractual, multi-level approaches, combining top-down and bottom-up perspectives), a tendency which began throughout Europe and in North America during the 1970s; from the principle of sectoral separation and partitioning to the principle of cross-disciplinary work and horizontal integration (partnership, joint ministerial & joint departmental work networking).

Out of all the forms of cooperation presented above, this latter form is, without doubt, the most difficult to put into practice, and all the countries come up against resistance in this area.

Whilst the first two types of cooperation led to a widening of powers and prerogatives for the political-administrative machinery, the third type leads to conflict between the different traditional spheres of competence, professional cultures, codes of practice, routines, and bureaucratic approaches. No-one is actually prepared to cede the smallest amount of power or territory.

Within this theory, therefore, governance is a way of getting around the traditional workings of administrations (using the machinery metaphor) by creating networks to join together the various players involved in them.

Authoritarian, directive, generally top-down approaches (central power over a particular remit and a geographical area with clearly demarcated boundaries) need to give way to contractual cooperation (local, vertical and above all horizontal) between public and private stakeholders, within less homogeneous and sometimes more fragmented spaces, in which limits and boundaries have become more blurred.

To paraphrase the modernisers’ conspiracy, this is all part of a reformist conspiracy. Various different initiatives taken by countries are providing an opportunity to bring about these types of cooperation.

The integrated approaches to sustainable urban development which have been springing up in most countries since the 1980s and were picked up by many others in the 1990s are certainly interesting experiments in the construction of these new forms of governance.

Email: bbazimya@yahoo.co.uk