Our urban governance

Between Complication and Complexity Governance in search of democracy:  Research on governance does not explicitly deal with democracy as a major topic in its analyses, though the subject is at the heart of current discourse on urban questions. And yet, by turning the field in which public authorities operate upside down and introducing opportunities for discussion, debate and negotiation between different public and private stakeholders, governance has the potential to create new socio-political configurations in towns and cities.

Between Complication and Complexity

Governance in search of democracy:  Research on governance does not explicitly deal with democracy as a major topic in its analyses, though the subject is at the heart of current discourse on urban questions.

And yet, by turning the field in which public authorities operate upside down and introducing opportunities for discussion, debate and negotiation between different public and private stakeholders, governance has the potential to create new socio-political configurations in towns and cities.

However, are we fully aware of the implications of these transformations and have we studied them sufficiently, with all their consequences and possible deviations?

While political power and its manifestations have softened somewhat in the shift from government to governance, they have certainly not disappeared.

Frontiers and constraints may have become more flexible, but this does not mean that a less authoritarian, less discriminatory and more civilised world is emerging. On the contrary, one wonders whether the proliferation and spread of these different forms of governance are a sign of even more complicated procedures and a greater loss of control by citizens over the politico-administrative sphere.

Amid the contractual conventions which link the states with local authorities and public bodies with private stakeholders, where does real political accountability now lie?

Are we not already seeing a detrimental watering down of responsibilities in several areas, largely due to the proliferation of contractual forms?

Where does this leave the principle of monitoring and accountability? Finally, perhaps the price to be paid for the gain in terms of less monolithic decision-making power and flexible implementation is a loss of access to services and means of redress for citizens.

In reality, governance approaches tend to sideline the conflictual nature of relationships between the different players, favouring more consensual approaches, as suggested by the notion of partnership.

We do stress this aspect: governance which is seen to be successful relies on the existence of fairly strong agreement between the parties, as well as the marginalisation or downright exclusion of potentially disruptive interests or groups, or relies on these interests and groups being persuaded to accept the restrictions and goals of governance, as determined by the dominant groups.

This is the age-old topic of the sovereignty debate, namely the issue of consenting subjects.

In favouring negotiation between different players, governance does not really face the fact that such a meeting of interests is not automatic, and even when it does result in agreement, given the way in which this is arrived at (by excluding some interests), it does not necessarily work towards the common interest.

In addition, since it is extended to bodies other than the legitimate political powers, governance has extra political power (partial legitimisation of the participants around the table) which is able to subjugate excluded players, who have no change of restricting this power unless they form alternative or competing partnerships.

Is this a real possibility, given the unevenness of the forces at play?  In some situations (partnerships built on the fringes of public power), the mechanisms of governance can even grant public power prerogatives to lobby groups, even though these players have no legitimate right to such powers.

Carried in part on the wave of the neo-liberal economy, this revamped idea of local government has barely left room for the fundamental principals laid down by liberal political doctrine, namely the protection of individual interests in the face of omnipotent public or private powers, which are consequently given free reign.

It has not done this, either by restricting fields of action, one of the possible means advocated by liberal political doctrine, since by nature this form of’ government does not recognise boundaries; nor via the second route of a balance of powers and counter-powers.

Here again, by favouring the building of partnerships between public and private stakeholders, governance prevents one set of ambitions from being pitted against another, one of the cardinal principles laid down by the founding fathers of liberal doctrine.

Urban governance and its multiple configurations of players barely takes into consideration the question of democracy, in three particular areas in which it tends to suffer from chronic inadequacies in urban areas, that are detrimental to the proactive regional approach: the political under-representation of urban residents (though participatory democracy would appear to be the answer to a problem that the political parties do not want to or cannot deal with), the under-representation of women and the under-representation or non-representation of foreign nationals.

Urban governance can hardly provide solutions to these failings which it did not bring about, however at a time when the possibility of a new attempt to define a region as a political entity is being discussed, is this not an opportunity to work towards progress in these areas?

In the first instance, would it not be useful to reform the mechanisms of representative democracy and delegation, by restoring the balance in favour of urban areas, in favour of women, who are playing an increasingly important role in the areas most affected by the process of urban fragmentation, and in favour of foreign residents, who mostly live in urban areas, and who any region with its ageing democracy will have an increasing need for?

Similarly, would it not be helpful to restore transparency in public affairs and the control mechanisms for the decision-making process, by reinforcing the separation and balance of powers at local level, as well as by simplifying and clarifying responsibilities between the different political levels (subsidiarity)?

Having said this, it is however worth questioning whether, in the context of the move towards service economies and intangible economies, forms of governance may offer a possible avenue for the emergence of democratic practices, participatory or otherwise.

Participatory democracy is problematic, as it is currently less in demand than it was a few decades ago, when the subject of empowerment, in the sense of access to and sharing of political power, was trumpeted more as a trophy than as something which had been conceded, or even granted and instrumentalised for ulterior motives by the powers that be.

In view of the social and spatial fragmentation processes at work in all the big cities and urban regions, this participatory proposal is failing to engage communities and social groups, which are finding other ways of organising themselves, via different rapidly expanding and often stigmatised networks (community, religious, fundamentalist, or even mafia-style networks, which are called the poaching economy) as well as networks based on primary and local support links, which need to be taken into consideration more.

It seems that we need to go further in our discussion of this widespread co-production of goods, services, activities and information in today’s societies.

Most of the services referred to as services for users, clients, claimants or consumers are services whose existence depends on the participation of these people. We use the word governance because the government’ whether this be the state or local government is no longer able to govern alone (if it ever was), and needs to collaborate and co-produce with other players and partners.

This implies, of course that procedures and processes capable of integrating activities and managing the interfaces between them need to be put in place (which necessarily involves bringing together a wide diversity of players).

In one way, it can be seen as governing networks. In the light of the inadequacies mentioned above, the efficacy of representative democracy in this area is limited.

Rather than relying instead on the concept of participatory democracy, we need to examine how a contractual democracy, for want of a more appropriate term, might look.

This would not involve superimposing contractual approaches onto the principles of democratic decision-making, but rather looking at how these approaches can enrich democratic processes at this favourable time when we are witnessing deep changes in the boundaries between spheres of competence and power, at regional and global levels.

It is a question of finding a form of democracy which is fit for purpose, effective, and able to take on board the transformations at work in our societies, in order to give the players who occupy this frontier territory of new cities their rightful place.

Conclusion: All societies in the world are facing challenges which are rooted in the three spheres of activity identified by the 1987 Brundtland Report: the economic sphere, the social sphere and the environmental sphere.

The first challenge is in the economic sphere. In a climate of accelerated globalisation and widespread open competition, the old industrial economies are now obliged to occupy the very high value-added sectors requiring highly qualified workers.

They are being obliged to shed sectors which are less competitive in this environment and which require less well-qualified workers. Added to which, outsourcing too many countries now affects highly skilled jobs, especially in the basic research and developmental sectors.

In this context, what will become of these sectors, and above all, these people? What is the social usefulness of the poorest groups in open, outward-looking, post-industrial economies (predominance of the export base over the domestic base)?

Can these poorly qualified people find useful employment in this domestic base, which cannot be outsourced and for which funding needs to be found?

How should we manage competition between the towns and urban regions in order to attract and keep resources (ideas, public and private and national and international investment, qualified people, better-off households, especially retired people, etc.)?

Research urgently needs to be undertaken in towns and urban areas into the major economic trends at work (development of the economy towards services, services to individuals, intangible economy, etc.) and into their consequences in terms of the spatial distribution of production factors (capital and workforce).

Work needs to be done in particular into telecommuting, home working and mobile working, linked with the high value-added intangible economy, a subject which is strangely absent from most reports on local development.

The second challenge relates to the social reproduction system. Faced with the above-mentioned economic challenges, the institutional response has hit an impasse, made worse by the crumbling and unravelling of traditional support systems.

Both public and private income distribution and redistribution systems are now operating on a just-in-time basis and are unable to guarantee social reproduction on an extended scale.

Given the average consumption levels western societies have reached, one salary is no longer enough to reproduce the manpower represented by one working age person and their family.

A sign of the failure of tax deductions and assistive redistribution systems, we are witnessing a general decrease in the capillary action of socio-economic systems, which explains the failure of economic revivals to have a knock-on effect throughout society (weak trickle-down or ripple effect of growth).

Moreover, social fragmentation in local areas and the weakening of institutional support systems prompt individuals and groups to seek community-based support systems, often along ethnic or geographical lines, which runs the risk of political instrumentalisation and balkanisation of local areas (whether this be in the form of the gated communities of the wealthier classes or so-called ethnic communities).

Added to this, the demographic trend in many areas (ageing population, non-reproduction of age groups) and the rapid deterioration of living conditions in other parts of the world, made worse by climate change will lead to increased migration towards the the developed countries, on an unprecedented scale.

The third challenge is that of local issues related to the environmental sphere.

Whilst we are witnessing a narrowing of the gap between the development of the countries and the regions, social fragmentation is increasing within local urban areas  on top of which these areas are facing major environmental challenges: exhausted non-renewable resources, pollution, deterioration of urban ecosystems, a growing ecological footprint, with the increased use of renewable natural resources, and heightened natural and social risks. We need to consider a change of paradigm, involving space-time relationships.

Due to the development of transport technology (cars, planes, television and internet) and its democratisation (an interesting expression!), we are able to travel further and consume more in the same space of time.

This comes at a cost, though this is not accounted for in GDP calculations, in terms of the mass destruction of non-renewable resources (land, air, water, fossil fuels), which in turn has a significant impact on the attractiveness of towns and regions (air and water pollution, not to mention pollution form sound, vibrations and electromagnetic waves) for businesses, which have become more demanding with the question of globalisation.

Research is needed in this area, in view of the economic changes that are underway (especially the intangible economy), to enable us to review the mobility question of telecommuting and home working).

However, while the 1987 Brundtland report advocates interaction between these separate spheres, proposing that they should be meshed together, it does not pay sufficient attention to the fact that this relationship will not be achieved spontaneously by the market, and that political intervention will be required, but not the type of political intervention we have become accustomed to.

The biggest challenge for so-called developed countries lies precisely in their ability to create new interactions between these three spheres of activity and hence to build new socio-political coalitions capable of accepting and nurturing the necessary new social compromises.

Perhaps this is what governance is and perhaps urban areas are the only areas which provide the opportunity to put governance into practice, amid the improbable quest to achieve the desired objectives.

Email: bbazimya@yahoo.co.uk