In this series of posts on the nature of effective government, I want to keep the focus narrowed to questions of implementation. Many of the comments made by the governance specialists on my “What is Governance?” paper on the Governance web site criticized my effort to restrict my focus to implementation. They argued that it is impossible to separate “good governance” from the ends or specific policies that government is seeking to achieve, and that I was taking an excessively narrow or technical view of the subject.
Well, of course. You can’t separate an evaluation of the quality of government from what the government is trying to do. If the government is running concentration camps, it’s not clear that society would be better off if it employed ruthlessly efficient guards, or ones who were lazy and bribable.
However, once you start incorporating substantive views of the ends of government into your discussion of government quality, you widen your field of view so dramatically as to lose sight of the problem of implementation. This broadened discussion opens the door not just to technical public policy analysis but to a host of normative or philosophical issues. It is precisely this tendency to slip from implementation to policy that has undermined the study of public administration in the United States.
There are a number of reasons for trying to keep the discussion focused on implementation. In the first place, there are many policies that are so-called “valence” issues where there is not much argument over their rightness. There was a well-known study by the Indian economist and activist Jean Drèze in the late 1990s that showed that in a group of poor Indian states, some fifty percent of elementary school teachers failed to show up for work on a day-to-day basis. This led to a big political outcry and provoked a host of reform efforts, but several years later follow-up studies showed that the percentage had decreased only marginally. No one in India disputes the fact that state governments should be providing basic education, or that teachers who are paid to teach should appear in their classrooms. The fact that they didn’t was purely an implementation issue. There are a host of services and public goods that governments provide, from education to public health to infrastructure to security whose ends are not terribly controversial. We may debate whether the military should intervene in a conflict, but if it does, we want it to win its wars.
A second reason for staying focused on implementation is that it allows us to do certain kinds of comparisons more effectively. For example, there is a tendency in many contemporary discussions of good governance to incorporate formal democratic accountability into the definition. Now, I am a big fan of democracy and believe that it is an intrinsic good for normative reasons. However, if democracy becomes part of the definition of good governance, there is no way of comparing the quality of state service delivery between China and India (or the US, for that matter). Nor can we investigate the empirical relationship of government quality to the presence or absence of democratic institutions.
Of course, there is no such thing as a “value-free” evaluation of government quality. Even to say that we want timely, effective, and low-cost government services rather than slow, expensive, and poorly thought-out ones reflects certain kinds of value preferences. But these preferences should be ones that are accepted as broadly as possibles. There is a constant tendency to insert more less generally accepted criteria into the analysis. Bo Rothstein in his book The Quality of Government (Chicago, 2011) points out that the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators embed a preference for low levels of regulation, which would meet with much less general approval than his own criterion of impartiality.
So… policies and normative choices are as important as ever. But we have to face the fact that many governments don’t implement agreed-on policies well, and figure out why that is the case. Then we can move on to arguing about the substance of policies.