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In Defense of Democratic Governance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Ford
November 13, 2017

The reality of political control of bureaucracy in a democratic society is often a difficult one. Things can move slow, problems can linger and expert advice can go unheeded. It is not shocking that in some quarters there is support for curtailing democratic governance in the name of efficiency. This, I argue, is a mistake. Why? Democratic governance is an essential part of a free society, and offers numerous practical benefits.

First, what are some of the critiques of democratic governing boards? An obvious one is inefficient decisionmaking. Having seven individuals collectively debate a policy decision or action plan takes longer than having one person make up their mind. Collective decisionmaking can also be impacted by interpersonal conflict, groupthink and other negative group dynamics which distract a governing board from the original task. And there is the issue of competence. The main qualification for serving on a city council or school board is the ability to get more votes than your opponent, not expertise on the relevant subject manner.

Critics of democratic governance at the local level frequently cite non-competitive elections and special interest group capture as rationales for exploring new governing models. There is validity to these critiques. My own research on school boards shows almost forty percent of elected school board members in the United States did not have an opponent in their previous election. In the public education sector in particular, critics of democratic governance have been effective at introducing alternative governing models such as charter schools and mayoral-controlled school districts. The argument goes that these alterative non-democratic arrangements can create single points of accountability, and, in turn, deliver improved decisionmaking and ultimately performance.

The track record of such reforms, however, is inconsistent at best. Regardless, it is worth discussing the benefits of democratic governance arrangements before declaring them ineffectual. First, local democratic governing boards provide a public venue in which decisions can be made. In other words, the public can monitor deliberations as they occur, and even provide input directly to decisionmakers. While it is true those serving on local boards may not be experts, a democratic governing board provides a built-in mechanism by which experts can share their thoughts publicly and transparently. Democratic governance also legitimizes policy decisions and resource allocations. For all their flaws, local governing boards have an established track record in American life, are open systems in that all citizens can seek elected positions on these boards, and give constituents a simple means for holding officials accountable: Their vote. Though diffused accountability is problematic in the eyes of democratic governing board critics, boards also diffuse power, thereby forcing compromise and the representation of minority viewpoints in board deliberations.

Of course, in many places the stated advantages of democratic governance are not realized. I have no doubt that every reader of this column can point to a dysfunctional school board or city council in their region. But the frustrating dysfunction of some local governing boards is not a structural problem. It is, I argue, a result of broken dynamics on individual governing boards. For a governing board to be effective, all members must coalesce around a common mission, feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly, and take collective ownership over board decisions.

Creating effective governance dynamics is not easy, but there are small practical steps every governing board can take to increase their performance. First is creating an accountability statement that declares to the public, and the board itself, how members intend to be accountable to their stakeholders. Second is ensuring both the presence of a strategic plan, and the creation of processes by which board decisions are explained in the context of the strategic plan. Third is simple board-level education on the characteristics of group conflict to ensure board members can identify when their deliberations are being influenced by factors immaterial to their governing task. A simple survey instrument measuring board member perceptions of governing dynamics can kick off the process of diagnosing, and addressing, a broken group governing dynamic.

All of these steps, of course, take a willingness on the part of the governing board member to be self-critical. I am not naïve enough to think that willingness is always present. But, given the public service motivations inherent in those who choose to service their communities, I would bet a critical mass of most boards are open to taking practical steps to improve their performance.

No doubt critics of democratic governance will continue to bemoan the slow and often messy process of collective decisionmaking. In fields like public education, where state policymakers have shown a willingness to embrace non-democratic governance models, democratic governance will likely continue to erode. But, as argued, democratic governance offers built-in legitimacy, and when done right, potential performance gains. Simply, it is premature to dismiss democratic governance models as inherently flawed.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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