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Understanding Governance Through Perceptions

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

By Michael Ford
October 8, 2018

The term “governance” is both vague and contested. H. George Frederickson calls the term a “fashionable” and “imprecise” “catchall phrase.” Nonetheless the term is commonly deployed in the public administration (PA) literature and discourse. But how useful can the idea be in practice without a clear conceptualization of what it actually means? In an attempt to get at this problem, Doug Ihrke and I offered a comprehensive governance framework premised on the importance of human perceptions in PA. The framework is comprised of the following five propositions:

Proposition One: Microgovernance (the governance of organizations) and macrogovernance (the structures and processes by which public goods and services are delivered) are distinct concepts.

Precisely because governance is vague, it is important to unpack the idea into more applicable sub-categories. This proposition is based on the fact that PA research focuses both on how society broadly makes decisions regarding the allocation of finite resources, and how actors make decisions regarding operations within their own organizations. The overall performance of macro-level governing institutions is arguably dependent on the quality of micro-level institutions. For example, the performance of a state’s K-12 education system is a function of the quality of schools operating within the broader system. In other words, strong organizations translate into strong macro-level performance.

Proposition Two: Public performance and acceptance is usually defined by human consensus rather than objective measurement.

Though analytics are an increasingly powerful public management tool, even the most sophisticated performance measures are often a product of human design. Even more importantly, performance measures will only be impactful if citizens accept their validity. This is not to suggest objective performance measures do not exist or should not be pursued, but rather that external validity matters as much as internal validity in a democratic society.

Proposition Three: There is a link between board member perceptions of the group dynamics of trust and conflict, and performance.

Anyone who has served on a public or nonprofit governing board can likely attest to the reality that different board members can perceive the same event or discussion in very different ways. When board members perceive conflict or distrust, no matter the reason, the board ceases to function at a high level. In turn the quality of the board’s organizational oversight is diminished, eventually impacting the overall performance of the organization itself.

Proposition Four: The link between accountability and public performance is dependent on a governing board or team’s ability to coalesce around a single common definition of accountability in their unique governing context.

Accountability, like governance, is a concept that means different things to different audiences. The specific meaning of accountability can be a function of the governing task, the specific demands of citizens, legal mandates and/or other factors. In a specific board governance context the specific meaning of accountability matters less than board member agreement around a common definition. That agreement is evidence of group alignment, and enables board members to pursue accountability on behalf of their constituency, however it is defined.

Proposition Five: The link between board productivity and public performance is dependent on the level of perceived trust and conflict among governing board or team members.

A governing group cannot pursue a common goal in an efficient manner if members perceive conflict or distrust within their group. The primary objective will be sacrificed in pursuit of secondary tasks stemming from the perceived distrust or conflict. Once again the true presence of conflict or distrust is less important than the perceptions of it. If governing board members perceive group distrust or conflict, time will be spent dealing with the perceived problem and productivity will suffer.

The acceptance of governance as a human-driven enterprise is the common thread running through all five propositions. No specific structure, set of policies, performance-metric or process can supplant the role of actual human beings in the governing process. As such it is important to understand the perceptions of both the governed and the governing. How? The use of surveys and interviews in PA research should not be discounted simply because these methods do not measure objective reality. These methodologies can reveal a governance reality that is impossible to tease out of an archival dataset. Similarly, community satisfaction surveys and focus groups should continue to be used to measure citizens’ perceptions of government performance.

Simply, people matter in an applied field like PA. Using perceptions as a foundation for conceptualizing governance recognizes this truth and can aid researchers and practitioners in advancing our field without losing sight of the foundational concepts of public acceptance and consent in a democratic society.


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 frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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