Six Sources of Governance

Governance actually involves more than governMENT. Here we explore six approaches to getting things done together as whole communities and societies: Shared orientation, self-organization, citizen engagement, elected representation, bureaucracies, and multi-stakeholder collaborations.

Governance is how we get things done in a more or less coherent fashion. At whole-community and whole-society scales, governance is how we address our public affairs.

Although we mistakenly often equate governANCE with governMENT, the activities of institutional governments are only one part of total governance activity. To the extent we become more conscious of the different sources of governance, we can innovate better ways to improve and integrate them.

So here’s my take on six sources of governance:

1. SHARED ORIENTATION: To the extent people share an orientation, their activities tend to align accordingly. This can involve shared aspirations, purposes, understandings, beliefs, values, needs, enthusiasm, vision, or anything else that points them in the same direction within the same story about what’s going on and what’s desirable. WHAT that orientation is, of course, matters a lot; but the fact of collective orientation is, itself, a powerful source of how we get things done together.

2. SELF-ORGANIZATION: To the extent behavioral freedoms and limits (and sometimes goals) are well-conceived and broadly owned, known and practiced, people, groups and organizations can go about their business in ways that can be sustained over time, monitored by healthy internal feedback dynamics rather than outside interventions. Self-organization is natural – but not always benign or “productive”. It can be benign and vibrant to the extent the above conditions are met.

3. CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT: People tend to care about what happens in their place – their neighborhood, city, watershed, nation – and often take responsibility and action to further outcomes they believe in. This already happens through democratic participation, advocacy, and direct action of different kinds. It increasingly happens through organized citizen deliberations that represent, engage, and evolve the larger public mind and heart.

4. ELECTED REPRESENTATION: In a republic, popular elections delegate power to representatives to make decisions on public matters on behalf of the people who elected them and for the larger community, state or nation they are all part of. If free of corruption, representation can provide a system of answerability and coordination among diverse issue domains as well as a focal point for ongoing attention to “the general welfare”.

5. BUREAUCRACIES: Institutions organized around specialized departments or ministries are empowered to implement policies and programs and to set parameters governing the activities of actors in their authorized domains. Those actors – often framed as “stakeholders” or “interest groups” – are the people who are already making things happen in specific issue domains. When free of corruption, bureaucracies ideally serve not only as fonts of expertise, but as powerful, functional mediators between special interests and the general interest.

6. MULTI-STAKEHOLDER COLLABORATIONS: Diverse players – individuals, leaders, groups, networks, etc. – in a particular issue domain can develop ways of working together – rather than just in isolation or competition – across different interests, sectors, scales, and roles in the systems they’re part of. Relevant government officials usually participate in these multi-sector collaborations, but are not in charge. A public realm – public health, environment, education, security, and so on – can be well addressed if all the (types of) players already involved can coordinate their actions around shared interests and goals.

These very different sources of governance inevitably overlap, engage, and interpenetrate each other. Each source of governance can take the lead or generate energy in other governance realms. Leaders in each mode of governance can take action that shapes what happens in the other modes. Integrating or synergizing two or more of these realms increases the power and effectiveness of governance overall.

Activities within and among such diverse sources of governance naturally tend to generate some disturbance, conflict, and other forms of disorder. This is natural and inevitable. To the extent such disturbance can be handled creatively – and even used to enhance insight, relationship, energy and resource availability – the effectiveness and efficiency of overall governance can be increased by orders of magnitude. Conversation, mediation, and judicial efforts can all help in this. Yet some approaches facilitate greater shared realization, innovation and co-evolution than others, and applied knowledge in this realm can make a tremendous difference.

As a final note, I want to highlight one other vitally important factor: Although all this multi-source governance can facilitate collective wisdom by including and coordinating more players and perspectives, none of it can by itself guarantee wise outcomes. That development requires not only agreement about the importance and possibility of collective wisdom in every governance mode, but conscious consideration and design of factors that increase the likelihood of such wisdom emerging, including cognitive and communicative capacities, depth and breadth of understanding, systemic dynamics, and more.

As all this becomes understood, the potential for wise, effective self-governance at all levels and in all domains can become increasingly clear and compelling. A lot – from healthy communities to avoiding global catastrophe – depends on that happening.

(Note: This is a companion piece to my Sources of Wisdom article and the Wise Democracy Pattern Language.)

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