Measuring ‘governance’ to improve lives

Working for governance in Uganda., CC BY-SA

Botswana does more for its people than Kenya; India delivers more quality services than Pakistan; Barbados is better at these things than Haiti or Jamaica; and Singapore offers the kinds of public goods that Malaysia does not yet provide.

All kinds of officials and citizens, at home and abroad, want to know why and how those statements are true in order to help lives in less fortunate places improve, in order to make accurate judgments on where to give foreign assistance, and so that multinational firms can decide where to put new enterprises.

But how to get to those answers?

Until now, such questions have often by answered imprecisely and subjectively through polls of experts or citizens.

Rather than using impressions, I propose a new method to measure objectively what citizens gain from their governments in terms of results. The question: what does your government (federal, state or local) deliver to you in quantifiable amounts?

At the core of my method is the notion of governance.

Governance defined

Citizens everywhere desire “good governance” – to be governed well within their nation-states, their provinces, their states and their cities.

Governance is more useful than “democracy” if we wish to understand how different political rulers and ruling elites satisfy the aspirations of their citizens.

But to make the notion of “governance” useful, we need both a practical definition and a method of measuring the gradations between good and bad governance.

What’s more, if we can measure well, we can diagnose weak areas of governance and, hence, seek ways to make the weak actors strong.

Governance, defined as “the performance of governments and the delivery of services by governments,” tells us if and when governments are in fact meeting the expectations of their constituents and providing for them effectively and responsibly.

Democracy outcomes, by contrast, are much harder to measure because the meaning of the very word itself is contested and impossible to measure accurately.

For the purposes of making policy decisions, if we seek to learn how citizens are faring under regime X or regime Y, we need to compare governance (not democracy) in those respective places.

In other words, governance is a construct that enables us to discern exactly whether citizens are progressing in meeting life’s goals.

Measuring governance: five bundles and 57 subcategories

Are citizens of a given country better off economically, socially and politically than they were in an earlier decade? Are their various human causes, such as being secure or being free, advancing? Are their governments treating them well, and attempting to respond to their various needs and aspirations and relieving them of anxiety?

Just comparing national gross domestic products (GDPs), life expectancies or literacy rates provides helpful distinguishing data, but governance data are more comprehensive, more telling and much more useful.

Assessing governance tells us far more about life in different developing societies than we would learn by weighing the varieties of democracy or “human development” in such places.

Government’s performance, in turn, is according to the scheme advanced in my book On Governance and in my Index of African Governance, the delivery to citizens of five bundles (divided into 57 underlying subcategories) of political goods that citizens within any kind of political jurisdiction demand.

The five major bundles are Security and Safety, Rule of Law and Transparency, Political Participation and Respect for Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity, and Human Development (education and health).

The first category rates how safe citizens are by examining crime rates and deaths in civil combat (think the Democratic Republic of Congo contrasted with neighboring Zambia). The second says whether a country has honest judges and how much it is corrupt. The third asks whether citizens have “voice” and can vote and whether basic human rights are respected. The fourth goes beyond GDP to look at the components of economic prosperity. The fifth scores the quality of schooling and health care, the availability of clean water, infant death rates and the like.

A communal tap in Soweto, South Africa. SuSanA Secretariat, CC BY-SA

Are any of these benefits not wanted by citizens?

In talks around the globe, I have never found anyone who wants anything less than these five political goods and their 57 subrights.

In order to measure how well governments in fact deliver those goods, it is best to employ, as we have done, publicly available objective data (not subjective data such as the opinions of experts), and to examine outputs or results, not inputs (budgeted numbers).

For example, we look at life expectancy data for the performance of a government in providing good health outcomes; we compile homicide numbers for safety. These concrete numbers demonstrate the effective delivery of governmental services or governance.

Why measuring governance makes sense

Governance, in other words, is tangible. It acts. It is not something stylistic or artistic. The scheme that I use makes epidemiological and parsimonious sense. It is tidy, transparent and clear. And it works.

If the main objective of developing and developed world leaders is to uplift their peoples continually, then it is essential to measure approximations of actual service deliveries (in other words, governance) rather than rating nations in the usual impressionistic manner, as is done in, for example, Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report. Those kinds of indexes look at the perceived quality of national operations, their perceived impartiality, the extent of their perceived bureaucratic autonomy, or their perceived capacity to coax or coerce citizens.

Only by measuring hard data – numbers – can we distinguish meaningfully the governments that are producing abundant political goods (good governance) from those that no longer are, or never did.

What to learn from Singapore’s public services? Huaiwei, CC BY-SA

Does Singapore, a wealthy and stable state, deliver government well or better as compared, say, to neighboring Indonesia? If so, what are the distinguishing characteristics of that stronger government, and can we use what we learn from analyzing Singapore’s performance to improve the lives of Indonesians or Laotians?

Alternatively, when we employ these measures of governance, we discover that Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (not to mention Burundi) score very poorly – toward the bottom of our governance lists.

At the same time, however, our measures and their scores can pinpoint the weaker parts of their respective governance frameworks.

In one country, such as Rwanda, it is the lack of press freedom. In another, say Niger, it would be poor educational results. In Nigeria or Kenya, corruption depresses scores. By providing diagnostic differences in this manner, we give national governments, civil societies, international development organizations and well-meaning donors precise targets for assistance.

Diagnosis, in other words, is more important than rating one country against another.

I believe that we can learn more about how governments actually affect the lives of their citizens by this method than by using the more common method of asking panels of experts to give their opinions, or by polling representative samples.

The results of expert panels are affected profoundly by the dangers of selection bias. As to polls, their conclusions depend on the kinds of questions asked and the predispositions of the persons polled. Both methods are weak because they are subjective, and fundamentally anecdotal.

If we agree that:

  • citizens expect their governments to perform in such a manner that citizens will be secure (free from being invaded or free from civil war and intrastate tumult) and safe (free from crime and personal endangerment);
  • citizens desire something akin to the predictability and backing of a robust rule of law that delivers sanctity of contract as well as a fair adjudication of disputes between persons;
  • most inhabitants of most states prefer not to be cheated by corrupt practice;
  • citizens prefer to participate in rule setting and thus in governing themselves;
  • individuals prefer to prosper – to eat more and better food, to be housed adequately, to be paid fairly for their labor and to believe that they are free to use their own skills to better themselves;
  • citizens generally look to states to provide educational opportunities, better rather than deficient health care, clean water, a minimally polluted environment and so on;

then it makes perfect sense to compare the better – and the worse – ways in which these needs are realized by governments.

No government has directly adopted such a formal measurement scheme to benchmark its performance. But many donors and investors refer to my published index and to similar, if more subjective, indexes of governance to decide where to help or where to put money. The US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation bases its lending decisions, for example, in part on several governance measurements.

In fact, there are now more than 100 existing indexes of governance, including the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, a Happy Planet Index, a Global Hunger Index, and many more. But only a few of these 100 or so indexes are broad in approach and comprehensive in what they cover. More than the others, my rating scheme focuses on objective and results-oriented data.

But all of the indexes – no matter how constructed and how global in their reach – seek to improve the concrete ways in which governments perform and citizens are helped to enjoy better and fuller lives.