16 October 2018
Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Full Toolbox for Implementing the SDGs
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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Successful decision makers do not stick to one governance approach; they think beyond the governance style that their organization or culture may be used to.

Three classical governance styles (rules (hierarchical governance), partnerships (network governance) or market-based instruments (market governance)) can be compared along 50 dimensions, resulting in a "metagovernance toolbox" with at least 150 operational forms.

For the SDGs, the metagovernance approach provides excellent guidance, as it is necessary to combine the different governance traditions in different policy areas.

Why is governance for sustainability often so difficult, cumbersome, or even failing? Why does the “right” solution – i.e. one that actually works – often seem out of reach while standard but ineffective/inadequate solutions prevail? Some would point at a lack of political will, power, resources or skills. All of this plays a role but it is not the only cause.

Successful governance requires leaders to have intuition about emerging windows of opportunity, and instincts for using those opportunities successfully. For example, the current political attention to plastics presents a window of opportunity to address the problem. It arose due to a rare combination of factors. NGO pressure and public awareness played a role, but China also closed its borders to the EU’s plastic waste, at the same time the European Commission was looking for new revenue options to fill the budget gap caused by UK’s decision to leave the Union. A plastic tax suddenly became a politically feasible idea.

An open mind for using such opportunities is a prerequisite of effective governance for sustainable development, but it is not enough. Successful decision makers do not stick to one governance approach but – by intuition or calculation – use a broad toolbox that draws on multiple approaches. They think beyond the governance style that their organization or culture may be used to.

Each of us has a values-based preference for governance either by rules, partnerships or market-based instruments.

Even if we do not realize it, each of us has a values-based preference for governance by either rules (hierarchical governance), partnerships (network governance) or market-based instruments (market governance), or a specific combination of these. This preference can be personal, organizational, part of a national culture, or all of the above. In my work at an international organisation, I experience on a daily basis that my German and Eastern European colleagues tend to favor legal instruments, the Scandinavians and Dutch prefer network tools, and UK and Irish colleagues are inclined towards market-based solutions. Of course, we learn from each other, and are discovering the usefulness of combining the approaches.

The EU’s plastics strategy adopted earlier this year includes elements from all three styles, which sets it up for success. The strategy’s incorporation of tools from diverse governance styles also makes it a good example of smart and adaptive “metagovernance”. Metagovernance is combining or switching between governance styles to create and maintain an effective mixture for a specific situation. It is by definition context-related, in a dynamic way. It is not just theory, but good practice. In order to use metagovernance as a tool or method, it is necessary to understand the context of the problem. This includes the cultural dimension already mentioned, but also a mind-set consistent with the ‘New Public Management’ movement. Slogans like “less is more”, “break down the silos” and “get rid of red tape” are very popular but in practice have their limits: they sometimes result in more efficient but less effective governance.

This introduction is meant to give some background to the main argument of this article: if you want to combine governance styles, in other words, apply metagovernance, you need to understand all three styles well – including the ones you do not personally gravitate towards.

50 Governance Dimensions, 150 Operational Forms

The three classical governance styles noted above can be compared along 50 dimensions, on which they each take different operational forms. This means that the full “metagovernance toolbox” has at least 150 operational forms.

Not all of the operational forms are concrete tools; some point at the conceptual background of a dimension, for example. Some forms are easy to grasp. For example, in looking at the three styles’ communication approaches, it is clear that hierarchy prefers giving information, network governance employs dialogue, and market governance would point to a marketing campaign. It is no surprise that dependency plays a crucial role in hierarchy, while independency in essential to market governance and inter-dependency is a basis for network governance.

Let’s look at where accountability fits in to each of the three governance styles, using the example of education governance. In a hierarchical view, accountability is ruled by order and observance; in network governance it is about participation and co-working; in market governance it is governed by competition. Leadership styles in hierarchical, network and market governance settings are, respectively, command and control, coaching and supporting, or delegating and enabling. Public-sector reform can be top-down, inclusive or outsourced to consultants. Hierarchy works great at solving problems framed as crises, network governance is good at dealing with complex, ”wicked” problems, and market governance is suited for routine problems which require efficiency. The three styles have their typical weaknesses. Hierarchy can lead to extreme bureaucracy, network governance to never-ending talks and market governance to extreme efficiency while killing effectiveness. Strategy mean planning for a hierarchical governor, learning for a network governor and getting competitive advantage for a market-style governor.

For the SDGs, the metagovernance approach could be excellent guidance. For nexus themes across different SDGs, it is necessary to combine the different governance traditions in different policy areas. For example, energy governance is currently dominated by market governance in many countries. It is linked to climate action, which often leans toward hierarchical solutions (legally binding agreements). Air pollution policy is also rule-based while transport policies are often market-based. Circular economy is fuelled by bottom-up network-style innovation but needs to be in synergy with industry policy, which frames rules for markets.

There will always be governance failure, but it should be possible to prevent some of the worst cases and build more resilient governance approaches. More effective governance is possible and can save huge societal costs – and trying hard to achieve this does not cost anything.

This article is based on the book ‘Metagovernance for Sustainability – A framework for implementing the SDGs’ (Routledge 2018). See also launch event on 17 October 2018 in Brussels and www.ps4sd.eu.

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