The Two Futures of Governance: Decentering and Recentering the Processes in Governing by B. Guy Peters — A Summary

Title: The Two Futures of Governance: Decentering and Recentering the Processes in Government
Author: B. Guy Peters
Publication: NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy. Vol. 2, No. 1 (2009)


Public sector reform in recent decades has been directed towards efficiency and effectiveness through the application of the market model. This process, loosely understood as New Public Management (NPM), involved increasing the autonomy of managers and their organisations.

More recently, the increased emphasis on the participatory dimension of reform has given rise to what may be called ‘governance’ styles of reform which underscore the role of social actors in networks making and implementing policy.

While both of these two directions have made significant contributions, they have also introduced significant problems as well. Issues of incoherence, poor coordination and accountability have proved to be major stumbling blocks.

Given this situation, which direction of reform should the public sector take? The article argues for making the two processes — that of NPM and governance style reforms — fit together through ‘meta-governance’.

One Future — Continuing the Current Patterns of Reform

DECONCENTRATION Creating new autonomous or quasi-autonomous agencies to handle specific  goals.

DECENTRALISATION Devolving some functions of the central government to sub-national governments.

DELEGATION Moving public authority and functions to other actors — non-profit organisations, contractors.

This pattern of ‘decentering’ the governing process assumes that the governance will work better if the political centre is devalued and private sector actors are made more responsible.

From Reform to New Problems Created by Reform

The justification for decentering is that governments are better at ‘steering’ than at ‘rowing’ — that governments are better at setting policy directions than at delivering upon policies. The result however has been the reduction in the steering capacity of governments leading to several governance problems.

POLITICS AND STEERING Decentering has left the governments impotent to adequately determine, direct and regulate the course of their own policies.

COORDINATION The increase in the number of autonomous organisations has led to a crisis of coordination and coherence.

COMPLEXITY The proliferation of organisations involved in governing creates more veto points. This is highly inefficient.

CAPTURE Decentering creates a large number of organisations vulnerable to capture by special interests.

ACCOUNTABILITY The decentering process creates variable alternative relations between politicians and service providers making responsibility difficult to identify.

These are significant problems. Some change in the public sector is definitely necessary but that change cannot be a simple return to the traditional Weberian style of governance.

The Centre Strikes Back

Given the difficulty in exercising control over the public sector, attempts to reimpose control have taken the form of politicising appointments, that is to appoint one’s own people to top posts within reform programs.

In addition, decentering has led to the politics of scapegoating and denial of responsibility. In the US and the UK, the use of ‘czars’ — high level officials tasked with specific administrative roles — has helped to deflect attention and accountability away from political leaders.

Positively, the loss of political control has created attempts to integrate governance structurally and holistically so as to enable governments to provide a seamless web of services.

The Gap

The discussion thus far reveals two approaches towards governance: NPM and ‘governance’ which i) emphasise quality of service delivery, management and democratisation and whose inadequacies have necessitated a second form of governance that ii) emphasises coherence, coordination and the primacy of politics. The major task in governing is to ‘knit’ together these two strands.

Besides the practical governance problems, there are important theoretical concerns. It could be argued that governance theory isn’t exactly new but in fact old wine in a new bottle given the history of corporatism and corporate pluralism, especially in Europe. Even the direction-setting role of the state, given the robustness of networks binding the different actors, and their autonomous self-organisation, can be called into question.

At the same time, the assumption that principal actors agree on the means and goals that underpins governance theory is demonstrably wrong. Pre-determined decision rules are lacking. The lack of agreement and rules lead to sub-optimal decisions made in accordance with the lowest common denominator or, often, no decisions at all. There, then, is no place for innovation and major policy change.

Decentering has created major problems for democracy — problems of accountability and representation. Unorganised groups without access to networks might be left out.

These challenges question the capacity of governance models to adequately address the selection and delivery of services in a democratic framework.

Bridging the Gap: Meta-Governance

The response to these challenges has been the development of ‘meta-governance’ which in essence is the governance of governance with a view to building control while retaining a level of autonomy. Both control and autonomy must be made to co-exist.

The Instruments of Meta-Governance

The tools of meta-governance are different from the authoritative ones found in traditional command and control styles of intervention. This is because meta-governance seeks to rein in actors that have some political legitimacy on their own.

PRIORITY SETTING Priorities have to established politically so that there is clear focus. This can be accomplished by enhancing the capacities of presidents, prime ministers and central agencies.

SOFT LAW Soft law envisages the use of regulatory methods such as benchmarks, guidelines, frameworks and other mechanisms which establish ranges of compliance rather than specific points of compliance arrived at through negotiations rather than compliance. Soft law reflects the need of steering from a distance so that networks and local governments retain some latitude.

Maintaining the Golden Thread

Decentering need not mean completely abandoning control. Public organisations involve three substantive dimensions — financial, human resources and policy. Governments could, and they often do, control the financial purse and use that control to enforce compliance regarding other dimensions of activity. The point is that autonomy and control are not as incompatible in practice as they man appear conceptually. And the task for the academic analyst and the practitioner is to identify mixtures that can deliver effective control while maintain efficiency.

Performance Management

This is the use of measurable targets for the results of public programs to monitor the performance of public organisations. This shifts the mantra of NPM from ‘let the managers manage’ to ‘make the managers manage’. Performance management relies on negotiations and contracts as well as flexible and progressive (‘soft’) targets.



“Governance has been and continues to be a scarce commodity in most countries. …(T)he ideas of both New Public Management and the ideas of Governance … enhance(d) the autonomy of lower level components of the governing system (but created) … problems of accountability and control. …The perceived negative consequences of reforms have produced some new types of governing, discussed here as ‘meta-governance’.”


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