Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Do We Get Good Governance?

Suddenly I'm being bombarded with talk of good and bad governance.

The Stiglitz Commission blames, among other things, bad corporate governance for the economic disaster we are in. Madeleine Bunting credits good governance with Singapore's economic turnaround since the 1950s. My weekend movie, Life After the Fall, showed how a total lack of governance turned Iraqis from hopeful to dejected in just four years.

All of which got me thinking about what good governance is.

Systems for

  • making decisions about issues that effect the group
  • resolving disputes
  • coordinating projects that no person can do on their own (highways, bridges...)
  • preventing one person's greed and selfishness from sabotaging the lives of everyone else
  • enforcing consequences for actions that adversely effect others
  • responding to emergencies
  • keeping people safe
I think few people would disagree that we need those things, although many would disagree about what each of those things involves. Keeping people safe could be anything from an army to helmet laws - and you'll find people in favor and against both of those things.

But I don't want to argue about those definitions right now. That's the purpose of having a system that allows for group decision-making. What I want to ask is how do we get good governance?

Elections certainly don't lead to good governance. Elections in Iraq didn't do anything to stop the violence or get the electricity working. The election of Dubya certainly didn't lead to good governance. Any post Katrina New Orleans resident will attest to that. In fact, if having elections leads people to believe that voting once every few years is all that is required of them, elections may leave us worse off. Everyone just pushes the button on their local Diebold machine and then goes home to bitch about what the politicians they voted for are doing.

The corporations that led us into this financial disaster also have a farcical version of democracy. They talk about responding to shareholders the same way politicians talk about responding to constituents. And shareholders have abdicated their responsibilities even more than citizens have. How many of us own mutual funds and don't know what they are invested in, much less how our fund manager is voting at shareholder meetings.

This lack of participation by most of us suits the politicians and CEOs just fine. Quarterly reports, legislation, contracts, and financials are purposely confusing, unclear, complicated, and absurdly long. Combine that with working too many hours and the sad state of our media and most of us just give up trying to figure things out.

So what would I like to see? We could start with
  • A compensation system that enables people to work less so they have more time to participate in governance
  • A universal unwillingness to give money or votes to anything not understood
  • Accepting representative governance as a fallback position, a necessary evil sometimes, but not the be all and end all
Anyone else?

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