Search for good governance

Search for good governance

A lively international debate is underway about how to meet the challenge of governance in a more complex, changing world.

Globalisation, diffusion of power and the rise of diverse new actors have made the business of government more difficult. The challenge has been magnified by new technologies that have created unprecedented flows of information and fuelled ever rising public expectations. Governments everywhere are seen to be delivering too slowly in a world that is moving very fast. Declining trust in government is now a worldwide phenomenon.

This has intensified the global conversation about governance in the 21st century and how states can be more efficient by leveraging new dynamics.

A new book, ‘The Fourth Revolution’ has just joined this debate. Both its authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, are journalists, who take a clear-headed approach to issues in this debate. For them, “the main political challenge of the next decade will be fixing government” because the state everywhere is in trouble. The Western state, in particular, is faced with a mid-life crisis – bloated and inefficient, plagued by budget deficits and self-indulgent electorates.

The book brings to mind another work published two years ago, called ‘Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century’. This too examined political dysfunction among Western countries. It invoked the East’s experience to argue, for example, that China’s meritocratic system provided efficient government, which took a long-term perspective on governance.

It made a compelling case to draw on the best practices from both East and West to evolve hybrid political arrangements that combined “knowledgeable democracy” with “accountable meritocracy”.

‘The Fourth Revolution’ echoes that book’s worry about   the West’s political paralysis and rejects assumptions that Western political ideas will continue to shape the world. Both acknowledge that the emerging world, especially Asia, offer inspiring models of governance, which are enabling countries there to make extraordinary progress.

This is also a challenge in the emerging world but it is here that “striking new ideas” are being generated about improving government, and active reform being undertaken. China’s emphasis on training its leaders and elite civil service cadre represents the effort to master the art of government. For hundreds of years the West had an edge over the world as the source of political ideas. This is no longer so because of competition from a different way of doing things associated with China, but found in its most “advanced form” in Singapore. The authors see China’s remarkable rise as the result of state-directed capitalism and authoritarian modernisation, twin aspects of its alternative model.

For countries in Asia government is a vital part of the global race for success. As a consequence, in the Asian model, government is “thought-out, serious and organised”, in contrast to the West, where government is “chaotic, casual and unplanned” (Nordic countries being exceptions).

The Singapore model is the antithesis of the West’s all-you-can-eat, costly welfare state. It is a lean and efficient government, fostering a pro-business environment, and where social insurance rather than social assistance governs the delivery of services.

The authors say this model is being emulated beyond Asia. But it is China’s rise and “breathtaking social transformation” that has made the ‘Asian model’ more alluring.

The book’s principal concern is how Europe and the US, can extricate themselves from their present malaise of underperforming governments.

The authors cast the political history of Western states in modern times as having involved three and a half revolutions. The first led to the construction of the centralised nation state, whose role was primarily to provide security. The second and third revolutions produced the liberal and welfare state respectively. The Thatcher-Reagan ‘half revolution’ sought but failed to downsize the state.

The fourth revolution’s front lines have shifted mainly to Asia, which may leave the West behind unless its governments take this matter seriously.  The book’s core argument is that a small but strong state is preferable to a large but weak one, not only because the latter mires countries in perpetual fiscal crises, but also because it fails to perform core functions.

There is much in the book to disagree with. But few would contest the notion that countries that do not provide efficient government are condemned to decay.