What is governance?

A search of the Internet will locate many definitions of the word "governance", some from very reputable sources, each using slightly different words and phrases. Examples are (please e-mail other interesting versions!):

The word "governance" describes a concept - that people in any position of power or authority should apply that authority to control events wisely, and for the benefit of others.

Sometimes the term "good governance" is used to emphasise the positive nature of the concept, but this is commonly abbreviated to just "governance" in conversation and documents.

The same concept is found in all societies, cultures and languages, and described in many different ways. In some cultures this concept is conveyed in symbols, or by storytellers, or through dances or theatre (please e-mail to us any examples that may assist in illustrating this). This concept is very widely understood throughout the world. Although many people do not know the word governance, they understand what it is. This is not a new type of technology that some people have never seen, or a food that some people have never tasted, this is a concept which everyone has come across in one form or another, if not by name. Everywhere in the world there is an understanding of fair play, and observation of good or bad decisions made by people in positions of authority.

Hence there is no single specific technical definition of governance, more a range of situations which are generally understood as good or bad governance. There is no easy "tick the box" type of logical test of what is good or bad governance, but there are a variety of particular characteristics which are normally associated with good governance. As an example the Asian Development Bank defines the Elements of Good Governance as

  • Accountability
  • Participation
  • Predictability
  • Transparency

There are situations in many countries where good governance is not applied, and also where most people are aware of this. Note that the principle of governance applies to all aspects of human endeavour, but this website concentrates on its application in providing transport, currently with an emphasis on road transport.

If there is widespread understanding of what governance is, why is it that there are also widespread examples of poor governance? The main reason seems to be a lack of knowledge of what to do about poor governance. Many people feel powerless to change the situation, and just accept it. See Why is governance important? for more information about why poor governance should not be allowed to continue, and see the following pages for information about what can be done:

Note that poor governance is often most visible in the form of corruption, and in some documents and situations the term "governance" is used alongside, or in place of, "corruption". Where this happens, other aspects of governance may only receive limited attention. Such aspects might include decisions influenced by factors other than personal financial gain, badly chosen technical solutions, inefficient use of resources, inappropriate staffing levels and inadequate staff skills for the jobs that need to be done.

To summarise, governance is a universal and widely understood concept, although many people may not think of using the word "governance" to describe it. The main requirement is not to explain what governance is, but to identify specific areas where poor governance is occurring, mobilise support for improvement, and motivate all concerned to accept and carry through the implementation of sustainable solutions.