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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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3.2.1 What is the difference between government and governance?

Governance is from the Greek words kybenan and kybernetes, meaning ‘to steer’ and ‘pilot’ or ‘helmsman’. It is the process whereby ‘an organization or a society steers itself, and the dynamics of communication and control are central to the process’ (Rosenau and Durfee, 1995, p. 14). Of course, you could read these words as a pretty sound definition of government but that would be missing the point. Government describes a more rigid and narrower set of activities among a narrower set of participants (usually civil servants, elected politicians and some influential or privileged interests). The word ‘governance’ is often used in this course because it is a better fit for the issues of global environmental change addressed. It has spread like wildfire through debates on a range of issues, but particularly around environment and development issues, because it acknowledges that there is a range of institutions, rules and participants, both within and beyond the nation state, who are involved in making decisions. This is happening at both national and international levels, but also in innovative new forms of organisation that cut across government boundaries.

The state is seen as having progressively lost its monopoly over the control of citizens and the regulation of business and other institutions. It is still a player, but commentators have to take into account a range of other participants and scales. Political scientists are having to think in terms of webs or networks of governance. They have to consider these as being both horizontal and vertical, and as representing new ways of distributing the business of managing societies' concerns across local, national, regional and international scales. Involvement of a wider circle of stakeholders is seen as central.

Although this is true of all discussions of new patterns of governance, it has been particularly true of environmental governance. This is probably best demonstrated by the gradual emergence of environmental and social NGOs as major players in international negotiations, such as around climate change. They can claim to represent a global movement, yet can also draw on very local voices as ‘witnesses’ to environmental problems. They can also keep watch on individual national delegations to underpin their commitment to action. Increasingly, there are instances of NGO representatives being invited to join national delegations, both to represent environmentalist strands within civil society and on account of their expert knowledge of the negotiation processes. Another set of stakeholders known as QUANGOs (quasi non-governmental organisations) has taken on roles that might previously have been associated with government, such as the Environment Agency in the UK. Table 2 lists the distinctions charted thus far between government and governance.

Table 2 The distinctions between government and governance.
clearly defined participants linked to the statemixes state and non-state participants (including e.g. NGOs)
linear modelnetwork model
formal institutions and proceduresevolving and ongoing processes
simple and intuitive representation of citizens through electionpower is dispersed or opaque
domination through rules or force may be required to ensure universal acceptance of a decisionacceptance of and support for decisions by all players arises out of wide participation in earlier debate