Governing, governability, the future of the state and other minor issues

Jon Pierre
Jon Pierre

Jon Pierre is Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and professor of public governance at the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Policy & Politics.

Two recent papers in the October 2015 edition of Policy & Politics  provoked my thinking about governing and governance; Bob Jessop’s “Crises, crisis-management and state restructuring: what future for the state?”, and Allan Cochrane, Bob Colenutt and Martin Field’s “Governing the ungovernable: spatial policy, markets and volume house-building in a growth region”. They did so for quite different reasons. Or so I thought.

The two texts could not be more different in style and presentation. For me, reading Bob Jessop has always been like having a bowl of fettuccine al burro in an Italian restaurant; it is pure delicacy but at the same time so incredibly rich that in order not to choke you have to proceed very slowly. You read a paragraph or even just a sentence (sometimes that can be one and the same thing) and then find yourself forced to sit back to take in and digest Bob’s argument. His analysis covers several discourses and perspectives, then puts a diachronic spin on the analysis and ends up asking where all of this is heading. He notes in passing that “there is no state in general”; he discusses “market-mediated competition” and “normal crises” as if they were commonly understood concepts not requiring further clarification; and a 100+ word sentence is almost immediately followed by the more distinct “In short, it is hard to read crises”. And, he explains why we need to differentiate between different types of states and different types of power to make sense of different types of crises. It is all elegant, eloquent and thought-provoking.

I can find myself wondering how academic innovation finds its way into this very deductive approach. In my own work I often find that new insights usually come from empirical research and that an interview with a senior public servant sometimes tells me more about public administration than several books or articles, but then again I do not write theory like Bob Jessop.

Allan Cochrane, Bob Colenutt and Martin Field come from a different neck of the academic woods. Their interest, as Bob Jessop would perhaps have said, is in wie es eigentlich gewesen ist; what has actually happened. They report a study on the housing market in a UK growth region. They show in detail the problems that emerge in a market where—despite a huge public interest—government has largely abdicated to market forces, or even helped unleash those forces further. From some 25 interviews and extensive studies of public documents, Cochrane, Colenutt and Field demonstrate in detail the problems associated with implementing construction plans in a market largely controlled by powerful corporate actors.

In some ways, Allan Cochrane and his associates put contextual flesh on the conceptual skeleton provided by Bob Jessop. The two papers tell a remarkably similar story about the limits of political power and the complex contingencies of governing. Modern society is not governed “by the state, the whole state, and nothing but the state.” The state is but one of several sources of power although it certainly monopolizes some aspects of power such as legal authority and coercive instruments. But if governing means actually getting things done and changing society in a direction we all agree upon, then those power instruments will only work in concert with other forms of power or capabilities. This is, of course, not a very novel observation; it is an account of power which urbanists, political economists and sociologists have provided for decades. Yet, despite this hybridization our thinking about the sources and the exercise of political power remains, for the most part, rather conventional. At the Melbourne School of Government we specifically focus on these hybrids in collaborative governance and shared public service delivery in order to understand how political control is reconfiguring and the consequences of that reconfiguration.

These issues raise a number of difficult questions about democracy, accountability and governance. If government is but one of several centres of power in society, how can it make sense to hold it to account not just for what it actually does but perhaps also for what we think it should have done, given the public stakes involved? Housing, to return to Cochrane et al, is a core public concern, yet government has only very limited means of influencing the construction of new housing. Perhaps the problem has less to do with the extent to which the market caters to public needs and interests and is more about a growing disjuncture between expectations and performance. In the state-centric Scandinavian countries we traditionally expect the state to solve all problems, including rainy summers (this used to be a joke but is becoming less and less so), and we tend to blame government for, well, basically everything that is wrong in our society. The neo-liberal “turn” in these countries has been at least as much about changing people’s expectations of government as it has been about changing public policy, dismantling regulatory frameworks or cutting back in public expenditure.

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