Significance of Strong Institutions in Governance

(Freetown, Sierra Leone )

Visitor Question: What is the significance of institutions and institutional checks in local governance processes?

Editors Reply: Institutions lend the entire process of governance badly needed predictability and also transparency. "Governance" refers to the quality of local government arrangements, including also functions assumed by non-profit, quasi-governmental, or non-governmental organizations. In a democracy, institutions promote the creation and maintenance of an orderly process by which decisions are made, disputes are resolved, and power is transferred from one group to another.

The importance of quality local governance is increasingly being recognized at the national level around the world. Local governments and NGOs are being asked to solve more problems, and increasingly complex ones, with a corresponding need for both more formal, more effective institutions. If a national government does not wish to impose its own structure on local governance, then local groups and leaders must decide on a good structure that accommodates a range of institutions, each with a particular specialty but each with the interest of the whole society in mind.

Strong, stable institutions are not an absolute guarantee of great local governance. Individuals can abuse power and misuse the trust of the public, regardless of whether the institutions are sound. Human beings are subject to the same temptations the world around, so corruption and becoming power mad are constant worries.

But we emphasize that stable institutions are the very best way to limit one individual's power and prevent misuse of anything from public money to the public trust. Also a particular institution, such as a health board, water district, village council, or school board, might become ineffective or become dominated by one selfish individual, so having a variety of institutions, each capable of forming alliances and communities of interest with other institutions, is important to governance in a democracy.

If governance is poor, citizens can work through institutions to magnify their influence to reform both policy outcomes and governance processes. If governance is good, most often that quality reflects the right intentions and endurance of institutions.

Some local governance systems seem to be characterized by harmonious working relationships, even when there is a disagreement about a specific policy decision. Other governing systems are plagued by incompetent leadership, disagreeing factions, and power rivalries. Dysfunctional governance may continue for anywhere from a few years to decades, but certainly the duration of any problematic behaviors will be longer if institutions are weak and unable to address problem situations.

An institutional process for eventually resolving disagreements is critical to good local governance. Without healthy institutions, basic underlying philosophical conflicts tend to escalate into hardened positions in which compromise seems impossible, leading to lack of capacity to take action to address the fundamental responsibilities of governing a community.

Weak institutions often reflect a short history, lack of respect of one group for another, or lack of a proper charter, constitution, or ground rules.

In a small locale, strong personalities may seem to be remaking governance to suit their own purposes. But even in a smaller system, institutions can check one another and cause a village leader, for example, to have to deal with and incorporate the viewpoints of other village elders, at least as long as institutions stay basically democratic and the leader does not become a tyrant.

So yes, our advice is to work on strengthening institutions by building a shared sense of purpose, distributing duties among institutions but allowing for enough overlap that one institution can check the excesses of another one, and taking advantage of whatever national and international resources may be available to educate institutional leaders in both the skills of governance and the subject matter areas that are important in the local situation. If most of the people in a governance system show fundamental good will toward each other, then training in techniques leading to problem solving will yield positive results.

Simple institution-building principles to follow include providing for paid, professionally educated staffing for major institutions, an elected legislative body of some type that cannot be controlled directly by anyone except the people, and independent methods of peaceful dispute resolution. Without these mechanisms in place, everything from a village on up to a nation-state is subject to lopsided power arrangements that eventually will tempt someone to abuse power.

Of course institutions themselves can become corrupt or stagnant. When this happens, your idea about institutional checks becomes very important. If you are setting up a new governance system, design it in such a way that institutions can balance one another and that no one institution is perpetually dominant over another one. If many institutions, staffed by mostly honorable people, each have a distinct role to play, there is a good chance that the excesses and limited vision of one institution will not lead the entire governance system to under-perform or collapse.

If institutions and institutional checks are insufficient in a particular location, like-minded individuals can join together to take action to improve local governance. By forming a new NGO to urge reform, civic-minded people can in effect create their own "good government" institution that serves as a check on older and more well-funded institutions.

Building a variety of healthy institutions supports the larger goal of healthy, local community development.

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