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Communitarian governance: a public education challenge

A key goal of public education should be to foster a better understanding of the principles of good governance across all kinds of organisation.

How should we govern ourselves?

Whenever an institution is set up to oversee the activities of a group, the issue of governance arises. This may concern the running of a firm (corporate governance), a neighbourhood or city (local governance), a country (national governance), or an international body (global governance).  In all these cases, a good grasp of the key elements of effective governance would appear to be a prerequisite for anyone involved – not just for those tasked with the overseeing, but everyone affected so they understand what should or should not be changed.

Unless people learn enough about governance, they are unlikely to develop an informed interest in, let alone the capability to question how management decisions are structured by their employer, how policies are set by organisations they rely on (e.g., schools, shops, hospitals, care homes), how their political representatives are chosen, or how power is distributed by their country’s constitution.

Yet education in governance is notably absent in every step from schools to higher education. Those who study politics or business management at university may learn about governance in the compartmentalised context of government institutions or commercial organisations, but there is no general theory or accessible introduction for people who have to live with the prevailing governance around them.

There is no reason why the substantial stock of ideas and insights differentiating sound from flawed governance cannot be brought together and made available through a programme of lifelong learning for all citizens. Although the debate may at times appear to be polarised by cynical authoritarians who want to set all the rules themselves and naïve anarchists who want to do away with collective rules altogether, there is in fact a significant consensus amongst a wide variety of thinkers who, having studied social interactions and institutional arrangements, concluded that for all to entrust some to govern their activities on their behalf, there must be vibrant organisational relationships that respect each person equally and engage everyone rationally. 

From the work on extending democracy (Carol Gould, Benjamin Barber, James Fishkin); developing communitarian democracy (Robert Bellah, Philip Selznick, Henry Tam); community governance in the public sector (Stuart Ranson, John Stewart); explicating republican democracy (David Marquand, Cecile Laborde, Philip Pettit, Stuart White); promoting workplace democracy (Carole Pateman, Paul Bernstein); designing mutli-stakeholder cooperatives (Pat Conaty, John Restakis); citizen-focused education (Amy Gutmann, Michael Fielding, Bernard Crick); and others on ‘community of inquiry’, stakeholder management, participatory decision-making, a number of key themes emerge that can be crystallised as the core elements of effective governance.

The first stage of this synthesis has been carried out in my book, Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship, where the importance of enabling people to relate to each other in any collective structure is set out in the three principles of mutual responsibility, cooperative enquiry, and citizen participation.  By applying these to the three key domains of group interaction, namely, problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system, we can begin to outline what the core elements of effective governance may comprise:

Embedding mutual responsibility in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question 

1. Shared Mission

All members of the group need to have a shared understanding of their collective mission or purpose.  They should see that the group is organised to enable them to join forces for their respective wellbeing.

Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members?  How convinced are members that they have an organisation which has the rules and capacity to achieve their mission?

Signs of weakness: Disorder – individuals sense chaos, insecurity, indifference, constant conflict, and the sum being notably less than its parts.

2. Mutual Benefits

The benefits/resources generated by the group are properly shared and no individual or section is at liberty to amass what comes from the group’s collective endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits?  Are all members confident the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?

Signs of weakness: Exploitation – some members feeling that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are constantly marginalised and deprived of their share.

3. Coherent Membership

There is a transparent membership system that underpins who is brought into the group and who may be excluded from it, and makes clear to all those who are on board what their rights & duties are in relation to the group.

Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members?  Do members know what is expected of them individually and that they will be held to account through appropriate reviews if they act irresponsibly?  How clear is there a decision path for assessing membership issues such as merger/federation with other groups.

Signs of weakness: Unsustainability – with too few/too many members to function effectively; having unsuitable members to utilise the resources; or members distrustful of the process of determining their membership, and/or that for accepting/excluding new ones.

Embedding cooperative enquiry in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

 4. Collaborative Learning

All members of the group are able to learn together what they should do and what changes would be suitable to make.

Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning?  Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?

Signs of weakness: Thoughtlessness – members detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas and  instructions. There is a lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources.

5. Continuous Re-evaluation

The group does not privilege any doctrine or assertion as unquestionable, nor does it grant anyone the authority to make claims that others must accept without due evidence or reason.

Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions?  Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis?  Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?

Signs of weakness: Dogmatism – irrational beliefs taking hold and  undermining intelligent considerations. Widespread feeling there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

6. Accessible Information

There is a vibrant information system so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared.

Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay?  How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?

Signs of weakness: Concealment – the systematic or regular shielding of irresponsible actions; the deliberate refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why.

Embedding citizen participation in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

7. Joint Decision-Makin

The group respects every member equally in being entitled to participate in the making of decisions that affect them, and enables all members to contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.

Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members?  How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available?  And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected?  How well are joint decision-making facilitated so it is carried out rationally and inclusively?  Does the joint decision-making apply to how to divide and distribute the surplus generated by the group?

Signs of weakness: Disengagement – a significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether. Insufficiently thought-through or biased decisions systemically harm the organisation & its members.

8. Balanced Power

The group abides by the democratic ethos so that no one is permitted to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.

Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating power?  Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis?  Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?

Signs of weakness: Oppression – the suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Fear, resentment, distrust of the leaders.

9. Open Accountability

The group is protected by a robust accountability system so those entrusted with higher authority to act on behalf of all members are unlikely to take actions that are against the wider interest of the group or are to benefit themselves solely without due consent from the group.

Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority?  How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions?  Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions?  Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?

Signs of weakness: Corruption – some stay in positions of power regardless of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of members in general, and subvert the group for the gains of a few.

Each of the nine elements outlined above can be expanded with more details and backed by more examples of the difference they can make in practice.  They are not self-contained so some of the processes entailed by one may well overlap with those proposed by another.  They are meant to work in conjunction with each other to have the greatest impact.  But having each other presented separately helps to focus attention when examining how well that element has been established and sustained.  From an academic point of view, the ideas can undoubtedly be further refined.  From a pedagogic perspective, it is important that scholastic perfection does not get in the way of learning.  After all, at the heart of communitarian governance is continuous learning through shared deliberations.  The nine elements as set out here provide a starting point for teaching and discussing how governance should be assessed and improved.  And the sooner they are incorporated into public education at all levels, the better the chance we have of empowering the governed everywhere to have an informed say about their strengths and weaknesses of their own governance.

About the author

Dr. Henry Benedict Tam (@HenryBTam) is a writer and educator, whose published books include Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship (nominated by New York University Press for the 2000 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order); Against Power Inequalities: a short history of the progressive struggle; and acclaimed novels such as Whitehall through the Looking Glass, and Kuan's Wonderland. He has also been a senior civil servant who led on a range of community policies for the UK government (2000-2011). He blogs at

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