Better for whom?

While politicians, decision makers and many academics seem to consider ‘success’ (and ‘failure’) in government business as something self-evident, there is reason to examine what we actually mean by ‘better’ government.

Professor Karl Löfgren

Let’s, for instance, look at what it might imply for a particular slice of government: the political part of the executive.

There is a growing literature in policy studies presenting a more nuanced and complex understanding of ‘better’. We can discern at least three different usages of how to discuss ‘good’ and ‘bad’ government in modern political language.

The first, and perhaps more obvious, use of ‘good’ government is to indicate that the Government has achieved what it set out to accomplish. It has reduced taxes, reduced the number of citizens on welfare benefits, increased the number of school-leavers with the required qualifications, and so on. Better government is here presented as fulfilling policy objectives, gratifying promises to the electorate or, to use modern managerial language, ‘delivering’. This is what we commonly think about when we hear that the Government has either succeeded or failed. It also reflects modern, measurable and transparent politics in which the performance is reported back to a group of constituents with a clear chain of accountability.

The second way of perceiving better government is to assess to what extent the process was successful or not. This is by and large the internal criteria for success—did the Government or public sector follow the constitutional conventions, democratic principles and ethical and integrity standards, and secure a fair, efficient and just process? While it is about meeting expectations from, for example, the electorate, the party memberships and professional bodies and other vested interests, it is also about demonstrating innovation and initiative to a broader group of constituents. In relation to the first usage, this is like the classical expression ‘The patient died, but the operation was successful.’

Finally, better government can be merited on whether it has been a political success or not. ‘Better’ here is about securing survival and reputation of those people working in, and for, the Government, and also pursuing certain ideological aims. Even inefficient political actions may be rendered successful, as they assure ideological steadfastness and government commitment to a political cause: ‘We stood our ground.’

It would be easy to say that advancing better government is about encompassing all three of these usages, by this means satisfying everyone. In practice, there is a trade-off and it is impossible to secure success in all three. We can do our best to conflate these different understandings, but it will never be completely attainable. We should always follow up any suggestions of better government with the counter-question ‘Better for whom?’