Governance as a Socio-cybernetic System

‘Socio-cybernetics’ is protected by the cloak of language, but I try to avoid most of its neologisms.[1] For Jan Kooiman (1993a, 1993b), governance:

can be seen as the pattern or structure that emerges in a socio-political system as ‘common’ result or outcome of the interacting intervention efforts of all involved actors. This pattern cannot be reduced to one actor or group of actors in particular (Kooiman 1993b: 258).

In other words, policy outcomes are not the product of actions by central government. The centre may pass a law but subsequently it interacts with local government, health authorities, the voluntary sector, the private sector, and, in turn, they interact with one another. Kooiman distinguishes between the process of governing (or goal-directed interventions) and governance, which is the result (or the total effects) of social-political-administrative interventions and interactions. There is order in the policy area but it is not imposed from on high emerging from the negotiations of the several affected parties. Also,

These interactions are . . . based on the recognition of (inter)dependencies. No single actor, public or private, has all knowledge and information required to solve complex dynamic and diversified problems; no actor has sufficient overview to make the application of needed instruments effective; no single actor has sufficient action potential to dominate unilaterally in a particular governing model (Kooiman 1993a: 4).

So, all the actors in a particular policy area need one another. Each can contribute relevant knowledge or other resources. No one has all the relevant knowledge or resources to make the policy work. Governing confronts new challenges:

Instead of relying on the state or the market, socio-political governance is directed at the creation of patterns of interaction in which political and traditional hierarchical governing and social self-organisation are complementary, in which responsibility and accountability for interventions is spread over public and private actors (Kooiman 1993b: 252).

Central government is no longer supreme. The political system is increasingly differentiated. We live in ‘the centreless society’ (Luhmann 1982: xv); in the polycentric state characterized by multiple centres. The task of government is to enable socio-political interactions; to encourage many and varied arrangements for coping with problems; and to distribute services among the several actors. Such new patterns of interaction abound: for example, self- and coregulation, public-private partnerships, cooperative management, and joint entrepreneurial ventures.

This use is not restricted to national governance, encompassing also the international system. For example, James Rosenau distinguishes government from governance by suggesting that government refers to ‘activities that are backed by formal authority’ whereas governance refers to ‘activities backed by shared goals’. Governance is ‘a more encompassing phenomenon’ because it embraces not only governmental organizations but also ‘informal, non-governmental mechanisms’. So, you get governance without government when there are ‘regulatory mechanisms in a sphere of activity which function effectively even though they are not endowed with formal authority’ (Rosenau 1992a: 3-6).

The socio-cybernetic approach highlights: the limits to governing by a central actor, claiming there is no longer a single sovereign authority. In its place, there is the multiplicity of actors specific to each policy area; interdependence among these social-political-administrative actors; shared goals; blurred boundaries between public, private, and voluntary sectors; and multiplying and new forms of action, intervention, and control. Governance is the result of interactive social-political forms of governing.

  • [1] For ease of exposition, I focus on Kooiman (1993c) as the best recent collection of articlesabout this approach. However, I must also mention the work of Vickers (1968) and Dunsire(1986), both pioneers in applying cybernetics to British government.
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