Friday, May 25, 2012

What is Good Government (or Good Administration) Anyway?

My friend Steve Saideman has been posting a lot about the protests in Quebec, and about how the really important issue there is good governance, not tuition hikes. His stuff is really good, and if you have any interest in that stream of events, go read his string of posts on the subject.

His repeated return to the Good Governance theme, and its connection to universities in Quebec, has gotten me thinking again about what "good governance" (or, perhaps, "good administration") looks like inside a university. Since I'm part of the "governance" structure but still feel affinity with the faculty, I often wonder what kind of governance we should be striving for. Heaven knows that in my faculty career, I've seen more than my share of lousy administration; so what does the alternative look like?

The obviously wrong answer is, "one that makes everybody happy". Anybody who has spent any time at all in academia - or, indeed, any other organization bigger than two or three people - knows that making everybody happy all the time just isn't possible. Sometimes, the outcome has to go the other way; sometimes, your preferences are noted but they don't carry the day.

The larger the organization and the broader the range of views (and the wider the variance in the distance between those views and reality), the less and less common ground there is that absolutely everybody will agree on. Most universities manage this by operating as more or less loose conglomerations, giving smaller units (departments, colleges) a fair amount of local control. But that only goes so far. Sometimes, there are decisions that affect everybody, and upon which people don't agree.

In general, most people don't pay attention to governance (or administration) until it impinges on them in some fashion - either by interfering with something they want to do, or by doing something they don't approve of. That is, so long as I'm getting what I want, I don't pay too much attention to what the government/administration does.

That is to say, most people are interested primarily in the outcomes of governance - do I get to do what I want, are my streets paved (and not collapsing in sinkholes), are my students getting funded, do I get the classroom space I need. Process only becomes an issue when the outcomes are different from my preferences.

Because of this, thinking about the process of governance (or administration) is often a foreign concept. Some years ago, I was head of an advisory board for a nonprofit organization. The administrative head of that organization drew this distinction clearly, and clearly and publicly labelled himself an "outcomes person". He didn't care about the process, so long as the outcome was to his liking. That caused a few problems with other folks in the organization, because process often includes things like "fairness" and how we treat other people.

The students in Quebec seem to have a similar problem. They don't care about the process (especially the violence-prone among them) or who it hurts, they just want the outcome that they want. Since they can't get what they want through a civil process, they lash out. That's an understandable strategy in 1970s Soweto, where the government is repressive and not going to listen to you no matter what. In modern Quebec? It may be inept, but there is a functioning civil society there.

If good governance or good administration isn't about delivering the outcomes everybody wants (because that's not possible), what is it? It is, simply, paying attention to the process and guarding the principles on which the process is founded. Is the system fair? Does everybody who deserves a voice have one? Are decisions being made by the people who have the authority to make them? Is the system transparent and open, so that everybody understands what the rules are?

In my experience, adhering to these things does not make everybody happy - although it does help a lot to ameliorate the concerns of reasonable people. My office still gets tons of outcome-based demands, usually based on some variant of "my situation is unique, so this rule shouldn't apply to me". Sometimes the answer is still no, and sometimes those folks go away unhappy.

That's OK, as long as we're fair and reasonable and consistent and open about what we do. In the long run, that doesn't seem like much to ask for - although in the short run, when people focus on the immediate outcome, it's easy to lose sight of. But as my friend Steve has pointed out time and again, if you screw up the process, in the long run you'll get horrible outcomes anyway.

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