Water governance; an empty signifier?

Our blog is now live for about six months, and we have had several posts on water governance. Although there are multiple perspectives on ‘water governance’, we even dared to post a page on “What is water governance”, indicating and implying that we know how to define the concept. Well, this may not be true when we shed light on the concept of governance based on Claus Offe’s essay (2009). Offe, who is very skeptical about the concept, makes an interesting argument that the term ‘governance’ is an “empy signifier”.

First, the concept of governance is used to grasp, on the one hand, institutions, and on the other hand, a process. At the same time, the term governance does not allow for a verb form. Offe states: “There is no verb with which one could potentially express: “he is performing the activity governance”, just like it would appear nonsensical to say: “we globalize” this or that””. This also means that the subject-object difference is lost. While governments can govern their members, and members can be governed, someone cannot be governanced. Also the term is not translatable to other languages and therefore, most of the time, not translated at all. In addition, Offe argues, the concepts lacks a clear opposite. It is also unclear whether it is a generic category or rather a counter-concept to government.

Second, there are some serious problems with the boundaries of the concept. Does it include markets? Non-state actors? Individuals? And on what grounds? It can refer to both the state and society spheres (as in “private-public partnerships” which is a prime example in governance literature), as well as political and economic action (“corporate governance”), domestic and foreign or international issues (“global governance”), and facts and norms regarding desirable modes of action (governance versus “good governance”). Also, if we compare specifications of governance, like “multi-level”, “supra-national”, “global” and  “local”, it is difficult to find the common denominator.

Third, governance is sometimes used as a solution to all kinds of complex, or wicked, problems in society. Offe says; “It has a stopgap function: one may fall back on governance as a comparatively “soft” mode of substitution for state and government (..)”. This while governance can still facade power relations and dependencies which have all the more impact on cooperation than voluntaristic, democratic and transparency motives.
The attributes used to describe governance are adjectives such as non-corrupt, transparent, informal, citizen-friendly, legitimate, horizontal, interaction, consensus, cooperation, adaptation et cetera. Therefore governance lacks conceptual contours and opens the floor for all sorts of euphemisms. Governance becomes a game without losers, always leading to the achievements of “good results” .

When we talked about water governance we said that  “we are interested in ‘the totality of interactions, in which public as well as private actors participate, aimed at solving societal problems or creating societal opportunities; attending to the institutions as contexts for these governing interactions; and establishing a normative foundation for all those activities”. We followed Pierre and Peters (2000:1) in that the term ‘governance’ has “the ability to ‘cover the whole range of institutions and relationships involved in the process of governing”, while at the same time stating that “Clearly, ‘governance’ is not the same as government”. This, because the term governance allows non-state actors such as businesses and civil society to be brought into an analysis of societal steering.

An upcoming discussion now is also the “governing of governance”. For instance, Bell and Park (2006) wrote an article on meta governance of networks in the New South Wales’ Water Reform. Meta governance is by them defined as “the government of governance”. This blurs the independent meaning of the concept of governance because it brings government back in. This is, by the way, a topic on which scholars in Public Administration now also debate. How governments can “steer” governance processes, and maintain influence in the public policy making process. It is likely that, in the realm of water management, we will have, or need to have, the same discussions. See for instance Tropp (2007).

If we lay this next to the points raised by Offe (2009) we see that we may be making the understanding of water governance more complex and ambiguous, rather than more straightforward and clear. We seem to mix up structure and process, governing and governance, and are not very clear on the conceptual and practical boundaries. This has off course advantages because this enables us to apply it in every way we like and it also nurtures the discussion, but for the translation of water governance to actual policy practices, it may make it more difficult to understand.

While we could return the critique to Offe that he raises more questions than answering them, underestimates the added value of the concept throughout the last decades, and neglects the potential value and use of the concept, we could also start with ourselves and rethink our own meaning and use of water governance. Hopefully this will lead to a better understanding of the concept, both theoretically and practically.

We would like to invite you to join us in this quest!


Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/science-and-policy/water-governance-an-empty-signifier/

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  1. […] times of uncertainty on the horizon. Looking back at the year we can see how some on this blog have attacked the notion of governance head on, and suggested it is nothing but an empty container. Others have pleaded for attention to the […]

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