As we start a new year and look back to 2015 and behind, there is an interesting trend looming; trust in government and its institutions across the globe continues to decrease.  In country after country, people’s trust in their government seems to be eroding, even in places where over the past decades human development has improved.   This trend is more poignant if we take into account that this growing dissatisfaction with government is in the context of unprecedented electoral activity.  That is, in countries where most decision-makers are elected in relatively open and competitive elections.  In spite of that, distrust in government institutions is a phenomenon being registered in both older democracies, as well as newer ones, and in countries that show a relative strong economic performance.

Of course, democratic governance is more than holding periodic, open and competitive elections.  Having freedoms and the right to vote are important ingredients of democratic governance, but not sufficient to govern democratically.   As Francis Fukuyama points in his book Political Order and Political Decay, in addition to elections other key ingredients of democratic governance are: a modern state (vis-à-vis  a neo-patrimonial one);  the rule of law as a mean to constraint power and discretion; and a socio-political system of democratic accountability to demand and apply oversight.    In turn, the dynamics of democratic governance plays out not only during elections, but most importantly after and in between elections when the election winners have the responsibility to govern.  The architecture of democratic governance in any given country offers the space and elasticity for political and policy processes through which government and citizens reach consensus on a number of “public good” policy areas, such as regulations, human rights, laws, justice, welfare and environmental protection.

While government is often used in singular, policies and laws are carried out by many government institutions: the legislature, judiciary, executive branch, and political parties.  Irrespective of where within government policies are laws are made, under the democratic governance framework policies and laws have to encompass the greater public good, and the institutions of democratic governance have to ensure not only constraints to discretionary power, but also inclusiveness of policy-making.  Similarly, while government institutions are important ingredients for democratic governance, the private sector and a variety of civil society and non-governmental organizations, and individuals as citizens have a significant role in legitimizing policies and decisions. As such, democratic governance is an attribute not only of governments, but also of citizens. In this sense democratic governance promotes the question of not only how entrusted power can maximize collective results, but perhaps more importantly how a society organizes itself to ensure and sustain equality (of opportunity) and equity (social and economic justice) for all citizens.

In that context, when one observes trust in government and its institutions continuously declining, one initial thought that comes into mind is that there has to be a gap emerging between existing forms of governance and social expectations and vice versa.  A whole new literature is emerging to understand, not only what specific aspects of democratic government (elected politicians, civil service, policy-making or  bureaucracy) is not trusted, but also at what level (federal, national, intermediate, local), and why is the mistrust growing (size of government, intrusiveness, corruption, ineptitude, lack of legitimacy, lack of representation, lack of accountability, incapacity to protect).  A key question is what the drive is or better yet, what are the drivers of that mistrust?  Does it have to do more with how government is or is not performing? With the increasing diversity of political communities?  With increase access to information but persistent opacity of government business?  With disillusionment by citizens?  With the lack of their involvement in policy-making?  Or, with fear overtaking hope.  In fact, there is no single answer and that is what makes the current democratic governance phase even more interesting, as we are in front of a unique and new phenomenon that is complex, multi-dimensional and ubiquitous and for which there is no easy answers.  What is clear is that the cycle that started over two centuries ago with the U.S. and French Revolutions and consolidated three decades ago with a majority of countries transitioning to democratic regimes, is quickly ending, if it has not already.

Like no other time in history, humanity is enjoying living in the most democratic period of its history, with more rights, resources, and opportunities.  While many societies are still struggling with armed conflict and tyrannical regimes, undeniably substantive progress has been made.  Democratic governments, people, institutions and systems have moved the bar higher, and as such expectations for better governance are also high.   As such, like many other natural phenomena, systems, people, institutions and politics are colliding towards a higher governance dimension.  This new cycle of democratic governance that is brewing, would have to build on accomplishments and progress from the previous cycle, and expand and innovate to respond to new realities in diverse contexts.  As this new but more complex and multi-dimensional cycle begins, the formation and re-formation of sociopolitical communities, their cohesion, and diversity is naturally producing a repeated infusion of demands and expectation from a larger and more capable universe of more inter-connected and inter-dimensional communities.  And yet as this seems to be happening homogenously across countries, the growing demands are diverse and unique to more localized contexts.

Governance as an ever-turning wheel is again entering a new cycle, one that will have to tackle not only the question of expanding free, encompassing and transparent electoral processes, but also improving performance of democratically elected governments and citizens’ contributions to the decision making process.   The achievement of having more democratic and open societies, needs to start paying dividends in terms of wellbeing and equality.  Like retro fashions, a new cycle for governance is returning, brought back both by having reached important milestones, but also by the needs of new socio-political conditions —and the cycle continues.  It would be detrimental to humanity and to the achievements already made, if instead of moving forward towards the next stage of democratic governance, we turn back the clock and go back to non-democratic political systems.  While conflict in different forms and intensities will remain a constant in the new cycle, the challenge for democratic governance as it moves forward will be to offset and manage conflict by regaining loyalty of citizens.  That will depend of course on enhanced performing in multiple policy spheres (livelihood and inclusive opportunities, security, and delivery of social services).  In their performance, democratic governing regimes will have to exhibit both effectiveness and legitimacy, the pillars for rebuilding trust.  That is why democratic governance matters, and why as we immerse into a new cycle for democratic governance, understanding its dynamics, evolution and challenges is imperative.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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