Governance: How do you know how you’re doing?

Galang specializes in and advocates good governance. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, November 13, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

The World Bank released in late September 2006 the fifth and latest update of its worldwide governance indicators that saw an overwhelming majority of countries and territories coasting along, the Philippines included.

“The picture that emerges is sobering,” says the report.  The average figures over a ten-year period show “very little evidence of significant improvements in governance worldwide.”

What the report offers, I think, is less an indictment of countries for lagging performance than an indicator of where performance is lagging.

The third version, released in 2003, clarified at the outset that the sets of governance indicators (six in all) aim to allow countries “to benchmark themselves against other countries and over time,” without necessarily taking the place of “in depth, country-specific governance diagnostics as a basis for policy advice.”

Even in its current form, we are told that the results remain too “blunt” to serve the purpose of good counsel. Besides, they could hurt.

Take your cue from an “anti-corruption consultant” for Malacañang. Apparently unhappy about the Bank’s report, he advises us through the press to look instead at a “better picture” of the same thing, as drawn from surveys and sources other than the World Bank update. He wants us to believe, in effect, that the issue is what you want to see, in the first place; and not what you want to find out. Denial is good ego defense.

For activities other than holding press conferences, performance measurements merit more serious attention than embellishing a point in front of the camera.  It’s really a scoring system of sorts for management to know how the organization is doing and where, with the end in view of meeting agreed performance standards.

There’s more art than science in the exercise.  And the core issue is an age-old one: it’s in the inherent tension between quality and quantity (or, abstract and concrete, absolute and relative, to the more philosophically inclined). How do you, for example, quantify governance quality to the point where you will know how much it has changed, for better or for worse, over a given time?

Long before that, the business world grappled with a similar issue:  How do you measure service quality? And it invented the answer: Ask your customers. That’s W. Edwards Deming’s TQM (Total Quality Management). Ten out of ten customers giving your service items a “1” on a 5-point scale where “5” is the highest, should give you a numerical handle on the level of service quality you are giving.

The goal is improving performance and knowing where it’s needed in the scheme of things.  Only a cheat would spend time and money doing the survey, and upon getting a low score, would tell everybody that the 5-point scale follows the UP grading system, after all. You want to find the true picture, and this may not be the better-looking one you hope to see.

You may take governance quality in the same breath and define it in terms of, well, public perception:  You would want to know the level of public satisfaction with government performance in areas or “governance dimensions” of your choice.

The World Bank’s indicators “capture six key dimensions” (at http://www.govindicators.org), which stem from its own definition of “governance.”  But you don’t need a World Bank for this; you need only yourself to know what your purpose is in terms of service and performance.

In about the same year the World Bank released its first governance report in 1998, a group of Filipino experts led by Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez had already come out with a “family of measures” on governance, covering both national and local, which found their way into a book bearing a suggestive title, Measuring Good Governance in the Philippines.

But most of all, although this one may sound old-fashioned, you would need a good measure of willingness and will to start and get things going.

The question remains: What does the government really know about what the people honestly say about governance in this country? I’m not sure if there’s an answer to that yet. Meanwhile, try using the idea instead as performance indicator, a proxy for government’s sense of purpose.

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