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Governance in the 21st century

While spatial planners are urged to participate in the debate on how we might integrate more renewable energy sources in our landscape and existing energy system, they are part of a wider process of decision making. This process involves many different groups across many different spatial scales and levels of authority.

Governments act on local, regional, national and international levels, whilst citizens, non-governmental organisations and especially companies – ranging from local businesses to multinationals – are also involved. Of course, this is not unique to governing the energy system. Also, it is not unique for the time we are living in. Nevertheless, as compared to much of the 20th century, it seems that this process of governance has grown in complexity. So while we face a difficult and urgent task to consider how we might integrate renewable energy sources in our landscape and existing energy system, we also face what can simplistically be described as a limited capacity to execute this task.


Although used as far back as the 14th century, the word ‘governance’ has not been used frequently in social sciences until the late 1980s. During the last decades, however, ‘governance’ has grown into a commonly used concept within planning and policy sciences. While clarity regarding its detailed meaning faded with its increased use in literature and debate, the use of the word ‘governance’ in planning and policy science is unprecedented. Spoken in general, governance is simply a synonym for ‘steering’, or what Pierre & Guy Peters (2000) call ‘the process of governing’. Nevertheless, many authors describe governance more narrowly for expressing shifts in this process of steering.

For most of the 20th century “government enjoyed an unrivaled position in society in that it was the obvious locus of political power and authority” (Pierre & Guy Peters 2000; p.4). In the last decades, however, the exercise and organisation of power and authority is undergoing important changes. Summarising the main changes we are witnessing, Jessop (1994) refers to the ‘hollowing out’ of the nation state. This hollowing out implies that power and responsibility are reallocated from the central state ‘upward’ to supranational bodies, ‘sideways’ to non-government, market and civil organisations and ‘downwards’ to lower tiers of government (decentralisation). As a consequence, governments at all levels of authority are increasingly dependent on each other and on non-government organisations, business and the ‘civil society’ to make decisions and implement policies. The related ‘dispersal of authority’ (Hooghe & Marks 2001) undermines the ability of central governments to make decisions and their capacity to carry them out (Stoker 1998; p.18).

Figure 4.1: Governance as a puzzle Governance as a puzzle Source:

From government to governance

If we now aim to further understand the kind of changes following the relative demise of government control in governing societies, we can refer to scholars describing these changes as a so called ‘shift from government to governance’ (e.g. Hajer et al. 2004, Healey 1997, Hooghe & Marks 2001, Kooiman 1993, Pierre & Guy Peters 2000, Rhodes 2000 & 2007, and Stoker 1998). For these scholars a government style of governing relies on formal government control, on top-down regulatory steering and on relying on institutional procedures (compare Hajer et al. 2004, Healey 1997, Kooiman 1993, Pierre 1999, and Stoker 1998). Governance is then used in contrast, as a style of governing relying on a more fluid sharing of competences between formal governments and what is called the ‘civil society’ (the public, businesses and non-government organisations).

In discussing the more general shift from government to governance, many scholars are attempting to identify the exact changes we are witnessing and also try to assess where these changes could lead us (e.g. Arts & Van Tatenhove 2005, Brandsen & Holzer 2009, Hajer et al. 2004, Martens 2007, Nelissen 2002, and Pierre & Guy Peters 2000). To understand where recent shifts in governance are taking us, it helps to first understand where we are coming form; i.e. what is considered a ‘government style of steering’. Theoretically, a ‘government style of steering’ is widely accepted as the most influential model of governance in the 20th century in most countries in the world. Inspired by the writings of for example Fredrick Taylor (1911), Lyndall Urwick (1929, 1943) and Max Weber (1922), it is a style of steering (i.e. ‘governance’) that relies on the coordinative capacity of the central state. That is: it is the state that decides on the main policies with regards to the future and we rely on state departments (e.g. national ministries or agencies) and lower levels of authorities such as regional or local governments to implement these policies. Even when lower levels of authority do develop their own distinct policies, they often have to do so within the boundaries of the policies and regulations that the state has set. Clearly, then, it is the state that dominates and coordinates the process of governance. Hence, drawing from Martens (2007), we will refer to this style of governance as the ‘governance through coordination’ model (compare Knill & Lenschow 2004, Lemos & Agrawal 2006, and Pierre & Guy Peters 2000).

The ‘coordinative model’ was most dominant during the second half of the 20th century. Its dominance, however, has gradually faded. Two key trends stand out. On the one hand, recent decades have seen a shift in thinking and practice inspired by neo-liberalist ideas (see Allmendinger 2002, Harvey 2005, Taylor 1994). Celebrating the merits of competition and market processes, these ideas are often popular among right-wing political movements. Especially during the 1980s they impacted governance practices, most notably in the US (Reagan regime) and the UK (Thatcher regime). Although subject to shifts in popularity, recent and current renewal operations in governance in many western countries are influenced by neo-liberal ideas (see also Allmendinger 2002; p.92-94). Examples are decentralisation to increase competition among localities and privatisation and deregulation for reducing government control over market processes (e.g. Castree 2008a, 2008b, Mol et al. 2000, and Oates 2001).

On the other hand, the last decades have also seen what Healey (1992) calls the communicative turn (e.g. Dryzek 1990, Healey 1997, Innes 1996, and Sager 1994, see also Giddens 1998). This ‘turn’ is not confined is related to sociological works of for example Habermas, Giddens and pragmatic philosophies (see Forester 1989, Hoch 2007). The communicative turn has manifested itself in an increased popularity of participative or collaborative governance approaches, also in practice. This turn is supported by the idea that defining policy issues (‘how is the problem seen’), the ambitions society aims for (‘what do we want’) and how we might best pursue these ambitions (‘which approach works’) are not dictated by governments. Rather, they are constructed in debate (e.g. Berger & Luckman 1967, Healey 1997). Active participation of multiple societal groups and stakeholder bargaining are means for coming to decision making from this perspective (e.g. Jordan et al. 2000, Lemos & Agrawal 2006). How we see the problems society faces and how we think we should deal with them, therefore, are a matter of public debate and discussion.

Three ideal types

The neo-liberal and communicative turn both point towards extreme alternatives to the ‘coordinative model’. Consequently, they help to set the boundaries of the 21st century governance landscape. They also help to structure the landscape of governance by identifying three ideal type models for organising governance. In the literature, these ideal types can for example be found as ‘structures of governance’ (Pierre & Guy Peters 2000), ‘patterns of governance’ (Knill & Lenschow 2004) or ‘models of governance’ (Martens 2007, Pierre 1999). These ideal type models highlight several extreme manifestations of governance; i.e. they are caricatures of ‘the real thing’.

Again drawing from Martens (2007, compare Knill & Lenschow 2004, Lemos & Agrawal 2006, Pierre & Guy Peters 2000), we can distinguish two alternative models of governance to the coordinative model: the ‘competitive model’ (neo-liberal turn) and the ‘argumentative model’ (communicative turn). As each of these three models is presented as an ideal type, they can hardly be expected to exist in reality in their pure manifestation. The added value of using these ideal types lies mostly in the fact that they “demarcate the boundaries within which real-life governance processes can be positioned” (Martens 2007; p.48). Hence, they also help highlighting the differences in how governance can be organised. In figure 4.1 all three are summarised in what can be called the ‘governance triangle’ (Martens 2007, Lemos & Agrawal 2006). It is within this triangle that various theories and practices of governance can be positioned.

Figure 4.2: The Governance Triangle The Governance Triangle Source: Own production; based on Martens (2007) & Lemos & Agrawal (2006)

Hybrid manifestations and networks

The neoliberal and communicative turn result in the emergence of many new policy instruments (e.g. Jänicke & Jörgens 2006, Golub 1998, Jordan et al. 2005, and Vig & Kraft 2013), and mixed or ‘hybrid’ networks in which governance occurs (e.g. Kenis & Schneider 1991, Kickert et al. 1997, Kooiman 1993, March & Rhodes 1992, and Sørensen & Torfing 2007). New policy instruments are for example market-based instruments such as taxes, charges and subsidies that are based on combining governments-based regulations (coordinative model) with market processes (competitive model) (see also Jänicke & Jörgens 2006, Jordan et al. 2005, Lemos & Agrawal 2006, Olmstead 2013, and Stavins 2003). The argumentative model comes forward in yet another group of approaches and instruments, such as public participation, voluntary agreements and informational policy devices such as eco-labels and campaigns (e.g. Arimura et al. 2008, Jänicke & Jörgens 2006, Jordan et al. 2005, and Mol et al. 2000). Often, new policy instruments are used by governments or are based on government-issued legislation. These new policy instruments, therefore, are typically inspired by both the coordinative model and by alternative models of governance implying that these alternative models complement rather than replace the coordinative model.

Next to these new instruments, we also see a blurring of boundaries between state, market and society. Instead, we see a rise of what is abstractly called ‘governance networks’ (e.g. Kooiman 1993). As Jessop (1994) explains, these networks involve both the linking of actors and organisations in a horisontal and vertical sense. Vertically, linkages are pursued between levels of authority in sharing power and responsibilities, notably in response to multi-scalar policy issues. Consequently, as Bressers & Kuks suggest, “sectors in society are not governed on one level, or on a number of separate levels, but through interaction between these levels (…) one reason for this is a growing recognition that the problem situation itself often contains various interacting levels (such as environmental problems).” It results in a phenomenon also called multilevel-governance (e.g. Bache & Flinders 2004, Bernard 2002, Enderlein et. al. 2010, Héritier 2010, Kooiman 2003, and Marks & Hooghe 2001).

Horizontally, we see the increased involvement of market parties (businesses), civil society actors (Non-governmental organisations, citizen groups) and on a local level, also small companies and individual citizens. This is closely related to what can be summarised as an increased dispersal of power in society. ‘Power’ is increasingly spread among a diverse range of actors (see also Booher & Innes 2001, Kearns & Paddison 2000, Stoker 1998, and Torfing 2005). Each actor and stakeholder group wields power, exercises influence and seeks to set the agenda for the decision-making process. Land owners, trade unions, pressure groups and various government agencies all have their own resourses, be it land, property, knowledge, legal competences or funding. On the one hand, these stakeholders can use their resources to lobby for policy outcomes that are in their interest. On the other hand, citizens and stakeholders simply claim their place in the process of governing. Central governments, therefore, need to share their powers for developing policies and controlling their delivery with non-government actors at various levels of authority.

The result of these changes, as Sørensen & Torfing (2009; p.236) explain, is that “although traditional forms of top-down government [the coordinative model] remain in place, public governance increasingly proceeds in and through pluricentric negotiations among relevant and affected actors interacting on the basis of interdependency, trust, and jointly developed rules, norms and discourses.” Governance practices, as is the conclusion, are in a state of transition pointing away from central state control and the dominance of the coordinative model of governance.

Figure 4.3: Also the European Union searches for new energy systems Also the European Union searches for new energy systems Source:

Governance and energy

Cleary, governments cannot simply set ambitious policies without making sure that those that also hold the resources or help provide democratic support will support these policies. This is a reality also when it comes to energy policies. On the one hand, there are many multinationals both on a global and local scale with their own interests. Many of them rely on fossil fuels to currently be profitable. Although they might be interested in more sustainable energy sources, it is also clear that they might think differently than either the government or than citizens with regards to when and how these sources should be used. These large companies often have control over many resources (knowledge, capital, fossil fuel sources) and are therefore also powerful enough to influence decision making of states on both a global and national level. The process of governance with regards to energy, therefore, is a process where power and responsibility are shared and where negotiations and compromises are simply needed.

On the other hand, the topic of energy also involves many stakeholders outside of the direct production, transportation or distribution of energy. After all, energy is needed for almost all societal activities. This is not just related to our individual demands for heat, refrigeration, transport or electricity. Energy, and in practice often fossil fuels, are also crucial for the production and transportation of many crucial goods: water, food, user products, construction material, etc. Simply shifting away from fossil fuels, therefore, will have consequences in almost every aspect of our society and economy. Clearly, many stakeholders, ranging from again multinationals to individual citizens, are involved. Again: governing a transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy is both difficult to imagine and will involve a network of many different stakeholders. Debates, negotiations and bargaining are crucial.

We can now come back to a statement made in step 5.10. There we noted that: “the current fossil-fuel based energy system is far from easy to change. This energy system is not just based on an infrastructure of wells, pipes, energy plants, networks and consumers. It also involves a multitude of stakeholders, each with their own interests and access to resources and power. In the meantime, contracts and existing regulatory systems help stakeholders interact and constrain their freedom to act”. The consequences of these characteristic, which we also noted, is that: “the energy system is a complex web of interrelated actors and networks, both in a physical, economic, social and institutional sense”. This is a statement we can now better understand, especially because we see how control over this system (governance) is difficult. That is, to again repeat, “apart from limitations to fully oversee and grasp such a complex web, ownership and power are fragmented, limiting the capacity of any actor to alter the energy system.” If we truly want to change such a ‘complex web’, we at least know three things after reading this article:

  1. we will have a hard time to fully understand all the consequences of such a change and who will benefit and suffer from these changes

  2. we will face many stakeholders and groups that are involved in deciding on which changes are desirable and which directions to take (and that will think differently about the desirability of such changes and these directions)

  3. we have no real idea who ‘we’ actually is: nobody individually or as a group really ‘owns’ the problem and nobody, including state governments, can be in full control of the process; it truly is an issue for the whole world society.

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This article is from the free online course:

Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

University of Groningen