Learning to improve governance for all and by all

Capacity building of collective actors is essential to prevent market failures or failures related to direct governmental regulations imposed in the name of public interest, as identified by the REFGOV (Reflexive Governance) research project. To improve the situation, the project proposes to involve actors and users, or stakeholders in a common process of self-evaluation of their identity and objectives in which lessons from local experiments are pooled and cross-regional/cross-country learning is fostered.

Over the past 30 years there has been a search for new approaches to the governance of public service institutions in Europe. The concept of ‘reflexive governance’ has been suggested as a possible alternative to the failures of other governance models, to better fulfil the demands of democracy and public interest.

The various existing theories of reflexive governance converge around the need to have actors involved in a collective learning process. Such a process needs to be open, allowing participants to develop their understanding of what is in the general interest and not to be constrained in their thinking about the general interest by existing capacities.

In short, the common element of these approaches to governance is to demonstrate the importance of collaborative and negotiated rule making as a necessary complement both to market and ‘command and control’ regulation. At the same time, however, the research suggests that these latter theories pay insufficient attention to the conditions required to build the reflexive capacities of the actors involved in the collective learning processes.

The REFGOV project (involving 29 interdisciplinary research teams) tested various theories of reflexive governance in five different thematic areas. Although the range of themes was diverse, the research projects involved were unified by their attempt to identify which key concepts of governance are dominant in each and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The thematic areas were:

  • Services of general interest, such as energy (in the UK, Germany, Canada), and healthcare in the UK and France (for example, the UK case study of patient public involvement (PPI) policies); the role of NGOs in relation to government and other actors; the development of charitable organisations in England, which tend to be justified in terms of increasing both democratic legitimacy and the responsiveness of public services to local needs, but where there is a further rationale in the establishing of conditions and building of capacities for social learning1.
  • Global public services and common goods - Including international public-private partnerships in environmental services, clean water and sustainable technologies (for example, small-scale forestry in Flanders and the complementary role of reflexive governance in non-state organisations and communities, and more conventional rulemaking in governmental and intergovernmental organisations2).
  • Institutions to organise markets – (in this project ‘institutional frames for markets’) or how institutions have to be designed to incentivise private and competing providers to meet the public’s general interest.
  • Corporate governance – Including the evolution of codes and disclosure rules, and the impact of shareholder ownership on employee relations, and the economic performance of an enterprise.
  • Fundamental rights governance – The impact of a collective learning mechanism on the implementation of fundamental social rights, anti-discrimination law, the protection of personal data and the criminal law.

REFGOV included researchers from economics, law, political sciences, legal sociology and philosophy. They analysed the conditions necessary for successful collective learning that lies at the heart of the processes of collaborative and negotiated rule making. In this regard, REFGOV observed the current leading trend which stresses participatory mechanisms as a condition for expected success. But they also brought to light the need to pay more attention to the question of building the learning capacities of the collective actors that take part in the participatory mechanisms. They explored the role of different actors in the legislative process, the existence of non-legislative tools and mechanisms of deliberation, the impact of international and European human rights standards, and the role of consultation, evaluation and impact assessments.

The researchers concluded that inclusion of capacity building processes is needed to prevent future market failures or failures related to direct governmental regulations imposed in the name of the public interest. Their recommendations to policy makers for an improved form of governance include:

Create mechanisms to share and evaluate practice

  • Create mechanisms for pooling lessons from local experiments and for cross-regional /cross-country learning, such as monitoring and evaluation, benchmarking of best practices, consultation, participation and feedback from the user organisations.
  • Organise deliberation with collective actors on how to evaluate these collective learning experiences, on who should participate in the evaluation and on which criteria should be used.

Create opportunities for collective learning

  • Develop initiatives that confront actors with new user groups and stakeholders.
  • Involve the actors and users or stakeholders in a common process of self-evaluation of their identity and objectives (this collective process operating as a ‘third’ both for the actors and the users/stakeholders, without this ‘third’ being the state/an external regulator).
  • Promote the association of these new user groups/stakeholders to learning processes within these redefined identities and objectives, with the view to involving them in a process of self-transformation of their modes of collaboration, instead of presupposing a set of ideal conditions of deliberation that can be defined outside these learning processes.


1 De Schutter, O. and Lenoble, J. (eds.) (2010), Reflexive Governance. Redefining Public Interest in a Pluralistic World, Oxford: Hart Publishing. (See chapter 7).

2 De Schutter, O. and Lenoble, J. (eds.) (2010), Reflexive Governance. Redefining Public Interest in a Pluralistic World, Oxford: Hart Publishing. (See chapter 8).

REFGOV- Reflexive Governance in the Public Interest (duration: 1/6/2005 – 31/5/2010) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://refgov.cpdr.ucl.ac.be/

Contact: Anne Liesse, anne.liesse@uclouvain.be