Getting government back on track: focus on agency governance

How can a government be sure that the goods and services produced by the career public service are the same as those promised the electorate? The honest answer is it can’t. Were all the beans to be counted and duly accounted for, the government would still not be able to say with confidence that the bureaucratic agents’ delivery matches the people’s or their elected representatives’ expectations. If statutory mandates are not ‘rewritten’ along the way by the prevailing rules regime and sundry implementation glitches, they are likely to be altered by unanticipated bureaucratic behavior, external political interference, and/or civil society apathy. Tracking the interactions between wishes and horses—or between ‘marching orders’ and compliance—is the remit of agency governance.

Agency Governance Diagnostics: Meaning, Rationale and Methodology

Progress in the assessment of agency governance has stalled due partly to the lack of a precise definition. Unlike political or corporate governance that has received a lot of attention, not much has been done to delineate the boundaries and examine the dynamics of governance in public jurisdictions. The few writings on the subject have concentrated largely on the conceptual and theoretical questions, leaving the practical, ‘coal face’ agency governance issues to be tackled in subsequent studies (Balogun, 2003; Balogun and Mutahaba, 1999; Balogun, 2004).
Exactly what do we mean by agency governance? Is it the same as governance in the generic sense, meaning, the processes of articulating and aggregating disparate interests, jostling for power, and running for office–prior to taking legitimate, authoritative, and binding decisions? Is it synonymous with the business world’s ‘corporate governance’ or with governance in clerical establishments, cultural organizations or private estates?

In the broadest sense, governance has to do with the traditions, institutions and processes by which power in a country is exercised for the common good (Kauffmann, 2005). As the operational side of politics, it is, as once argued by Harold Lasswell, concerned with the question of who gets what, when and how. Understanding governance warrants tracking the choices made by individuals and groups to assert and reconcile conflicting interests, seek the mandate to enact specific policies and programmes, and take decisions that are at once legitimate, authoritative, binding and expressive of the people’s collective will. Closely bound with governance are issues sovereignty, individual liberty, constitutionalism, the rule of law, enfranchisement, elections and electioneering, and state-society relations.

Democratic governance starts from the premise that the individual is born free. However, to stave off the anarchy that is likely to be triggered by unbridled enjoyment of rights, the state requires the individual to surrender a fraction of his/her sovereignty to a central authority. Whether in federal, ‘confederal’ or unitary systems, it is the central authority that acts on everyone’s behalf to dispose of matters beyond the capacity or legitimate sovereignty of the individual. In exercising the resultant collective sovereignty, the state ensures that no right overrides or extinguishes another without just cause. In other words, while the state acknowledges the individual’s right to decide matters that concern none but him/herself, it deems it expedient to intervene before the strong devours the weak or the self-absorbed lane-blocker holds other road users hostage.

The state accordingly mediates between and among competing claims to ensure that no right is enjoyed to the detriment of another equally deserving right—including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, howsoever defined. So it is that one is not at liberty to take another person’s life or deprive him of his/her possessions. By contrast, the state is duly authorized to execute a person found guilty of homicide, treason or related crimes. Only the state is authorized to raise an army to secure its borders and to fight off foreign invaders. To take up arms against the state is treason. When disputes arises in the board room, in the church or at home, it is the state that that is (through agents) duly authorized to arbitrate and render binding decisions. Only the currency issued by the state is legal tender; anything different is counterfeit the possession of which is to be met with the severest penalty.

The essence of ‘good governance’ is thus the exercise of the state’s sovereign (specifically, legislative, executive, and judicial) powers to attain those ends that are beyond the individual’s capacity or legitimate claim, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights and liberties every individual. Good governance makes those things happen that the inhabitants of a particular territory–especially, the voting and the politically active publics–want to see happen. Examples of what the people generally wish to see happen are peace, security, material prosperity, preservation of basic rights and freedoms, and, on congested highways, free, unimpeded traffic flow. Among the developments which regular and reasonable societies would like to see interdicted as undesirable are anarchy, vigilante justice, civil strife, brigandage, rights violation, bribery and corruption, power failure, water shortage, sub-standard housing, environmental pollution, decaying infrastructure, gridlocks, declining quality and standard of education, pandemics, impaired access to health and medical care, corruption and bribery of public officials, poverty and destitution.

Sharp as the distinction between the desirable and the undesirable most frequently appears, human beings rarely, if ever, see eye to eye on how to usher in the former and keep the latter at bay. It is thus not surprising that politicians haggle among themselves over the policies to enact to attain the good life and to fend off misery. To impose a modicum of order on an otherwise chaotic and acrimonious situation, individuals associate with another as members of political parties, or forge broad-based alliances around key issues. In the end, the party or the coalition that commands the support of the majority forms the government.

That is where agency governance enters into the equation. It is also where the real governance head-ache starts. The point at which the victorious group secures the mandate of the people and deems itself empowered to govern is where the first major challenge is likely to surface. The transition from electioneering to incumbency particularly signals the dawn of a new reality—the reality that the politicians might have promised more than the bureaucracy could deliver. Interrogating the career bureaucracy’s capacity and motivation to fulfill their mandates, in the face of sometimes impossible odds, is roughly the essence of agency governance.

It should by now be obvious that agency governance is a sub-set of governance. However, where governance in the generic form is amorphous, and sometimes, imprecise, agency governance is distinguished by its location within a framework of rules, processes, ethics, values, and for better or worse, bureaucratic politics. In contrast to the broad conceptualization of governance as the traditions and institutions by which power in a country is exercised for the common good, agency governance is the exercise of authority and the management of formal and informal relations with a view to implementing public objectives in a timely and cost-effective manner. In much the same sense as public management is the visible side of the state, agency governance is the tool by which the larger promise of good governance is fulfilled. In short, agency governance deploys professional competencies and applies the requisite management techniques to make those things happen that the government (as the representative of the People) want to see happen, and foreclosing any developments contrary to expectations.

Where the governance in the generic sense entails partaking in competitions between or among rival visions, agency governance is concerned with the establishment of institutions, processes and practices for the timely and cost-effective implementation of a willed future—a future articulated by a duly elected government.

Making things happen as preferred by the people (and by their elected representatives) is of course just one side of agency governance. The flip side is far more complex. It is the side on which things rarely happen as planned or as intended. The opposite side of agency governance is where agency missions risk being subverted by glitches—some natural, others man-made. Agency governance yields negative or undesirable dividends when the gear linking processes, with practices, ethos and attitudes are in the neutral or reverse mode. Among the signs that an agency’s processes are in neutral mode are rigid interpretation and blind application of rules, failure to resolve the rules’ internal contradictions, and worship of processes at the expense of results. The reverse gear in agency governance is fully engaged when performance standards are non-existent; performance monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are either weak or dysfunctional; authority is over-centralized; superiors refuse to delegate to subordinates (particularly to the service delivery agents); communication breakdown is frequent; complex, time-consuming processes are in vogue; chaotic service perimeters are left un-reengineered; rules are interpreted in a legalistic, opaque, or otherwise faulty manner; and nothing is done to stem precipitate decline in employee morale and esprit de corps. An agency also risks wandering in a direction different from the charted one when human frailties trigger frequent circumvention of due process and widespread violation of service ethos.

Sadly, it is the citizen that most frequently bears the brunt of deviation from agency missions. When, due to glitches in processes and/or in human behavior, the organization fails to operate as intended, the citizen is denied access to the quality service s/he craves. A derailed agency is capable of anything except provide the service the citizen requires. A police force that serves partisan political interest to the neglect of its statutory crime fighting mandate has serious agency governance issues. So is a traffic control organization whose staff are adept at extorting money from motorists but are thoroughly incapable of enforcing road discipline, clearing gridlocks, or keeping traffic flowing. Racketeering (whether at police formations, in the ports, in customs long rooms, or at vehicle licensing offices) is an unmistakable symptom of a major agency governance crisis.

Agency governance does not have to reach a crisis point to warrant attention. Even when things are running smoothly, it would still be necessary to keep agency governance practices under close and constant observation. The question is what attributes of agency governance deserve sustained attention. As noted elsewhere (Balogun, 2003a), understanding the dynamics of agency governance warrants undertaking frequent and systematic diagnoses of:

(a) Organization structure, mandate/mission, policies, medium- to long-range plans, strategies and tactics (as well as the actors’ cognitive and perceptive interpretation of same);
(b) The interface between political power and bureaucratic authority (that is, between political functionaries and career managers, between partisanship and professionalism, and between political calculations and rational, fact-supported/evidence-based decisions);
(c) The decision making process (with particular reference to the grades of officials authorized to participate in making discretionary and middle management decisions on wide-ranging subjects, especially, allocation of oil blocks, allocation of government plots, granting of customs waivers, award of contracts, expenditure authorization, staff deployment and discipline, eligibility for and access to service, and delegation of authority to headquarters and field staff);
(d) The clarity and consistency of rules (including the public service code of ethics such as professionalism, non-partisanship, impartiality, accountability, transparency, integrity), as well as the frequency of compliance therewith or deviation therefrom);
(e) The link between formally enacted rules and day-to-day application within formal and informal networks (i.e., the tension between the public service rules and internal bureaucratic ‘politics’);
(f) The effectiveness of conflict resolution, grievance handling and diversity management mechanisms;
(g) Internal and external accountability processes (including the service delivery agents’ accountability to their supervisors, as well as to the political cadres, parliament, the judiciary, auditor-general, ombudsman, office colleagues, service beneficiaries, tax-payers, and the general public);
(h) The service delivery systems and ethos in place (as well as the standards and indicators of ‘quality service’ established within each agency); and
(i) Mechanisms for customer/beneficiary/citizen evaluation of goods/services produced by the agency(including the readiness of the citizen to participate in the formulation of performance standards/indicators, and hold public officials accountable for acts of omission or commission).


The conduct of agency governance diagnostics must of necessity rely on a variety of methodologies, namely:

(a) Literature review (including scholarly articles, ministerial organization charts and mission statements, each ministry’s budget, annual reports, reports of the civil service commission, ombudsman’s reports; ministry’s staff lists, government circulars, civil service personnel and financial rules, monitoring and evaluation reports, and other secondary sources);
(b) Design, testing, and administration of at least two survey questionnaires—one to be completed by a stratified and representative sample of ministry’s political functionaries and career officials, the superiors and the subordinates included, the other to be completed by external clients, including opinion leaders, civic actors, umbrella organizations representing each ministries’ clients, the workers’ unions, chambers of commerce and employers’ federations, etc.);
(c) Conduct of follow-up personal interviews with selected respondents;
(d) Conduct of focus group interviews;
(e) Compilation of success and failed cases in agency governance;
(f) Direct observation of goings on at service perimeters (e.g., at a passport/vehicle licensing office) to capture wasteful/time-consuming processes and motions and the service delivery agents’ attitudes to ‘customers’); and
(g) Any other methodology likely to generate reliable data on agency governance.

Extending the frontiers of agency governance studies

Agency governance was identified as a distinct field in a paper presented at a meeting of the Pan African Conference of Public Service Ministers (Balogun, 2003). However, it is only recently that it began to receive the attention of African governments and public service leaders.

The underlying aim of agency governance diagnostics is to collaborate with all the stakeholders on the search for answers to pressing problems, not coming from outside an agency to find fault with those inside. Hopefully, our knowledge of the subject will grow as empirical studies yield valuable data on agency processes, practices, and culture.


Balogun, M J, 2003, ‘Performance Management and Agency Governance for African Development: Search for Common Cause on Excellence in the Public Service’, DPMF Occasional Paper No. 9, (Addis Ababa: Development Policy Management Forum)

Balogun, M J, 2003, ‘Results-oriented Management: Global Trends, African Perspectives and a Long-term Vision’ (Text of a paper presented at the Angola Civil Service Day, Luanda, Angola, Wednesday, 24 September 2003)

Balogun, M J, and Mutahaba, Gelase, 1999, “Redynamizing the Civil Service for the 21st Century: Prospects for a non-bureaucratic structure”, in Keith M Henderson and O P Dwivedi, eds., 1999 Bureaucracy and the Alternatives in World Perspective, Macmillan;

Balogun, M.J. (2001), “Performance Improvement and Customer Satisfaction as a Focus of Administrative Reform: Trends and Challenges in Africa”, Public Administration Quarterly, 25 (3).

Balogun, M J, “Causative and Enabling Factors in Public Integrity: a Focus on Leadership, Institutions and Character Formation”, Public Integrity, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2003.

Downs, Anthony, 1967, Inside Bureaucracy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company)

Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A., & Mastruzzi, M. (2005). Governance matters IV: governance indicators for 1996-2004. World bank policy research working paper, (3630).

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