Government, Governance, and Consensus

At first, it’s easy to say that the difference between government and governance is grammatical, or that it’s purely semantic. The difference seems more relevant, though, when you consider the connotations of power distribution between these two systems. From what I can understand, a system of “government” seems to imply a system with one governing body, which more or less solely holds responsibility for governing. “Governance,” however, implies the act of governing: not necessarily in a traditional, government-centered way, but with several actors and less rigid and historically-bounded precedent. “Governance” is a more fluid, active concept that can be performed by governments or by other actors (or by both, working together).

What is interesting to me about governance as a concept is the diverse number of interests that can then be considered in the governing process. In a system of shared governance, everyone approaching the process brings with them their own interests, meaning that in a best-case scenario, more facets of a particular problem will be accommodated and taken into account. In a worst-case scenario, though, it seems possible that so many issues will be brought up that the governing bodies can end up in a state of paralysis.

This is, of course, especially relevant in the area of Internet governance. I’ve been working for the past few weeks as a research assistant for a professor who researches cooperation among international organizations in the realm of Internet governance. In particular, I’ve been looking at conversations that happened at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) this past year. Although it is far from the worst-case scenario, there is certainly a struggle of competing interests when debating potential Internet governance policy that led to pretty slow movement at the conference. If I have learned anything from reading the transcripts of IGF meetings, it is how hard it is to reach consensus when dealing with multi-stakeholder governance. There was even a time in one IGF meeting in which the attendees debated how much consensus they would need before releasing any suggestions or documents from the meetings; in other words, a struggle for consensus about how to reach consensus! But beyond that, reading through IGF transcripts has shown how much the many stakeholders in Internet governance care about the platform remaining open, diverse, and truly multi-stakeholder, relegated not to one (or many) governments but to an active system of governance that involves all relevant actors.