Time to Rethink…on Regions, Governance, and Indices
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São Paulo, Brasil. Photo credit: Lucas Marcomini via Unsplash

All of the major governance indices cover almost exclusively countries. Shouldn’t large regions be brought into the act?


Governing differences in federal states

Governance indices almost without exception cover an entire country. As an example, the United States has one score in various indices, without taking into account some of the largest states, California, New York, Texas and Florida, which are economic and political powerhouses.

Many regions will have similar ratings, and with good reason, to the federal center. However, as Covid-19 has demonstrated, there are widening differences regarding governance within countries themselves.

The Covid-19 response from the executive branch in Washington, DC and California was markedly different, with the former taking a hands-off approach, while the latter acting much more cautious, advocating a uniform approach and appealing much more to the bigger picture of the population’s health and the ability of public institutions to respond. New York, particularly New York City, also chose a separate path and paid a significantly higher price.

Come next year, what will governance indicators say about the U.S. as a whole? Will it choose the overall federal response as demonstrating insufficiencies in governance, or will it highlight the response of other states?

Another example is Germany, which despite having been well-governed during the crisis, largely from Berlin, showed some of the individual responses from regions as the economy and public institutions opened up. It was competitive to say the least and exposed subtle but important differences between Berlin and the Ländern. Regions have the power to open schools, shops and churches without the approval of Berlin and often times did so without consulting Berlin.

Equally, in Brazil, one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s most visible opponents has been Joao Doria, the governor of Sao Paulo state, who said, “It is amazing when you have two viruses to combat: The coronavirus and [the] Bolsonaro virus. This is not the moment for politics, it is the moment to protect people.” This is from a previous supporter of Bolsonaro, who governs the economic motor of the country and its 45 million inhabitants. In Nigeria, President Buhari eased lockdown restrictions in late April, but added that “State governors may choose to adapt and expand (the measures) based on their unique circumstances, provided they maintain alignment with the guidelines issued above,” Lagos state officials continued their strict lockdown. 

With federal states, usually leaning towards more autonomy from the center and at times taking different approaches towards governance, shouldn’t institutes, think tanks and development institutions consider these powerful economic and political entities more in their governance indices?

Big states and federalism

Of the world’s largest eight countries by geography, seven are federal with their number of states/provinces and populations following in parentheses – Argentina (23, 45 million), Australia (6, 25 million), Brazil (26, 210 million), Canada (10, 37 million), India (29, 1.353 billion), Russia (21, 144 million), and the United States (50, 330 million), The only unitary state in the top eight is China.

Other federalised states with large populations include Nigeria (36 states with over 200 million) and  Mexico (32 states with over 125 million ).

Examining all of Mexico’s states would be an immense job, but what about Mexico City and the state of México? Those two states cover 25 million people (about one-fifth of the entire country) and have a surface area of just 1.2% of the country. These are very wealthy states, in which governance decisions around health, education, and urban planning can make a world of difference. 

In Nigeria, Lagos has more than 20 million people, while the oil-producing states of Abwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers are responsible for the lion’s share of Nigerian oil production. Would it not be productive to consider Africa’s largest metropolis as well as the nuances oil-producing states? 

The state/region approach is also important as many countries (Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Mexico, Russia) have regions which concentrate on natural resources. The revenue staying in the region is the backbone of that region’s economy.

One regional governance index does exist, however very intermittently and only in Europe – the European Quality of Government Index (EQI) – measured in 2010 and 2017. The three inputs include high impartiality, quality of public service delivery, and low corruption. The EQI are survey-based among citizens, so perception plays a large role. In addition, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) does have some individual regions, such as Sao Paulo in Brazil, Kaduna State in Nigeria, Ontario in Canada and Paris in France. The few regions implementing OGP should bring about a visible change in governance, so it would be even more valuable to have a fact-based approach in large provinces and region to see how OGP engagement or other initiatives has brought outcomes in the lives of the population.


Governance in megacities

Ijora, Lagos, Nigeria. Photo credit: Dami Akinbode vis Unsplash

Even an approach of choosing the world’s largest cities – Cairo, Mumbai, São Paulo, Mexico City, Delhi, Lagos, Kinshasa – could potentially make a large impact. The surface area is measurably smaller, the population is very large (hovering around 20 million in each of the above) and the pressures (environment, race, social, spatial, liveability) are dramatic. Governors and mayors have a myriad of options to demonstrate accountable governance, as they usually have the largest budget of any regions in the country.

If you manage a governance index, consulting with city government, the private sector, universities and communities in one city to understand the realities around governance is far more effective and legitimate than running through data sets in an OECD country.

And most importantly, there is a potential “force multiplier” effect of the influence of capitols trickling down to other states. Getting it “right” in these large cities may mean an impressive increase in quality of life in the short-mid term in the region, with the potential added bonus of change in other states.

In many situations, statistics will be a challenge. However, one has to start somehow and working with authorities to increase statistical reliability to inform policy is a foundation of governance. The C40, a collective of forty of the world’s largest cities, has existed for over a decade. What about a G40 – governance indicators of the world’s forty largest cities?

If budgets are tight, governance indices may have to sacrifice countries along the way. For instance, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland are very well-governed and we all know it. For years, these countries have led governance indices and they should be proud of their accomplishments. Given the daily challenges in other countries and regions, it is not important to know which Scandinavian country is one point higher, lower, or happier. What could be highlighted from these countries are individual policies that got them there and discussed extensively with a (willing) governor or a mayor.


Indices resembling media

With the current “blanket” approach to individual countries, governance indices are unwittingly resembling the media – offering stereotypes for entire countries and inadvertently putting all regions (and the entire population) in the same boat. Some indices, such as the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI)’s Resource Governance Index, concentrate on policies from the federal centre, so it is more representative. Others may not be so representative. Perhaps audiences are partially to blame – they have a penchant towards bite-sized portions of information while scanning the news. As a Californian though, hearing “In 2020, the U.S.’s governance performance resembles ‘ ________ or is ________” does not offer an accurate picture of the situation. California’s response, as the world’s fifth largest economy and a nation-state in and of itself, should be considered. In governance indicators, it deserves more than a footnote.

It may not be the job of a governance think tank or institute in Europe or North America to create a governance report of a megacity or an economically powerful region. However those with expertise, financial resources and clout could and should initiate that process with a few regions. Those regions would receive a thorough analysis, a thought-provoking engagement and a potential path for further reform in some of the most populous, wealthiest, and challenging regions in the world. Most importantly, a dialogue will have started to address those governance challenges and to leverage the opportunities there.

The citizens of those regions would certainly be thankful to the initiators for their efforts.




Richard Dion is a governance, communications, and regional development consultant based in Germany. Special thanks to Busayomi Sotunde for her comments.