The Principles of Good Governance

  • Agustí Cerrillo-i-MartínezEmail author
Living reference work entry


International Monetary Fund Public Administration Good Governance Recipient Country Governance Network 
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Principles of good governance are those rules that enable to guarantee the greatest possible democratic status and the achievement of the objectives in governance.


Good governance is a normative approach to governance. It identifies the rules that have to be fulfilled by actors participating in public decision-taking. From a general point of view, principles of good governance refer to a list of common principles that are useful and important to improve decision-making processes and, in the end, to strengthen democracy and to improve social and economic development.

In the following pages, different approaches to principles of good governance are shown, and the differences between them are briefly highlighted. A general overview to the most recognized principles of good governance is also given.

Two Approximations to Principles of Good Governance

Currently there are different approaches to principles of good governance. Principles of good governance are used to set the conditions that should be fulfilled by actors participating in governance networks. In this direction, some rules state principles that govern the functioning of governance networks and the decision-taking procedures.

But principles of good governance are also used to define the conditions that should be fulfilled by recipients of international aid. In fact, international organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, or the European Union require the fulfilment of principles of good governance in their international aid programs.

However, there is not an agreement about which are the principles of good governance in each case. In addition, there have been several and different attempts to define these principles. As it will be shown, defining the principles of good governance is difficult and controversial (Graham et al. 2003). Furthermore, there is not either an agreement about the utility of this concept and its role to foster democracy and development (Andrews 2010). In particular, some authors consider that good governance tends to enhance “the dominant, imperialistic, and globalizing elites’ political and economic interests” (Farazmand 2004).

Good Governance as the Setting in which Networks Operate

Governance networks can take very different forms and degrees of formalization. However, in general terms they are characterized by a plurality of actors and the interdependence and interaction existing between them (Klijn and Koppenjan 2016).

As the recognition of networks has spread in the last decades, various doubts and difficulties generated by their functioning have also been put forward. In particular, the existence of a gap between democracy and governance has been observed. Sørensen and Torfing (2005) have proposed a number of criteria for evaluating the democratic anchorage of the governance networks. In particular, they consider that governance networks will have a democratic anchorage to the extent that they are controlled by democratically elected politicians, that they represent the grassroots members of the participating groups and organizations, that they render accounts to a territorially defined citizenry, and that they facilitate interaction in accordance with generally accepted standards of democratic conduct. According to these authors, these four anchorages offset any defects which may emerge and jointly provide a solid source of democratic legitimacy (Torfing et al. 2009). In order to incorporate these elements and to facilitate the democratic legitimacy of governance networks, different authors have noted, from different perspectives, the possibility of regulating governance by way of the governance of governance, the management of networks, or metagovernance, in which they have highlighted different roles for the public powers (Sørensen and Torfing 2009).

There is a variety of tools for developing metagovernance like principles of good governance. Principles of good governance define the setting in which governance networks operate. From a normative point of view, the concept of governance networks should integrate principles that enable them to guarantee the greatest possible democratic status and the achievement of their own objectives. These principles set the framework in which networks develop their activity.

The principles of good governance have often been related with those of good administration which are receiving increasing legal support as such at the European level. The principle of good administration includes those principles of organization and action that seek to guide the conduct of public administration. However, its scope is limited to government and public administration and does not extend to all the actors of governance networks, as is the case of the principles of good governance. The principles of good governance have also been related to quality of government (Rothstein and Teorell 2008).

In particular, the principles of good governance must be those that foster good functioning of governance networks and therefore enable them to achieve their goals. In particular, they may contribute to the democratic anchorages of governance networks. From this point of view, the principles of good governance have to permit and guarantee that all the necessary actors are included, each of them assuming their corresponding role, that the actors in governance networks have the necessary and sufficient conditions to take the decisions that correspond to them, and that decisions can actually be taken.

The principles of good governance that have the mission of guaranteeing the achievement of these goals are those of transparency, participation, accountability, and effectiveness. Some authors link to this principle the principles of coordination and coherence (Peters 2008). Others include the principle of impartiality (Rothstein and Teorell 2008).

The principles of good governance are recognized in some rules. Thus, in environmental legislation, the United Nations Convention of the Economic Commission for Europe on access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters (Aarhus Convention) of 25 June 1998 is a clear example.

Good Governance as a Condition to International Aid

Principles of good governance also have an important role in international aid. In the last decades, donor agencies have been using principles of good governance to distribute their aid to recipient countries and to drive changes in their institutional frameworks to improve social and economic development. Principles of good governance have also been used as a condition to receive international aid.

Since the first use of the term good governance as a policy strategy by the World Bank in 1989 (Doornbos 2001), the use of principles of good governance has undergone changes in its conception and content. In fact, nowadays there are different conceptions of good governance among aid donors which are settled on different principles. A comparative analysis of aid programs of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the European Union shows that they include different principles when defining good governance.

In spite of this, it seems that there is an agreement about five principles of good governance: accountability, effectiveness and efficiency, openness and transparency, participation, and the rule of law (van Doeveren 2011). But there are other principles that are also included when defining good governance by some international institutions like absence of corruption, democracy and representation, equity and inclusiveness, or human rights (Gisselquist 2012; van Doeveren 2011).

Once again, donors also have different conceptions of each principle of good governance. In fact, donors do not usually define these principles, and in case they do, they use simple definitions. For instance, the World Bank’s 2007 report, Strengthening the World Bank Group Engagement on Governance and Anticorruption, only provides a brief quote from former president about good governance instead of a definition. The same happens in the European Union White Book on European Governance.

In the last decade, the debate around good governance is about its real impact on development (Andrews 2010). In this direction, the Economist (June 4, 2005) was graphically critical with the role of good governance on development noting after defining good governance as good for economic development that it may generate the following infinite regress: “What is required for growth? Good governance. And what counts as good governance? That which promotes growth. And what is required for growth….”

In addition to it, some recipient countries and also some authors are also critical considering that principles of good governance impose a Western liberal model of democracy, they are a poor guide for policy changes, they are a new generation of political conditionalities, and they ignore institutional variations among different countries (Doornbos 2001). To overcome this deficiency, alternative concepts have been proposed. For example, sound governance consists of several major components or dimensions that work in concert with others which include international or globalization forces (Farazmand 2004).

Defining the Principles of Good Governance

Although many definitions of each principle of good governance have been proposed, there are some common elements which are shown next.

First of all, the principle of transparency. It consists of the knowledge by state and non-state actors of what is happening inside an organization through the placing at their disposal of information generated by the organization through different mechanisms. A first mechanism of transparency is freedom of information also known as the right of access to information, whereby state and non-state actors can gain knowledge of information on request to its producers or proprietors in order to be shown it or to be given a copy. This mechanism has a reactive character and constitutes a powerful, though usually underused, instrument for controlling the activity of government and public administrations. A second mechanism of transparency is dissemination of information. By way of this mechanism, the public administration circulates information in a generalized manner by creating dissemination services mainly on the web.

Secondly, the principle of participation. Through participation, non-state actors have the possibility of providing to governmental actors and, in general, to the networks, sufficient elements of judgment to guarantee not only the legality but also the rightness and appropriateness of decisions and also endow them with democratic legitimacy. However, this participation must meet certain requirements to guarantee its democratic anchorage, for instance, that the participants represent the grassroots members of the participating groups and organizations. The regulation of participation must guarantee a participation of quality and prevent the articulation of only a limited number of interests. It must also guarantee impartiality, objectivity, and the duty of due care. Various mechanisms of participation exist, which adopt different nuances. On one hand, those that come under the heading of procedural participation, which covers those mechanisms whereby the citizens participate in the process of generating provisions or proceedings or, in general, in the definition of public policies. And on the other hand, organic participation, which is characterized by the incorporation of the citizens into administrative bodies with decision-making, consultative, or monitoring functions. Participation must not only refer to the mechanisms of formal participation (public information, public hearings, etc.) but also to those of informal participation (hearings, enquêtes públiques, etc.).

Thirdly, the principle of accountability. It can be defined as “a social relationship in which an actor feels the obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct to some significant other” (Bovens 2005). One of the most important consequences of the democratic principle is that those who exercise public powers must answer for the use they make of those powers, since they do not belong to those who exercise them but to the citizens in whose name they are exercised. Accountability acquires greater significance to the extent that “political leaders have found themselves in the position of having to take political responsibility for programs that they have little capacity to influence directly” (Peters 2008). There are some traditional mechanisms for guaranteeing accountability, such as elections and the citizens’ participation in them, and periodical auditors’ reports on the public accounts (Agere 2000). In addition to them, in recent years, new accountability mechanisms have emerged, which are more flexible and make it possible to overcome the problems posed over time by those more traditional mechanisms, in addition to being easier to transfer to other scenarios such as governance networks. Thus, for example, the figure of the ombudsman, the formation of decentralized power structures, the introduction of citizens’ participation mechanisms, the watchdog role of the press, or the establishment of internal administrative control measures are accountability mechanisms. Access to information and transparency in general are also important mechanisms for guaranteeing accountability mechanisms.

Fourthly, the principle of effectiveness. It is the achievement of the result corresponding to the goals set by the organization. The duty of acting effectively, which derives from the principle of effectiveness, also entails the need to act efficiently and economically, that is, to say, the principle of effectiveness also gives rise to the criteria of efficiency and economy. As Ponce has said, “the principle of effectiveness means that in the performance of its function public administration considers the resources available and the goals to be achieved, studies from this perspective the various practically feasible alternatives of action before choosing one, and weighs up the foreseeable effects of that choice” (Ponce Solé 2001).


Principles of good governance have an important role defining the framework for decision-making processes. They can also contribute to increase democracy and improve social and economic development.

However, as it has briefly been shown, it is difficult to identify the principles of good governance. It is also complex to define them. In the last decade, there have been several attempts to do so which have quite different results.

That is the reason why some authors consider that defining the principles of good governance is a hard work without too much practical consequence (Doornbos 2001). Besides, some authors propose that the concept of good governance should be disaggregated on its various components and research should focus on them (Gisselquist 2012).

Principles of good governance should not continue being a catchall term. Otherwise, they will not be useful neither to drive governance nor to analyze it.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Law and Political SciencesUniversitat Oberta de CatalunyaBarcelonaSpain