Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lifelong Learning & Everyday Governance

Schools, without exception, devote the great majority of their time to teaching academic subjects such as language, literature, mathematics, history, chemistry, biology, physics, etc. Many have argued that however important it is to have a good grasp of these subjects, a much larger proportion of time should be spent on vocational training (e.g., craft, technology, engineering) or life skills (variously grouping together skills to handle personal, social, health, financial challenges).

But proponents of all three domains of learning (academic, vocational, life skills) tend to overlook one thing that everyone needs to learn about – the art of governance. This is not to be confused with the listing of citizenship rights and responsibilities, or a recounting of the features of political institutions and electoral arrangements. Governance is about how a group of people (of whatever size) can be held together and led to cooperate for their common good.

From local residents’ and community groups, through schools and hospitals, businesses and government organisations, to multinational corporations and global political arrangements, the effectiveness of their governance impacts on the people who live within their sphere of influence.

To understand what differentiates good from poor governance, and how to steer towards the former is critical to playing a positive role in any collective entity. This involves academic learning from the political ideas on how best to govern; vocational learning from management practices on getting the most out of organisational performance; and life skills learning from interpersonal experience on relating to people constructively in a group context.

While different individuals may benefit from knowing particular academic, vocational or life skills topics, they all need to acquire real competence in contributing to (or at least not hindering) effective governance of the many institutions they are involved with in their lives. The test of governance arises every day, and not only should it be taught systematically in schools, it should be a feature of lifelong learning made accessible to every member of society.

The current absence of governance education is one of the key reasons why most people have little idea of why certain companies behave irresponsibly, some public bodies are mired in errors, or the government under particular administrations let the citizens down. They view these outcomes as mere spectators, not recognising that they can make a difference by, at a minimum, discovering what is wrong with the governance in question and backing changes that will redirect it for the better. Indeed they can go further and actively engage in shaping new policies and practices.

But what is to be taught? Instead of just explaining what constitutes a system of governance, educators must set out what the ingredients of effective governance are. Drawing from the extensive findings in political theory, management analysis, and studies of human interactions, it can with confidence be said that those responsible for any institution (and as we will see, this incorporates all who are involved with the workings of the institution and not just a few designated ‘leaders’) must put in place and sustain the following nine elements:

• Shared mission
• Mutual benefits
• Coherent membership
• Collaborative learning
• Continuous re-evaluation
• Accessible information
• Joint decision-making
• Balanced power
• Open accountability

By teaching introductory courses in schools on what these entail, developing a deeper theoretical and practical understanding through further/higher education, and sustaining continuous improvement through lifelong learning, the everyday governance of the multitude of institutions that affect all our lives will be notably better, which in turn will lead to more optimal outcomes for everyone.

As to what constitutes the basis for these nine elements and what each of them involves, see the outline presented in ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.

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