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Democratic Governance : A Genealogy

Mark Bevir
p. 19-36


This essay draws on Democratic Governance to provide a genealogy of governance and to explore its implications for democracy. It explains how governance rose and spread as a consequence of new modernist theories and the public sector reforms that were inspired by these theories. It shows how policy actors have responded to the challenges of governance by supplementing representative institutions with yet more modernist expertise. By historicizing modernism – by showing it to be a particular and contestable mode of knowledge – this essay raises the possibility of moving beyond it. It explores the possibility of more direct involvement and control by citizens throughout the formation and implementation of policies and makes the case for more plural and participatory concepts of democracy.

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1When governance refers to public organization and public action, it captures one of the major trends of recent times. Social scientists, especially those who work on public administration and local government, believe that public organization and public action have moved from hierarchy and bureaucracy towards markets and networks. Doubts may remain about any attempt to overstate the shift: Surely bureaucratic hierarchies remain widespread and arguably the most common forms of government. And questions may remain about the nature of the shift: Have governments become less capable of getting their way or merely altered the ways in which they do so? Yet, despite these doubts and questions, there is a widespread consensus that “governance” captures a shift in theory and practice towards markets and networks.

  • 1 Bevir, M., Democratic Governance, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • 2 This paper derives from a talk I gave at the conference on Interpreting Democratic Governance at De (...)

2 This essay draws on Democratic Governance1 to provide a genealogy of governance and to explore its implications for democracy2. My arguments can be quickly stated :

  • Governance rose and spread as a consequence of new modernist theories and the public sector reforms that were inspired by these theories.

  • Policy actors respond to the challenges of governance by supplementing representative institutions with yet more modernist expertise.

A Genealogy of Governance

3In the late nineteenth century, political science was dominated by a developmental historicism that inspired grand narratives centered on the nation, the state, and freedom. Developmental historicism appealed to narratives that situated events and institutions in a larger order of evolving continuity. Examples include Whig history, idealist philosophy, and evolutionary theorizing. The most significant feature of twentieth century social science was, in sharp contrast, the emergence of modernist modes of knowledge that atomize the flux of reality. Table 1 provides an overview.

Table 1 : The rise and varieties of modernism

Developmental historicism



The new governance

Concept of rationality


Economic and sociological

New theories of governance - rational choice and new institutionalism

State formation

Nation and/or Imperial state

Corporate and/or welfare state

Neoliberal and/or network state

Public sector

Civil service


New worlds of governance – markets and networks

Mode of accountability

Responsible government

Procedural accountability

Performance accountability

4The modernist break with developmental historicism had formal and substantive aspects. In formal terms, modernists turned from historical narratives to formal models, correlations, and classifications that held across time and place. They explained outcomes by reference to psychological types, functional requirements of systems, a general human rationality, and ahistorical mechanisms and processes. In substantive terms, modernism overlapped with new emerging topics, including political parties, interest groups, and policy networks. The substantive and formal aspects of modernism often reinforced one another: the new techniques made it easier to study some of the new topics, and the new topics appeared to require new techniques for gathering and arranging data.

5Contemporary social science is dominated by two varieties of modernism. While both varieties contrast with developmental historicism, they instantiate different formal and ahistorical concepts of rationality associated with different forms of explanation and so different analyses of governance and democracy. On the one hand, the economic concept of rationality privileges utility maximization; it arose with neoclassical theory and has spread to rational choice. On the other, the sociological concept of rationality privileges appropriateness in relation to social norms; it arose with functionalism and spread to network theory and communitarianism.

6The economic concept of rationality found in neoclassical theory has a distinctive history. For much of the nineteenth century, economists merged analyses pioneered by Adam Smith with organic and historical themes. Neoclassical economics established its dominance only as developmental historicism gave way to modernism. Even then it did not obliterate other traditions. Historical and institutional economics continued to thrive, especially on the European continent where economists remained divided about the relevance of utility theory as late as the 1930s. Nonetheless, the spread of modernism saw diachronic narratives of the development of economies, states, and civilizations give way to synchronic models and statistical correlations.

7Neoclassical economics instantiates a concept of rationality suited to modernist emphases on atomization, deduction, and synchronic analyses. Economic rationality is a property of individual decisions and actions; it is not tied to norms, practices, or societies save in so far as these are judged effective or ineffective ways of aggregating individual choices. In addition, economic rationality is postulated as an axiom on the basis of which to construct deductive models; it is not deployed as a principle by which to interpret facts discovered through inductive, empirical research. Finally, the models derived from the axioms of economic rationality are applied to general patterns irrespective of time and space; they do not trace the particular evolution of individuals, practices, or societies. A modernist view of knowledge set the scene for the economic concept of rationality, but the concept acquired its content from utility-maximization. In neoclassical economics, individuals act in order to maximize their personal utility, where utility is defined as a measure of the satisfaction or happiness gained from a commodity or other outcome.

8The most prominent alternatives to the economic concept of rationality are the sociological ones that replace instrumentality with appropriateness. Sociological rationality is about acting in accord with appropriate social norms to fulfill established roles in systems, processes, institutions, or practices. Some sociologists, including Emile Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu, argue that even modern individuals are best conceived not as instrumental actors but as following social norms and roles. Others, including Max Weber and Herbert Marcuse, express fears about the spread of selfish, acquisitive, and instrumental norms in modern societies. The two strands of modernist sociology can come together in broad condemnations of modernity, capitalism, or consumerism for spreading selfish and instrumental norms that wreck older forms of solidarity and community.

9It is worth noting that these sociological traditions with their alternative concepts of rationality date, like neoclassical economics, from the broad intellectual shift away from developmental historicism toward modernism with its emphasis on synchronic analyses. The commonalities of the economic and sociological concepts of rationality are just as important as their differences. Modernist economists and modernist sociologists compartmentalize aspects of social life so as to manage and explain facts. They seek to make sense of the particular not by locating it in a temporal narrative but by reducing it to formal mid-level or universal generalizations that allegedly hold across time and space. Sociologists might eschew deductive models, but they too reject narratives, preferring formal classifications, correlations, functions, systems, and ideal types. Although we can functionalist themes in the nineteenth century, these sociological forms of explanation flourished only with the rise of modernism; it was Durkheim and Bronislaw Malinowski, not Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, who distinguished functional explanations that refer to the synchronic role of an object in a system or social order (a type of explanation they considered to be scientific) from both the psychological question of motivation and the historical question of origins.

10The shift from developmental historicism to modernism altered the concept and nature of the state. As modernists rejected historical narratives, so they challenged the concept of the state as arising out of a nation bound together by a common language, culture, and past. Modernists turned instead to formal patterns, regularities, or models of action and institutions across space and time. Again, when modernists turned away from a substantive focus on the state toward topics such as political parties, interest groups, and policy networks, these sub-state institutions were then studied in terms of laws or regularities derived, for example, from their functions in abstract systems. Even when modernists continued to study the state, they increasingly portrayed it as fragmented into factional interests associated with different classes or parties.

11Modernism challenged the idea that representative democracy was a way of electing and holding to account politicians who would act in accord with the common good of a nation. Representative democracy was in danger of losing much of its legitimacy. Yet, modernist modes of knowledge opened up new ways of making and legitimating public policy in representative democracies. In particular, modernist social science inspired a new belief in formal expertise. Public policy could be legitimate if it were based on the formal knowledge of modernist social science. Elected representatives no longer need express a national character and common good. They could define policy goals and check the activity of experts. Social scientists, professionals, and generalist civil servants would use their expertise to devise rational, scientific policies in accord with these goals. Modernist social science thus helped to create the conditions for the administrative state.

12One important justification for the creation of an increasingly insulated and centralized bureaucracy was the need to deal with abuses and irrationalities in democratic processes. Modernist social scientists, such as Mosei Ostrogrorski, Graham Wallas, and W. F. Willoughby, wrote of the factionalism, propaganda, and financial extravagances to which democratic governments were prone. Many believed an insulated and centralized bureaucracy could preserve democracy while removing its worst features – instability, irrationality, and sectarianism – from the day-to-day activities of governing. Corporatism and the welfare state arose in part as bureaucratic arrangements to overcome factionalism and irrationality. Within corporatism, the bureaucracy reached out to organized interests and brokered their disputes. The corporatist state gave particular associations a privileged status as the representatives of social and economic groups. The privileged associations were involved in the formulation of public policy and in return they helped to ensure the implementation of those policies. The bureaucracy also reached out to individual citizens, assuming greater responsibility for their welfare. The welfare state took control of the individual’s interests in education, pensions, and unemployment insurance. It developed policies not only to redistribute resources but also to ensure that these resources were used rationally to meet the needs of citizens.

13Governance arose in large part out of a crisis within the modernist state. Over-simplifications will abound in any attempt to differentiate the plethora of ideas that fed into narratives about the crisis of the state in the late twentieth century. Nonetheless, one way of approaching these narratives is to see them as embodying different modernist analyses. Some narratives of the crisis of the state challenged bureaucracy, corporatism, and social welfare in terms of the economic concept of rationality. Neoclassical micro-level assumptions informed, for example, narratives that tried to show fiscal crises were a pathology built into the welfare state. These narratives went as follows. Citizens, being rational actors, try to maximize their short-term interests, privileging welfare policies that are of benefit to them as individuals over the long-term, cumulative, and shared effects of rising state expenditure. Similarly, politicians, being rational actors, try to maximize their short-term electoral interests, promoting policies that will gain the votes of these rational citizens rather than pursuing fiscal responsibility. Narrow political considerations thereby trump economic imperatives. Groups of voters demand more and more welfare benefits, and politicians constantly pass welfare legislation on behalf of these voters. A growing proportion of the national product goes on welfare, making fiscal crises inevitable. These narratives of state overload and state crisis pointed to a clear solution – fiscal austerity, monetary control, and a rolling-back of the state.

14Other narratives of the crisis of the state drew on more sociological analyses of changes in the world. These narratives implied that the state had to change in response to international and domestic pressures. Internationally, the increased mobility of capital made it more difficult for states to direct economic activity. The state could not go it alone, but rather had to pursue coordination and regulation across borders. Industries that had operated in the domain of the state became increasingly transnational in their activities. The increasing number and prominence of transnational corporations raised problems of coordination and questions of jurisdiction. There was a gap between the national operation of regulatory structures and an increasingly international economy. Domestically, the state confronted the rising demands of its citizens. These demands arose from popular discontent with the state’s handling of the economy and with its apparent unresponsiveness. Many states were saddled with large debts. Globalization provoked anxieties about competitiveness and wages. Sections of the public worried that the state had lost control. Equally, state-actors often found that they were subject to varied and even contradictory demands from the public. Voters wanted better services and lower taxes. They wanted a more effective state but also a more transparent and accountable one. They wanted decisive leaders and yet more popular participation.

15The new governance consists of the interconnected theories and reforms by which people conceived of the crisis of the state and responded to it. These theories and reforms rejected the expertise associated with the post-War state. However, instead of challenging the idea of applying modernist expertise to social life, policy actors turned to alternative modernist modes of knowing to sustain new forms of expertise. Governance then rose in two analytically distinct waves of public sector reform. The first consisted of the reforms associated with the economic concept of rationality – neoliberalism, the New Public Management, and contracting-out. The second consisted of the reforms associated with sociological concepts of rationality – Third Way, joined-up governance, and networks and partnerships.

16A first wave of reforms drew on public dissatisfaction with bureaucracy, and also on neoliberalism and rational choice theory, both of which explained and legitimated this dissatisfaction. Neoliberals compared the state’s top-down, hierarchical mode of organization with the decentralized, competitive structure of the market. They argued that the market was superior. They concluded that when possible markets or quasi-markets should replace bureaucracy. A quest for efficiency led them to call on the state to transfer organizations and activities to the private sector. Organizations could be transferred by privatization, that is, the transfer of state assets to the private sector through flotations or management buy-outs. Activities could be transferred by means of contracting-out, that is, the state could pay a private sector organization to undertake tasks on its behalf.

17Most neoliberals combined their faith in markets with a faith that the discipline of the market must somehow validate the management practices of the private sector. They redefined public officials as managers or service-providers, and they redefined citizens as consumers or service-users. More specifically, neoliberal reforms of public management often reflected formal analyses. Neoclassical economists first developed principal-agent theory to analyze this problem of delegated discretion in the private sector. They argued that delegating decision-making from principals (shareholders) to agents (managers) is risky because the agents may act on their own interests. Economists proposed minimizing this risk by using incentives and market mechanisms to align the interests of the agents with those of the principals. In the public sector, the principals are the voters and their elected representatives while the agents are public officials. For rational choice theorists, therefore, just as the basic problem of private sector corporations was to ensure that the managers acted on behalf of the shareholders, the basic problem of public administration appeared to be to ensure that public officials work on behalf of citizens. Neoliberals extended to the public sector the incentives and market mechanisms that economists had devised to bring the interests of agents into alignment with those of their principals.

18Popular and neoliberal narratives combined with more formal analyses to produce a paradigm shift within modernism. The new paradigm denounced bureaucracy and public officials, and championed markets and entrepreneurs. It turned away from what was now derided as big government, bloated bureaucracy, and uniform solutions, and toward a private sector that was now lauded as competitive, efficient, and flexible. This paradigm shift was also one from institutional definitions of good government, which emphasized clear-cut divisions of responsibility set in a context of hierarchical relationships, toward new definitions of efficient processes defined in terms of service-delivery and outputs with an attendant emphasis on transparency, user-friendliness and incentive structures.

19When social scientists inspired by sociological theories of rationality studied neoliberal reforms of the public sector, they were often highly critical. They argued that the reforms exasperated problems of coordination and steering; they promoted networks and joined-up government. The advocates of networks distinguish them from hierarchies as well as markets. Old institutionalists believed that hierarchies made it easier to tackle many by dividing them into smaller tasks each of which could then be performed by a specialized unit. New institutionalists argue that this approach to problem-solving no longer suits the contemporary world. Today, policy makers increasingly confront “wicked problems” that are not amenable to division and specialization. To solve these problems requires networks.

20The concept of a “wicked problem” rose as part of an amorphous mid-range social science associated with institutionalism, organization theory, and functionalism. Social democratic governments then picked up and adopted it to counter the ideas and policies neoliberals. Wicked problems are generally defined in terms such as: a problem of more or less unique nature; the lack of any definitive formulation of such a problem; the existence of multiple explanations for it; the absence of a test to decide the value of any response to it; all responses to it being better or worse rather than true or false; and each response to it has important consequences such that there is no real chance to learn by trial and error. Typically these features strongly imply that wicked problems are interrelated. For example, a particular wicked problem might be explained in terms of its relationship to others, or any response to it might impact others. Classic examples of wicked problems include pressing issues of governance such as security, environment, and urban blight.

21So, many institutionalists accept neoliberal arguments about the inflexible and unresponsive nature of hierarchies, but instead of promoting markets, they appeal to networks as a suitably flexible and responsive alternative based on recognition that social actors operate in structured relationships. They argue that efficiency and effectiveness derive from stable relationships characterized by trust, social participation, and voluntary associations. In their view, while hierarchies can provide a context for trust and stability, the time for hierarchies has passed. Hierarchies do not suit the new knowledge-driven global economy. This new world increasingly throws up wicked problems that require networks and joined-up governance. A new institutionalism, with its sociological concept of rationality, thus inspired a second wave of reforms, including many of New Labour’s policies, Australia’s whole-of-government agenda, international attempts to deal with failed states, and post-9/11 security policy in the US.

What about Democracy?

22Whether or not the rise of governance has led to more efficient and responsive public services, it certainly poses problems of transparency and legitimacy. Private sector actors are not democratically elected, and they are rarely directly accountable to elected representatives. Thus, an increase in their role in the public sector raises questions of accountability.

23Some of the issues confronting democratic governance date back to the rise of modernist social science. The collapse of developmental historicism undermined many of the assumptions that had long accompanied representative democracy. No longer could the state be viewed as the expression of the common interests of a people or nation. No longer could one assume that responsible politicians and officials would act in accord with a common good. The problem of ensuring that representatives were responsible gave way to that of making them accountable. Yet, even as modernism revealed cracks in representative democracy, so it papered over them by appeals to an apparently neutral expertise. The new governance has done much the same. The main change has been the content of the expertise. Today’s wallpaper is a blend of rational choice theory and the new institutionalism. Table 2 summarizes the pattern.

Table 2 : Brave new democracy

Rational choice


Basis of democracy



Common good

Aggregate of individual interests

New public service




Rethinking democracy

Nonmajoritarian institutions

Social inclusion

Rethinking accountability

Performance accountability

Horizontal or network accountability

24For developmental historicists, representative democracy was a historical achievement. The civil society (or stage of civilization) that was needed to sustain representative democracy served to promote moral ideals and behavior such as those that made for responsible government. Responsibility referred as much to the character of politicians and officials as to their relationship to the public. Politicians and officials had a duty to respond to the demands, wishes, and needs of the people. To act responsibly was to act so as to promote the common good rather than to seek personal advantage. It was to pursue national interests and thereby overcome petty factionalisms. Words and concepts akin to responsibility were equally prominent in other European languages, as with verantwoordelijkheid (Dutch), responsabilité (French), verantwortlichkeit (German), responsabilità (Italian), and responsabilidad (Spanish). In stark contrast, “accountability” rarely appeared in dictionaries or encyclopedias before the twentieth century.

25The concept of accountability rose alongside modernism. On the one hand, modernism was associated with a loss of faith in the principles that had sustained belief in the progress of nations toward statehood, liberty, and representative and responsible government. Modernists increasingly portrayed the nation itself as fragmented, and so democracy seemed less a means of expressing a common good and more a contest among factions or classes. On the other hand, modernism gave rise to new forms of apparently neutral social science. Social science appeared to provide a neutral expertise that might guide policy-making. Social science could show us what policies would best produce whatever results or values our democratic representatives decided upon. Modernism thereby helped to sustain the now classic distinction between politics and administration. The political process generates values or political decisions for which ministers then are the spokespeople. Public officials provide the politically neutral expertise that formulates and implements policies that are in accord with these values or political decisions. In this context, responsibility, as conceived by developmental historicists, becomes less relevant than the accountability of public officials to their political masters and the accountability of politicians to the electorate.

26An intimate connection between accountability and bureaucratic expertise appears in the content of the former. The theory if not the practice of accountability applies much more firmly to public officials than it does to politicians. Politicians are held accountable through the institutions of representative democracy. Legislators are accountable to the voters who periodically decide whether or not to return them to office once more. The executive, especially Presidents in political systems with a strong separation of powers, might also be directly accountable to the electorate. Alternatively, the executive, notably Prime Ministers and Cabinets, might be held accountable by a legislature that can revoke the authority of the government. Modernist theories often suggested that these forms of political accountability are fairly weak. While politicians and governments can be voted out of office, they often control knowledge, agendas, and resources in ways that make them more powerful than those who might seek to hold them to account. Besides, even when politicians and governments are voted out of office, it often seems that their fall owes less to their conduct in office than to broad political and social trends.

27The mechanisms for holding public officials accountable appeared more firm. administrative accountability occurs in bureaucratic hierarchies. Bureaucratic hierarchies are meant clearly to define a specialized, functional division of labour. They are meant to specify clear roles to individuals in the decision-making process, thereby making it possible to identify who is responsible for what. Typically individual officials are thus directly answerable to their superiors (and ultimately their political masters) for their actions. In addition, administrative accountability has increasingly been supplemented by a range of ombudsmen and other judicial means for investigating maladministration and even corruption.

28While administrative accountability appeared more firm than did political accountability, it was arguably a rather blunt instrument. Administrative accountability provided a theoretical account of how to apportion blame and seek redress in cases of maladministration. But critics of the bureaucratic narrative complained that it did not provide a way of assessing and responding to different levels of performance. The new theories of governance, including rational choice theory and network theory, highlighted concerns that overlapped with the question of the performance of the public sector.

29Rational choice theory recast accountability as the principal-agent problem. The postulate of rational, self-interested actors undermined the idea that public officials could generally be relied on to act selflessly for the public good. The problem was not to check on how they behaved, but rather to create a framework in which their interests were aligned with those on behalf of whom they acted. Instead of thinking about how to make agents (politicians or public officials) accountable to their principals (the electorate and ministers, respectively), rational choice theorists suggested that the question was how to get agents to act in the interests of principals, and they answered this question largely in terms of the provision of suitable incentives for the agents.

30Organization theory, and its impact on institutional and network theories, revealed a world in which decision making was more complex a process involving diverse policy actors in networks. This complexity suggested that there was something illusory, and even unfair, about the assumption that people further up the bureaucratic hierarchy could be accountable for the decisions and actions of their subordinates. Administrative and political roles and decisions could rarely be distinguished from one another. Ministerial responsibility became too obvious a myth to be taken seriously. Procedural accountability appeared inappropriate, and also too limited, especially when conceived as reactive to decisions that already had been made.

31Even as the new theories of governance undermined the forms of expertise and accountability associated with the bureaucratic narrative, so they promoted new forms of modernist expertise that pointed to new approaches to democracy and accountability. The economic concept of rationality even inspires social scientists to suggest that we might benefit from less democracy. Neoliberals often contrast democracy, which allows citizens to express their preference by voting only once every few years and only by a simple “yes” or “no” for a whole slate of policies, with the market, which allows consumers to express their preferences continuously, across intensities, and for individual items. Moreover, as we have seen, rational choice theorists sometimes worry that democracy entails political transaction costs that lead to incessant increases in public expenditure. They argue that the cost of many items of expenditure are thinly distributed across a large population, so individual voters have little reason to oppose them; but the benefits are concentrated in a small proportion of the population that thus clamors for the increased expenditure. They defend nonmajoritarian institutions to protect crucial policy areas, such as banking and budgeting, from democracy.

32It is perhaps worth saying explicitly that “nonmajoritarian” is little more than a euphemism for “undemocratic”. There are known reasons why we might want to protect a range of goods, including human rights, from democratic decision-making. Yet, rational choice arguments for nonmajoritarian institutions differ from arguments for constitutional protections of rights in that they rest not on moral values but allegedly scientific theories of rationality. They rely here on technical analyses of political transaction costs and a credibility gap associated with a time-inconsistency problem to suggest a delegation of powers to nonmajoritarian bodies reduces the political transaction costs that politicians incur because they lack a reliable “technology of commitment”.

33Social scientists inspired by more sociological concepts of rationality are often uncomfortable with the growth of nonmajoritarian, undemocratic organizations. Many of them associate the growing role of such organizations with growing public hostility to politics and government. Institutionalists have responded to the democratic issues raised by the new worlds of governance by trying to expand the concept of legitimacy to cover effectiveness, legal accountability, and social inclusion. They sometimes link legitimacy to the effectiveness of organizations in providing public goods. They sometimes ascribe legitimacy to organizations that are created and regulated by democratic states no matter how long and obscure the lines of delegation: legitimacy persists because the independent organizations are legally accountable, and because a democratic government passed the relevant laws. Finally, they sometimes suggest that the legitimacy of institutions and decisions might rest on their being fair and inclusive. Proponents of this view emphasize the importance of a strong civil society in securing a form of accountability based on public scrutiny. Voluntary groups, the media, and active citizens monitor institutions and decisions to ensure that they are fair and inclusive and so to give or deny organizations the credibility required to participate effectively in policy-making processes.

34The rise of governance has thus been accompanied by concepts of accountability that emphasize performance, rather than procedure. Performance accountability identifies legitimacy primarily with stakeholder satisfaction with outputs thereby sidesteping the problems that the new theories of governance associated with procedural accountability. If the state is judged by its performance or outputs, then there is less need to cling to the mythical distinction between administrative and political domains. Besides, performance accountability makes it less important that the actions of the agent or subordinate be directly overseen and judged by the principal.

35One way of conceiving of performance accountability is in quasi-market terms. The citizens act as customers, and they express their satisfaction by buying or selecting services delivered by one agency rather than another. Yet public agencies often lack the kind of pricing mechanisms, profit levels, and hard budgets that might make the market an indicator of customer satisfaction. Thus, another way of conceiving of performance accountability is in terms of measurements of outputs. Targets, benchmarks, and other standards and indicators provide a basis for monitoring and auditing the performance of public agencies. Finally, performance accountability might be embedded in horizontal exchanges among a system of actors. Each actor can call into question the performance of another.

36It is important to emphasize that these responses to the problems of democratic governance – the responses of social scientists inspired by the economic and sociological concept of rationality – are not just academic; they inform much public policy. Just as policy actors introduced two waves of public sector reform that drew on formal and folk versions of social science theories, so they have responded to the democratic issues tied to the reforms by clinging to representative institutions supplemented by nonmajoritarian institutions, social inclusion, and performance and horizontal accountability.

37The example of central and local government in the UK exhibits continuing adherence to the representative image of democracy, willingness to hand powers to nonmajoritarian institutions, and public sector reforms actively intended to use markets and networks to foster legitimacy. For a start, the extensive constitutional reforms of the last fifteen years suggest the dominant idea of democracy remains tied to representative institutions. Successive governments have pursued a liberal vision of multilevel territorial governments and electoral experiments more or less to the exclusion of alternative forms of pluralism and participation. Representative assemblies and elections remain the focus of reform. Devolution to Scotland and Wales consisted largely of the creation of the new parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff. The ill-fated reform of the English regions was all about creating new territorially-based legislatures. In Westminster too, the reforms have concentrated on parliament, especially the House of Lords. One other feature of the new assemblies has been the introduction of diverse electoral systems, but that too obviously stays firmly within the framing of representative democracy.

38New Labour, albeit unwittingly, echoed the logic for nonmajoritarian institutions in its first dramatic gesture – the granting of independence to the Bank of England. A similar logic appears in its judicial reforms. The government responded to dilemmas of efficiency and trust by promoting juridification. It has turned to judges as experts who can provide efficient protection of human rights and welfare, and it has done so in the hope that judges will create widespread trust in this new pattern of rule thereby giving the state greater legitimacy. Again, by empowering the courts with a new capacity to review domestic legislation, for example, the Human Rights Act (1998) effectively welcomed the courts into the policymaking process in a way that, for better or worse, reduced the range of decisions that could be made democratically. The judiciary is a nonmajoritarian institution whose new role restricts (without eliminating) the scope of later democratic decision-making.

39Although the unwritten nature of Britain’s constitution blurs the distinction between constitutional and administrative affairs even more than usual, there remains a clear distinction between them. Local government reform can be primarily constitutional or administrative. Recent British governments have flirted with democratic innovations, notably elected mayors. Yet, their approach to local government has concentrated almost entirely on administrative reforms, including best value, comprehensive performance assessment, and local area agreements. These administrative reforms sometimes reflect the idea that markets and networks can foster a brave new democracy based on expanded choice and social inclusion. More often, however, they are attempts to reassert central control and establish minimum standards.

40Policy makers often respond to contemporary democratic issues by trying to supplement representative institutions with an expertise based on new modernist theories of governance. It is helpful to distinguish between two types of expertise. One type of expertise draws on the economic concept of rationality found in neoclassical economics and rational choice theory. It inspires a whittling away of democracy evident in attempts to restrict the scope of democratic decision making in order to deal with collective irrationalities. Public affairs are handed-over to nonmajoritarian institutions, including independent central banks and judges and courts. Likewise, future democratic decisions are constrained by laws requiring that legislation, for example, balance budgets or respect legal rights. A second type of expertise draws on the sociological concept of rationality found in institutionalism and related forms of social science. It inspires a rethinking of democracy that is evident in new emphases on horizontal accountability and social inclusion. Bureaucratic hierarchies are to give way to joined-up networks. Policing, education, and other public services are increasingly to be based on partnerships that include private sector organizations and community groups.

41Today, policy makers regularly evoke a brave new world of decentralization, public involvement, and empowerment. It would be foolish to dismiss this talk. Policy makers may genuinely believe that markets and networks can and should promote democratic ideals. Nonetheless, their faith often derives at least implicitly from expert assertions that inclusive markets and networks can support efficient governance that is perceived as legitimate. As such, there is a possible tension within their brave new world. Are participation and dialogue means to efficient governance and perceived legitimacy or are they means of enacting democratic values? What will happen if the aim of promoting effective governance and perceived legitimacy comes into conflict with that of extending social inclusion and political participation?


42The new governance replaces one type of modernism with another. Out go the bureaucratic narrative, the neutral expertise of the professions, and procedural accountability. In come markets and networks, rational choice theory and network institutionalism, and performance accountability. The changes have been dramatic. Yet, the new governance, as theory and as practice, is still part of a modernism that has long been struggling with the demise of nineteenth century understandings of the state.

43When we thus historicize modernism – when we show it to be a particular and contestable mode of knowledge – we raise the possibility of moving beyond it. Table 3 illustrates this possibility. Instead of modernist approaches to economic and sociological rationality, we might conceive of social life in terms of more contingent forms of local reasoning. Instead of moving from procedural to performance accountability, we might bolster procedural accountability, perhaps making it less about reacting to decisions that already have been made and more about citizens holding people accountable during processes of decision making. Instead of appealing to a fallacy of expertise, we might explore the possibility of more direct involvement and control by citizens throughout the formation and implementation of policies; we might advocate more plural and participatory concepts of democracy.

Table 3 : After modernism


After modernism

Concept of rationality




Social science theory

Rational choice


Interpretive theory





Democratic theory





Expertise (markets)

Expertise (networks)


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Bevir, M., Democratic Governance, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010.

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1 Bevir, M., Democratic Governance, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010.

2 This paper derives from a talk I gave at the conference on Interpreting Democratic Governance at De Montfort University, UK, in September 2010.

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Mark Bevir, « Democratic Governance : A Genealogy », Observatoire de la société britannique, 16 | 2014, 19-36.

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Mark Bevir, « Democratic Governance : A Genealogy », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 16 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1695

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Mark Bevir

Professeur à Berkeley, University of California

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