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the Institute on Governance.

We focus on assisting public purpose organizations including governments, public agencies, crown corporations, communities and the non-profit sector to improve their governance.

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7 minute read

The complexity of Governance is difficult to capture in a simple definition.

The need for governance exists anytime a group of people come together to accomplish an end. Though the governance literature proposes several definitions, most rest on three dimensions: authority, decision-making and accountability. At the Institute, our working definition of governance reflects these dimensions:

Governance determines who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered.

Governance is how society or groups within it, organize to make decisions.

O Canada! Inhabited for millennia by distinctive Indigenous groups, Canada is a federal state, officially bilingual and multicultural at the federal level, formed by two founding nations with two principal legal traditions.

As we unpack this simple statement three big issues come to the fore:

1Who has a voice in making decisions?
2How are decisions made?
3Who is accountable?

Governance challenges include:

  • Effective representation of diverse population;
  • Ageing citizens;
  • Integrating transportation networks;
  • Preparing for the effects of climate change;
  • Everything is faster;
  • New disruptive technologies are both driving and enabling change and everything from policy making to service delivery to citizen activism;
  • As expectations grow, the relationship between government and citizens is changing;
  • Renewing our notions of privacy of openness;
  • Control of government data;
  • How to incorporate the direct involvement of citizens between elections while responding to the newly empowered activist citizens.

In short, rigid government control over data, decisions, and the social agenda is just no longer tenable.

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How governance is evolving


Today, a broad range of factors shares our current governance environment:

  • Income growth
  • educational attainment
  • growing aspirations
  • technology and the information revolution
  • as well as globalization and harsh fiscal realities

Citizens with more knowledge, education, and affluence want faster and more transparent accountability from their government’s and are showing less deference to governments that speak or decide for them.

With social and economic complexity, the very shape of government has changed.

New functions have brought new institutional arrangements, a host of agencies, boards, commissions, and corporations designed to advise, regulate, adjudicate and deliver services.

Their relationships with government and the governed are multifaceted and complex. This is the world of distributed governance and this is not an easy environment to navigate.

Governance in Canada continues to evolve, for one thing, the role of provinces has grown, this is due to demands for devolution led by Quebec, and a changing economy as natural resource revenue grew in the west, and manufacturing shrank in Central Canada. Also demands by indigenous groups for a greater role in decision making has led to new forms of governance.

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Five Principles of Good Governance


Defining the principles of good governance is difficult and controversial. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) enunciates a set of principles that, with slight variations, appear in much of the literature. There is strong evidence that these UNDP–based principles have a claim to universal recognition. In grouping them under five broad themes, the Institute on Governance recognizes that these principles often overlap or are conflicting at some point, that they play out in practice according to the actual social context, that applying such principles is complex and that they are all about not only the results of power but how well it is exercised.

Legitimacy and Voice

The UNDP Principles and related UNDP text on which they are based 

  • Participation – all men and women should have a voice in decision-making, either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions that represent their intention. Such broad participation is built on freedom of association and speech, as well as capacities to participate constructively.
  • Consensus orientation – good governance mediates
    differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interest of the group and, where possible, on policies and procedures.


The UNDP Principles and related UNDP text on which they are based

  • Strategic vision – leaders and the public have a broad and long-term perspective on good governance and human development, along with a sense of what is needed for such development. There is also an understanding of the historical, cultural and social complexities in which that perspective is grounded.


The UNDP Principles and related UNDP text on which they are based

  • Responsiveness – institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders.
  • Effectiveness and efficiency – processes and institutions produce results that meet needs while making the best use of resources.


The UNDP Principles and related UNDP text on which they are based

  • Accountability – decision-makers in government, the private sector and civil society organizations are accountable to the public, as well as to institutional stakeholders. This accountability differs depending on the organizations and whether the decision is internal or external.
  • Transparency – transparency is built on the free
    flow of information. Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them, and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them.


The UNDP Principles and related UNDP text on which they are based

  • Equity – all men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well- being.
  • Rule of Law – legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially, particularly the laws on human rights.
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Obtaining a Certificate in Governance


The IOG can evaluate your organization to ensure that you have a proper governance framework. Governance principles may have many formulations, but include the following dimensions:

  • Legitimacy and voice
  • Direction and purpose
  • Effective performance
  • Accountability & transparency
  • Fairness & ethical behaviour

Our proprietary tools, such as the Governance Scorecard® and the Governance Continuum and Autonomy Index ® can be leveraged to support your organizational objectives. Governance has many definitions, but at their most all include the following dimensions:

  • Who makes decisions? 
  • How are decisions made? (process, institutions and voice)
  • How is account rendered?  

Click here to learn more.