Meta-governance as a new solution to the governance crisis

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There are three typical governance modes in state governance and social governance: bureaucratic governance, market governance and network governance. Bureaucratic governance is substantive rationality, which relies on the government’s management to control the economic and social affairs from top to bottom. Market governance is procedural rationality, which is based on the intermediary of the market to regulate economic and social operation. Network governance is reflective rationality, which emphasizes “decentralization”, “de-nationalization” and “diversification” and relies on numerous actors to form a governance network and promote the implementation of governance.

At the end of 20th century, western countries were caught in the failure of all three kinds of governance modes. Bob Jessop, a professor at Lancaster University, proposed the concept of “Meta-governance”, which based on his study on capitalism and state theory, as a solution to the governance crisis of western countries. In 1998, Bob Jessop made a detailed discussion on “Meta-governance” in the paper “The rise of governance and its risk of failure: the case of economic development” [2], which initiated the research on “Meta-governance”.

1. The concept connotation of Jessop's “Meta-governance”. Jessop pointed out that the three governance models of bureaucracy, market and network governance all have the possibility of failure. Due to the pursuit of self-interests in business activities, market mechanism can’t achieve the goal of effective allocation of resources, which results the failure of market governance. The failure of bureaucratic governance lies in the government's failure to achieve the major political goal: to protect the public’s interests and prevent the public from being violated by specific interest groups. Network governance can’t control all the factors of governance and is under the influence of the dual restriction of market and government, which means inefficiency. Moreover, network governance is in the dilemma of cooperation and confrontation, openness and closure, governability and flexibility, responsibility and efficiency. All of these reasons lead to the risk of failure of governance [3].

To respond the failure of governance, Jessop proposed “Meta-governance”. “Meta-governance” is the governance of governance. Through system design, it puts forward a vision and promotes the coordination of self-organization. In Jessop’s opinion, “Meta-governance” has two dimensions: 1) the institutional design, which promotes the interdependence of all parties by providing various mechanisms; 2) the strategic planning, which aim to establish the common vision goals to promote the development and update of the governance model. The goal of “Meta-governance” is to construct a context (negotiation and decision) to realize different governance arrangements (market mechanism, bureaucracy, network governance) while maintaining the consistency and integrity of nation-state [4].

In Jessop’s “Meta-governance”, government (the state) plays an important role. Government is “as the primary organizer of the dialogue among policy communities, as an institutional ensemble charged with ensuring some coherence among all subsystems, as the source of a regulatory order in and through which they can pursue their aims, and as the sovereign power responsible ‘in the last resort’ for compensatory action where other subsystems fail” [5]. Meanwhile, “state provides the ground rules for governance, ensures the compatibility of different governance mechanisms and regimes, deploys a relative monopoly of organizational intelligence and information with which to shape cognitive expectations, acts as a ‘court of appeal’ for disputes arising within and over governance, serves to rebalance power differentials by strengthening weaker parties or systems in the interests of system integration and/or social cohesion.” [6]. In Jessop’s “Meta-governance”, the government returns to the position of governance center.

2. The expansion of “Meta-governance”. After Jessop proposes the concept of “Meta-governance”, many scholars focus on the study of “Meta-governance”, which promotes the expansion of “Meta-governance”. Jessop proposes a deeper understanding of “Meta-governance”, which aims to promote the establishment and update of cooperative relations between different governance models and establish appropriate organizations and interactive systems to cope with increasingly complex practical problems on the basis of maintaining the internal consistency of nation-states [7]. Eva Sørensen has published a series of research results on “Meta-governance”. Sorensen points out that “Meta-governance” is in a pluralistic and fragmented governance system, which maintains a high degree of autonomy of the governance subject while promoting the collaboration of all factors [8]. This process also constructs a mechanism that enables the owners of public power or other resources to initiate or stimulate the consultative governance mechanism and guide the consistency of governance [9]. On the basis of Jessop’s opinion, Mark Whitehead thinks that “Meta-governance” means that political authority promotes and guides the construction of self-organizing governance system through rules, organizational knowledge, institutional strategies and policy strategies. To some extent, Meta-governance is the anti-process of governance [10].

Michael Kull emphasizes that “Meta-governance” is to build a coordination framework to deal with the defects of traditional governance mode by decision-making, strengthening cooperation and joint action [11]. Lars A. Engberg thinks that “Meta-governance” is the regulation of self-regulation, which aims to strengthen the vertical and horizontal coordination and integration within the governance system according to different backgrounds [12]. Annette Aagaard Thuesen expands the connotation of “Meta-governance”, pointing out that “Meta-governance” is not a single level, but has multi-level application value [13]. Boudewijn Derkxa focuses on research in specific fields, pointing out that “Meta-governance” aims to maintain consistency and coherence in the governance of a certain field and reduce diversity and build a higher level of consultation order while adhering to the autonomy of the governance subject [14].

These researches shows the two dimensions of “Meta-governance”: 1) As a result of “governance”, which means to form a kind of environment or mechanism, the governance factors and governance mode are interdependence and cooperation in this framework to promote the implementation of the governance and overcome the defect of a certain model of governance; 2). As a process of “governance”, which is reflection of “diversity” and “decentralization” and emphasizes that governance requires the existence of authority, namely “Meta-governor”. “Meta-governor” has higher influence in the process of governance and guides the implementation of other governance mode and ensures the consistency, sustainability and effectiveness of governance.

Meta-governor. There are two kinds of definition of “Meta-governor”. 1) In “Meta-governance”, the government plays a major and increasingly important role [15]. This definition emphasizes the important role of government, which means government rules the connection between the different governance systems and determines the new leadership mechanism to guide other partners and design feedback mechanism or learning mechanism and ensure consistency and interoperability of different governance mechanism [16]. The implementation of “Meta-governance” is the government’s guidance and control of the domestic governance network in order to achieve the strategic goal, and its goal is directed at the national interests. The government ensures that the final result of governance conforms to the national interests by exerting intervention on governance [17]. In this context of “Meta-governance”, the government plays an important role, exerting influence on many independent and semi-autonomous governance participants through non-traditional mechanisms [18].

2) “Meta-governor” has the characteristics of diversification. Luc Fransen points out that in the context of increasingly active transnational economic flows, “Meta-governance” faces problems beyond the boundary of traditional government management and private/non-governmental organizations are playing an increasingly important role in “Meta-governance” [19]. Boudewijn Derkxa makes it clearer that “Meta-governance” is not the specialty of the government, but private organizations also have the possibility of Meta-governance [20]. Alice Moseley thinks that the government, relevant institutions, non-governmental organizations and other actors intend to promote the establishment of new forms of governance and promote the operation of governance network in a collaborative way [21]. It can be seen from these understandings that “Meta-governance” also returns to “diversification”.

Implementation of “Meta-governance”. Jessop classifies the implementation of “Meta-governance” into four types: 1) Redesigning the market with better incentives to boost outcomes; 2) Redesigning the constitution and adjust the tasks of relevant parties; 3) Redesigning the network relationship to make the cooperative relationship more active and effective between related factors; 4) Creating trust, loyalty and trustworthiness among governance factors, so as to smooth the running process of governance. [22]. Moreover, Wil Zonneveld divides “Meta-governance” into two strategies: 1) Storytelling. It is to form common interests and guide managers’ activities by storytelling. 2) Intervention. It is to impact on specific policy. [23]. Jan Kooiman points out that the core of “Meta-governance” lies in the values, norms, principles and choices. [24].

The implementation of “Meta-governance” has two tendencies: direct intervention (hand on) and indirect influence (hand off). Different scholars have different emphases on the two methods, but the implementation of “Meta-governance” requires the combination of the two patterns is the consensus of many scholars. Direct intervention tends to grasp the governance process and rely on the guidance and coordination of “Meta-governor” to grasp the direction of governance and maintain the consistency and effectiveness of governance. Indirect influence highlights the result-oriented, emphasizing the long-term and stability of governance through soft means such as value building, goal determination, identity cultivation and norm formation.

Through the analysis of the connotation of “Meta-governance”, “Meta-governor” and implementation of “Meta-governance”, we argues that the conception of “Meta-governance” can be defined as: the government or other governance factor plays “Meta-governor” role to form a unified governance target and coordinate the relationships between the governance factors and promote the coordinated governance mechanisms by direct intervention and indirect effects, aim to realize the consistency, effectiveness, stability and long-term of governance. [25].

3. The evaluation and reflection on “Meta-governance”. Theoretically speaking, “Meta-governance” is the evolution of governance theory and the component of the governance theory pedigree. From “Government” to “Governance”, from “Good Governance” to “Global Governance”, from “multi-level Governance” to “Interactive Governance”, Governance theories are constantly updated and revised according to actual needs. When the old governance model is difficult to solve the realistic dilemma, the new governance theory comes instead of it. The theory of “Meta-governance” is to solve the governance dilemma faced by western countries from a higher level when the governance mechanisms such as bureaucracy governance, market governance and network governance failed. The theory of “Meta-governance” enriches the perspective and connotation of governance theory.

In practice, “Meta-governance” responds to the dilemma of “Schumpetarian workfare post-national regime” [26] and explores a new way for the development of capitalist countries. In the trend of globalization and internationalization, countries face the challenge of the denationalization of country, the non-government of political system and the internationalization of policy-making. Meta-governance emphasizes the significance of government and maintains the integrality of national system and social cohesion.

“Meta-governance” is also instructive for global governance. Global governance faces an increasingly fragmented problem. Economic globalization allocates resources according to the logic of the market. The inherent defects of market governance lead to the aggravation of global wealth inequality and the increasingly serious confrontation and conflict among countries. The rise of global civil society has strengthened the diversified characteristics of global governance and intensified the complexity of global governance, making the consistency and integrity of global governance more difficult to guarantee. As a political authority, the United Nations has the problem of insufficient authority and it is difficult to guide and maintain the unity and effectiveness of the global governance process. The frequent occurrence of traditional and non-traditional governance problems, such as conflicts and wars, economic crises, refugee problems and environmental pollution, all of them show the failure of global governance. “Meta-governance” promotes the implementation of governance from a higher level of overall governance. It is hoped that the goal of global governance will be achieved by strengthening the authority of the United Nations, integrating international consultative governance mechanisms, and implementing overall governance at multiple levels, including economic, political and social levels.

There is a possibility of failure in any governance and Meta-governance is no exception. The result of governance is not given in advance, and the success of governance needs to be determined by reference standards. The success of governance depends on the reversibility of goals and continuous negotiation and reflection. If the new goals are not redefined and governance factors don’t communicate effectively when facing differences, governance will fail. In Jessop’s opinion, the failure of “Meta-governance” originates from the paradox of government: on the one hand, the government is an institutional component existing side by side with other institutional component in the process of social formation; on the other hand, the government has the responsibility of maintaining the cohesion in the process of social formation [27]. The paradox of government makes “Meta-governance” unable to avoid the risk of failure.

At the same time, the governance complexity and information contradictory increase the difficulty of decision-making for public participants, which leading to “Meta-governance” over-expansion and public’s distrust and the failure of governance at the end. Therefore, to deal with the risk of the failure of “Meta-governance”, we need to overcome it from three dimensions: accepting the sub-optimal result without complete success; increase flexibility in the strategies that are most likely to succeed; emphasize self-reflection, admit the possibility of failure and insist on the continuous implementation of “Meta-governance” [28].


“Meta-governance” emphasizes the important position of government in governance, but it is not equivalent to the traditional “state centralism”. The positioning of government in “Meta-governance” does not focus on power but on responsibility. The government is more like what Jessop calls “the elder among equals”, with the responsibility of institutional design, normative construction, relationship coordination and identity cultivation, rather than the superior and dominant executor. The main task of the government is not to participate in the governance practice, but to promote the initiative of the governance factors and coordinate different governance models and guide the direction of governance and maintain the effective implementation of governance.

“Meta-governance” is the response to governance crises of western countries. It is established on the basis of developed market, mature civil society and perfect political structure of western countries. Lack of these necessary conditions is bound to affect the effective implementation of “Meta-governance”. Imitation is not the right way to deal with “Meta-governance”. Based on the local conditions, to form a “Meta-governance” mode, which conforms to the actual governance of the country, it can help solve the governance problems of the country.



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