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Developing collective governance capacity

21 February 2022



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In today’s network society, the capacity to deal with societal issues and realise public value is no longer limited to public agencies. It is spread among different actors and is influenced by their interactions. This collective capacity, often called governance capacity, is the focus of a paper in Administration & Society. It identifies five elements of governance capacity framework.

Understanding public governance

In the 1990s, the concept of public governance was used to describe different shifts in government. This included the shift to the market and the simultaneous shifts to the regional and the international levels. There was also a distinction between:

  • governance as structure involving hierarchies, markets, networks, communities
  • governance as a dynamic process which is about evolving relations and the interaction between actors with different agendas.

Public governance has three characteristics:

  1. It is related to a collective issue about which actors aim for collective action.
  2. It is about the interaction between different actors. These actors have different boundaries between their interests and responsibilities are blurred.
  3. These actors have different resources related to the collective issue. The exchange of resources is necessary to deal with the collective issue.

Understanding governance capacity

As a starting point, the paper defines governance capacity as:

  • the potential of actors to coordinate their actions and the deployment of resources in the pursuit of collective issues.

This was used as the basis of developing a governance capacity framework through a systematic literature review and conducting focus groups with governance practice experts.

A governance capacity framework

Five elements of governance capacity were identified:

  1. collective action
  2. coordination
  3. resilience
  4. learning
  5. resources.

Collective action

Collective action is the cooperative behaviour of individuals or organisations to perform and protect a joint goal. Governance capacity is about the interrelated action between actors. Because the actions interlock, actors within a governance network are able to operate as a collective actor.


Coordination is about the capacities of actors in a governance setting to inform each other about:

  • goals and actions
  • opportunities and threats
  • issues and ambitions.

Coordination will only arise if information is shared among actors. This can occur at different levels, for example:

  • horizontal coordination: between organisations or networks at the same level.
  • vertical coordination: between organisations and networks at different levels.

When coordination is based on mutual understanding and reciprocity, this can result in higher governance capacity.


Resilience is an ability to adjust to stress, to realise opportunities or to cope with consequences. In a governance setting, resilience is about recognising and using opportunities. It is also about coping with threats and even taking advantage from them. The opportunities and threats around a governance issue can be institutional, economic, or political.


As governance capacity is related to performance, learning must be framed as including improvement. Learning involves both reflecting and improving. It is also about the cognitive possibilities of people to learn and reflect. These cognitive possibilities also can enable experimentation and innovation.

Learning has both a social element and institutional element. Social learning is about sharing individual lessons and reflections and then arriving at joint lessons and reflections. Institutional learning is about institutions and networks that learn and store knowledge and experience.


Actors in a governance setting have different resources. These can include natural resources, physical assets, employees and their capacities, financial resources, knowledge and expertise, legitimacy, and network positions.

Governance capacity is not just about having resources and deploying them. It also about the capacity to exchange, mobilise and manage resources. Resources are exchanged, mobilised to contribute to performance and governance functions.

The bottom line

Knowledge about what constitutes governance capacity is still fragmented. Identifying the five elements of governance capacity leads to a more comprehensive understanding of what the capacity entails.

Governance capacity is not only about internal resources of organisations. It also about their coordination, mobilising, and adaptive capacities when interacting with other actors to achieve joint goals. Governance networks are constantly in motion. Actors join and leave. Interaction patterns evolve as do the structures that are in place to guide these interactions. This implies that governance capacity is in flux and raises the question of how governance capacity can be monitored over longer periods of time rather than being assessed by a single snapshot.

Want to read more?

A Framework for Governance Capacity: A Broad Perspective on Steering Efforts in Society – Jitske van Popering-Verkerk, Astrid Molenveld, Michael Duijn, Corniel van Leeuwen, and Arwin van Buuren, Administration & Society, January 2022

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Published Date: 21 February 2022