A governance compass

By Tim Gieseke

Tim Gieseke (biography)

How can we better understand governance when dealing with complex social and environmental issues? Here I describe a set of concepts that I have found useful — a governance compass. The aim is to provide guidance for organizations to align partnerships, accountability, equity, ownership and value at the ‘point of service’. The ‘point of service’ varies. For human health, it is the patient. In life-long learning, it is the professional. In agriculture sustainability, it is the landscape.

The governance compass identifies governance actors and their roles; governance styles and how they combine into a footprint; and finally how these combine with tasks into a governance framework. Although the compass has been developed for agricultural issues, it has broader relevance.

Governance Actors and Roles

A governance compass provides a visual display of the actors involved in socio-economic governance. Broadly defined, governance is the whole of interactions that government, businesses and civil society participate in to solve societal problems. The compass categorizes these entities on two axes:

  1. Public or private
  2. Policy-maker or practitioner.

Using these four dimensions, four actor sectors with unique roles are described and then illustrated in the figure below:

  1. Public policy-makers: elected legislators and local, state and federal government staff that develop policies in response to citizens and voters
  2. Private policy-makers: corporate and non-government organisation (NGO) staff establishing procurement policy or lobbying public policy-makers for legislation in response to consumer and stakeholder demands
  3. Public practitioners: federal, state and local government agents carrying out public policy and assisting private practitioners to achieve public policy objectives
  4. Private practitioners: Private citizens and businesses directly involved in achieving the objectives of public and private policy-makers.


These actors and their organizations carry out these roles using a mix of governance styles which constitute a governance footprint.

Governance styles and footprints

Each organization has a governance footprint consisting of a mix of the three governance styles:

  1. Hierarchy governance: the oldest governance style is a top-down structure with well-defined tasks performed at each level. Conformity and stability are priorities.
  2. Market governance: also a top-down style, but more flexible with innovation and incentive priorities.
  3. Network governance: a multi-directional, more inclusive structure based on trust and compromise.

Three forms of network governance have emerged:

  • Network-lead: a centralized form with a single participant within the network providing administration and facilitation of network activities. It may have characteristics of hierarchy governance.
  • Network-administrative: a centralized form with an organization external to the core group providing administration and facilitation of activities.
  • Network-participation: a decentralized form with each organization contributing within a self-governed model in either formal or informal models.

The mix of styles chosen by an organization is heavily influenced by tradition and the culture of the organization and it sets the tone for “how things get done”. As society has become more complex, governance styles have evolved.

Prior to the 1970s, most government and public institutions and many private enterprises relied on the relatively strict hierarchy governance style. In the 1980s, market governance emerged as more innovation was needed to resolve issues. In the 1990s, as society became interconnected, network governance emerged as a more inclusive style.

While each newer style is more adept at resolving more complex issues, it should not be assumed that one style is the “best”. Each style has its advantages and limitations relative to the issues to be addressed. The trick then in dealing with complex issues is not to choose the “right” style, but to create a framework consisting of the optimum mix of actors and styles.

Governance frameworks and a paradox

An organization’s governance framework is the combination of actors and styles that interact and conduct tasks to achieve an outcome. Theoretically, a very large number of frameworks can be described by identifying the ‘x’ number of tasks to be conducted by one of the four actor types using one or a mix of three governance styles.

The frameworks of different organizations are therefore not always compatible. The result is the governance paradox, where many types of organizations are needed to resolve complex issues, but when combined, inherent conflicts arise. This is a core source of complexity in socio-economic systems.

Of course, in all socially complex systems, a governance framework does materialize. Governance happens regardless of whether it is deliberately planned. The intention and rationale of analyzing the governance frameworks of organizations and their associated socio-economic systems is to identify the best mixes of actors and styles to achieve the outcomes and to understand and deal with governance paradox issues.

As societal issues become more complex, more organizational types and resources are needed to resolve them. By applying the governance compass concepts and identifying the governance styles incorporated into each organization’s framework, the complexity within business and government ecosystems can be understood and managed to a much higher degree.

Further reading:

Gieseke, T. (2016). Shared Governance for Sustainable Working Landscapes. CRC Press: Boco Raton, Florida, United States of America.

Gieseke, T. (2016). The Science of Collaborative Governance: A Learning, Analytical and Design Platform. Prezi presentation, Ag Resource Strategies, New Ulm, Minneapolis, United States of America. Online: https://prezi.com/54fidbttn5nz/the-science-of-collaborative-governance/

Biography: Tim Gieseke has more than two decades of experience in applying agriculture sustainability accounting and valuation projects as an environmental scientist, agriculture producer, government conservationist, farm policy analyst and as a researcher and author. In 2011, he developed an index-based environmental assurance process for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which introduced a shared governance model to certify Minnesota farms. He resides on his family’s fifth-generation farm near New Ulm, Minnesota, USA.

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