Towards minimum government and maximum governance: Reality and challenges

By Vivek Pattanayak*

Thomas Jefferson is made the famous statement, “that government is best which governs least.” Alexander Pope quipped that “for forms of government let fools contest what is best administered that is the best.” We have also heard the slogan, “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance.”

No wonder one would like to know what government is and what governance is. Both the words government and governance originate from the Latin word Gubernaire meaning to steer like a boat, or a ship, or a vehicle. In political science, government is an organization which runs the state, and in turn  includes three classical institutions known as executive, legislature and judiciary, and where the constitution or basic law provides it also brings under its umbrella other institutions like election conducting body, public service commission responsible for recruitment of civil service, and comptroller and auditor general in charge of audit of government. Governance means standard-setting, decision-making, rulemaking, enforcement of law, review of existing process, reforming it when and where necessary, administration of justice etc.

A government can be a monocracy, aristocracy, plutocracy, timocracy, stratocracy, theocracy, or democracy. Since the end of religious wars in Europe the concept of a secular state has emerged. The government of secular state is divested of religion.

In a democracy there is separation of power among institutions based on the doctrine of check and balance, free and fair elections, political neutrality of civil service, free and independent media, vibrant civil society, and autonomous academia. A state can be federal or unitary with clear distribution of power between center and units in federal system. In case of dispute between the center and units it is expected to be judged through apex court. Decentralization of power to local bodies whether rural or urban is a prominent feature in a democracy. Delegation of authority to professional bureaucracy is a basic ingredient to the governance of political democracy. While the policy lay-out is the prerogative of the political executive, implementation is left to professional civil servants.

The executive is answerable to the legislature. Bureaucracy thrives under the ministerial responsibility as Ramsay Muir made the famous observation. ‘New despotism’ was the apprehension of Lord Hewart with the delegation of power to career civil servants who are selected and not elected. However, under the control of legislature, the executive is answerable on the legislative floor through interpellations, adjournment motion, vote of no-confidence in addition to scrutiny of legislative committees like Public Accounts Committee, Estimates Committee etc. Similarly, the executive is subject to judicial scrutiny and interference. The audit is another mechanism through which the executive and its arm can be under detailed examination, inspection, and critical evaluation.

The legislature should be in sessions free of interruptions and the conduct of its business should be done in an impartial and non-partisan manner. Judiciary is expected to follow age old dictum, justice delayed is justice denied and keep in view the principle, justice hurried is justice buried.

In a democracy protection of weaker and minority sections of society is of cardinal importance to prevent harassment, oppression, discrimination, and neglect based on race, color, religion, gender, language, sect, caste, belief, faith, and ethnicity. Independent institutions are established to protect their rights and answer their concerns.

Since the 19th century in the US independent regulatory bodies grew up which enjoyed quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial power on matters dealing with electricity and water utilities, banking, and insurance etc. Following that development, the regulatory agencies grew up in Europe and other countries including India.

Across the globe trend has begun since the post Second World war period and more so since globalization and liberalization to insulate constitutional bodies like election commission, auditor general, public service commission, special commissions to protect weaker sections and regulatory agencies from political executive. Therefore, there is increasing demand for appointments to these institutions through collegium system so that all shades of views are considered before selection and final appointment. Lord Acton’s warning that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely is the major reason the political executive is restricted to enjoy unbridled power of appointment to high constitutional bodies. In India appointment of judges is subject to collegial system. This practice began as early as the nineties of the last century.

In the scheme of separation of power, the judiciary enjoys some legislative power while legislature has some judicial power and executive is vested with some legislative authority and some institutions under executive discharge judicial function. Nevertheless, Montesquieu’s cautionary guardrails must not be transgressed.

Following the collapse of the Soviet system, privatization swept the world opening the road for liberalization of trade, business and commerce until the world got the shock of sub-prime crisis in 2008. Although the slogan “the government has no business to be in business” had reverberated the walls of Wall Street when banks after banks  collapsed Warrant Buffet, it is said looked for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Capital.

The pandemic disrupted the supply chain which had grown over decades, forcing governments in countries to look towards self-reliance. Wars in Ukraine and in Palestine and tension now in the Middle East has given rise to increasing importance of role of governments and its institutions in keeping the life-line intact across the world whether it is food or oil.

With evolution of time, institutions of government have been influenced by development of technology like internet, mobile telephone, and after pandemic remote meetings through zoom, social media, now artificial intelligence and presently there is increasing demand for regulation of technology.

The countries around the globe are experiencing social and political unrest due to unemployment, migrations, mixed-population, inequality, and diversity of cultures caused by internal and external factors like war, civil strife on one hand and natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, and famines etc. The expectations of technology savvy X, Y, Z generations and millennials from the governments are much different from the older generations. Aging population and migration from rural to urban areas are additional challenges to the governments.

In the background of this there is demand for protection of environment, prevention of climate change and reduction of carbon emissions which have increased the burden on governments.



*The author is a former bureaucrat and held important positions in aviation and power regulatory bodies. He can be  reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of  Sambad English

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