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Sustainability and good governance — what can we learn from The Urban Governance Initiative?

Julia Porter

UTS Centre for Local Government

Local Agenda 21 is only one of a range of initiatives being used to address sustainable development in the Asia–Pacific region. For example, The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI) promotes five principles for liveable and sustainable cities — social justice, popular participation, economic productivity, ecological sustainability and cultural vibrancy. TUGI’s focus is on good governance but, clearly, the five principles are those underpinning sustainable development. To encourage progress towards good governance TUGI has developed a set of report cards that can be used to assess the performance of a council’s processes and procedures in governance. Similar report cards or snap shots have been developed by Australian councils, although here the focus is on outcomes for sustainability or quality of life. This paper examines the linkages between sustainable development and good governance; how report cards and indicators are used to monitor progress in these areas; and what we can learn from the TUGI report cards.

Part 1: Sustainability and governance

Local Agenda 21

Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 outlines the role of local government in addressing sustainability. Chapter 28 is relatively short and provides little detail about the actions local governments should take. However, it does highlight the importance of local government’s role and a number of elements to consider in developing a local Agenda 21 (LA21). Including (UN, 1992):

• LA21 is a consultative process whereby a council enters into ‘a dialogue with its citizens, local organisations and private enterprises and adopts “a local Agenda 21”.’

• The consultation and consensus building should be seen as a two-way learning process. Firstly, councils ‘learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organisations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies.’ Secondly, it is intended that the process of consultation ‘increase household awareness of sustainable development issues’.

• All councils ‘should be encouraged to implement and monitor programs which aim at ensuring that women and youth are represented in decision-making, planning and implementation programs.’

Clearly, the principles of LA21 recognise the right of all people to participate in community life and to influence decisions affecting sustainability.


In their book Reinventing Government Osborne and Gaebler (1993) define governance as ‘the process by which we collectively solve problems and meet our society’s needs — government is the instrument that we use’.

Governance encompasses not just government, but also the private sector and civil society (individuals and groups) and the systems, procedures and processes in place for planning, management and decision-making.

In Australia there is increasing emphasis on the leadership role of local government leadership in enhancing quality of life and promoting greater participation in the processes of local governance. Kevin Sproats (1997) suggests that to achieve better local governance councils will need to:

• Treat their constituents as citizens with a broad stake in local affairs as well as simply customers or clients of particular services.

• Exercise local community leadership, bringing people together for the common good and tackling difficult changes, rather than retreating to a narrow managerial style focused on a more limited role.

• Foster sound public judgement — informed and thoughtful debate within the community — rather than simply respond to often ephemeral public opinion.

• Build the human and social capital of their communities as well as managing financial and physical assets.

These same features are needed to advance local sustainability.

What constitutes good governance?

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) mission is to promote sustainable human development. It has identified nine characteristics or principles of good governance which represent the ideal (UNDP 1997) (Table 1). Many Australian councils are trying to address these principles at the same time as they address sustainability.

Table 1 A shortened version of UNDP’s nine characteristics of good governance

• Participation — All men and women should have a voice in decision-making.

• Rule of law Legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially.

• Transparency Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them, and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them.

• Responsiveness — Institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders.

• Consensus orientation Good governance mediates differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interests of the group.

• Equity — All men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being.

• Effectiveness and efficiency Processes and institutions produce results that meet needs while making the best use of resources.

• Accountability Decision-makers in government, the private sector and civil society organisations are accountable to the public, as well as to institutional stakeholders.

• 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.

Source: UNDP (1997).

Links between good governance and sustainability

Good governance and sustainability have two key aspects in common:

• They create an environment in which councils, community organisations, the private sector and individuals can become involved in the planning and management of their own communities. There is an increasing view that the reliance on representative democracy, where all responsibility, decision-making and accountability rests with the elected representatives, is no longer the optimum model of democracy. Sustainability and governance requires an emphasis on open, deliberative approaches to planning and management. The underlying principle is to make sure that the voices that are normally silent are heard, and moreover, that hearing them leads to including their perspective in whatever decisions follow (Sandercock 1998; Gleeson and Low 2000).

• They are both a goal and a process. We want to achieve good governance and sustainability and we need to use principles and mechanisms to get there. This requires a system of monitoring, reporting and reviewing to ensure the actions and improvements required to achieve these aims continue to be implemented.

Part 2: Using indicators and report cards to monitor progress

Some councils in Australia and overseas have developed sustainability/strategic/quality of life indicators to monitor progress in sustainability. Indicators allow a particular issue to be monitored over time to determine a trend which may be positive, negative or unchanged. Importantly, as with LA21, there is a general view that the process of developing indicators, involving discussions, partnerships, improved knowledge and understanding, and negotiation, is as important as the indicators themselves.

The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI) is a UNDP program that aims to assist local governments in making cities more liveable. In addition to the principles of social justice, ecological integrity and economic productivity, TUGI promotes political participation and cultural vibrancy as key principles for liveable and sustainable cities. As part of its assistance program, TUGI has developed a set of indicators and report cards for assessing progress in governance with a particular emphasis on participation.

Measuring sustainability/quality of life

In general sustainability/quality of life indicators are:

• used as part of a strategic planning or directions process whereby a desired future is identified with actions and programs required to reach that future planned and implemented;

• linked to a desired performance outcome or target against which progress over time can be measured;

• relevant and acceptable to local communities;

• easily reported, for example as a one page city snapshot or report card.

The City of Onkaparinga in South Australia and the City of Newcastle in NSW have each developed a suite of such indicators (The City of Onkaparinga, 2001; The Australia Institute & Newcastle City Council, 2000). The indicators measure progress in areas their communities consider to be the most important e.g. housing affordability, transport use, community participation, resource use, waste generation, income levels and employment. The indicators focus on outcomes and are linked to targets such as an increase in per capita use of public transport or an increase in the percentage of households able to afford appropriate housing.

Measuring good governance

TUGI has developed two sets of indicators for measuring governance. The first, which are combined with a set of report cards, assess a council’s systems, procedures and processes. The emphasis is on the council’s processes, not outcomes such as the delivery of services. These indicators are the most interesting because they examine issues not generally reported on in Australia and could provide some useful insights into the quality of decision-making processes we have in place. The second set of indicators are focused on outcomes and cover many of the same areas that are monitored in Newcastle and Onkaparinga.

The following criteria were used in compiling the two sets of indicators of good governance (TUGI, 1999). The data:

• are readily available and collectible at the city level

• can really help assess governance and

• can, where required, effectively help change governance

• are easy to understand and use by the assessors and citizens

• do not require the use of survey and studies.

The indicators and report cards are intended as a self-assessment tool, so that councils and their communities can ascertain the direction their local governance is proceeding in; the impact of governance in the short run; and the vibrancy of democratic participation in local governance (TUGI, 1999).

To date, TUGI has developed 16 report cards. Most cover particular issues — solid waste, water and sanitation, employment, housing, health, transport, participation, corruption, cultural heritage, gender and development. Three examine governance in relation to particular groups of people — children, the elderly and the physically and mentally challenged — and one provides a general assessment of governance. Both the report card indicators and the second set of indicators include indicators for each of the nine governance characteristics shown in Table 1. TUGI suggests councils and their communities select four indicators for each characteristic. These can be four of TUGI’s suggested indicators or indicators selected by the council and community. As an example, Table 2 shows a selection of indicators from the general good governance and civil society participation report cards. For each indicator council performance is graded on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is very poor and 5 is very good.

What can we learn from the TUGI report cards?

Many sustainability indicators are outcomes based. However, LA21 is also concerned with processes, particularly participation in decision-making. Moves towards new forms of governance which re-examine how decisions are made and open up decision-making to new set of participants is seen as the core to LA21 (Southey, 2001). TUGI’s report cards allow assessment of performance in governance and whether processes encourage the public participation aims of LA21. They are meant to be flexible and adapted to suit a city’s needs. They would provide a useful starting point for Australian councils and communities interested in improving this area of their sustainability/governance actions. However, as with all indicators, the report cards will only be useful if they are used as management tool — to identify strengths and weaknesses that are then addressed so that performance is continuously improved. Reporting alone is not worth the effort.

Table 2 Some of the suggested indicators in the TUGI report cards on general good governance and civil society participation

General good governance report card

Civil society participation report card

Suggested indicators to measure the level of participation

• Incentives for private sector participation in the city economy.

• Civil society and NGO participation in municipal programs.

• Existing policies and programs of the local government to encourage participation of the civil society in the development process of the city.

• Level of awareness among municipal staff and councillors on the importance of civil society participation in the development process of the city.

Suggested indicators to measure responsiveness

• Mechanisms to determine the needs and aspirations of residents.

• Programs to address children and disadvantaged groups.

• Mechanism to ascertain the capacities of the various civil societies and enter upon partnerships or involve accordingly.

• Easy access for civil societies operating in the city to work with local authorities.

Suggested indicators for accountability

• Quality of human resource management and monitoring the implementation of delegated tasks.

• Extent to which grievances and complaints are entertained by city administration.

• To what extent the local authorities realise they are accountable for what they do.

• To what extent the civil societies realise they are accountable for what they do.

Suggested indicators for strategic vision

• Overall strategic vision for city development.

• Availability of sectoral development strategy.

• Availability of long-term or mid-term program and policy to mobilise and work in collaboration with civil societies.

• Reflection of the partnership program with the civil societies in the annual development program and budget of the local authority.



Gleeson, B. and Low, N. 2000. Australian Urban Planning: New challenges, new agendas, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Sandercock L. 1998. Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for multicultural cities, Wiley, Chichester, UK.

Southey, S. 2001. Accelerating sustainability: from agenda to action, Local Environment, 6(4) pp.483–489.

Sproats, K. 1997. Local Management or Local Governance?, Report No. 5. Inner Metropolitan Regional Organisation of Councils, Sydney.

The Australia Institute and Newcastle City Council 2000. Indicators of a Sustainable Community. Improving Quality of Life in Newcastle, Discussion Paper No. 28, The Australia Institute, Canberra.

TUGI, 1999. Urban Governance: A Sourcebook on Indicators, The Urban Governance Initiative, Kuala Lumpur.

United Nations 1992. Agenda 21, United Nations, Geneva.

About the author

Julia Porter is a research fellow in the Centre for Local Government at the University of Technology Sydney. Her background is in environmental management, sustainability and local government. Julia’s position at UTS involves teaching, research, and consulting on local government issues.

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