‘Governance’ is understood as those processes by which stakeholders make decisions to which all can commit despite their conflicting interests (Kuhlmann 2001). In policy studies terms, this perspective is complementary to focusing on the analysis of the outcomes of a public policy process or the actors involved, as it focuses on how stakeholders work together to come to some kind of policy as a result of struggles, tensions, and push-and-pulls involved (cf. Colebatch, Hoppe, and Noordegraaf 2010). The ‘governance arrangements’ following from this include the formal organization of a governance domain, inter alia legal frameworks, rules, policy instruments, governmental strategies, official principles and prescribed actors. According to Jessop, governance arrangements may follow the logics of one or a mixture of modes of coordination including:
- Hierarchies marked by a clear mandate from an authority;
- Networks in which processes take place in the framework of a sort of ‘epistemic community’; and
- Markets with supply and demand of information and action originating from different and sporadic actors and emergent needs/opportunities (Jessop 2003, 102; cf. Jessop 2011, 114).
The concept of meta-governance emerged as a reaction to the observation of failure of those generic modes of coordination as a normal state in the complex, modern societies we live in. Meta-governance scholars noticed that the traditional governance modes – e.g. state, market, network – did not suffice anymore on their own and neither could their failures be solved definitively (Jessop 2002; Dunsire 1996). Thus, meta-governance, i.e., the governance of governance, or the overarching governance conditions necessary for de facto governance arrangements to function in a productive and constructive way (Spaapen and Van Drooge 2009), was proposed as the primary process of coordination in modern societies. It implies the rearticulation and ‘collibration’ of the failing modes of governance (Dunsire 1993). For example, existing modes of governance in a certain policy domain need to be reflected on by policy-relevant actors and collibrated – i.e. re-balanced, re-synchronized, re-aligned – frequently, if not constantly. In other words, meta-governance entails the “organisation of the conditions for governance and involves the judicious mixing of market, hierarchy, and networks logics to achieve the best possible outcomes from the viewpoint of those engaged in metagovernance” (Jessop 2003, 108; cf. Jessop 2015, emphasis added). Thus, it is these conditions, i.e. those mechanisms and aspects of governance that make content-oriented policy-making possible, that meta-governance approaches address.
This observation has consequences for all stakeholders in policy processes. From a meta-governance perspective, stakeholders must cultivate a different way of thinking about policy-making. The continuous process of collibrating the prevailing modes of coordination requires an iterative and reflective approach (Rein and Schön 1996) and benefits from a tentative attitude (Kuhlmann, Stegmaier, and Konrad 2019). In practice, meta-governance addresses uncertainty and complexity by (a) involving all policy-relevant stakeholders, (b) defining governance mechanisms that lead to outcomes that are acceptable to many, (c) developing a variety of possible responses, and, foremost, (d) accepting the possibility of (partial) failure (Jessop 2003, 110).
Besides a more flexible attitude towards governance, a meta-governance framework must enable interactions between policy-relevant actors that are constructive and productive. We follow Lindner et al. (2016, 51; drawing on Spaapen and van Drooge 2009) in defining interactions as ‘constructive’ when they treat the issues at hand adequately. ‘Adequacy’, then, is not an externally defined, objective measure, but depends on the problem context and actors’ perceptions of it. In turn, interactions are ‘productive’ when they result in the transformation of actors’ behaviour or at least of their attitude. The aim of productive interactions is “a higher level of shared understanding of [science diplomacy] or in responsive/reflexive improvement in the governance arrangement itself” (Lindner et al. 2016, 51).