Citizens and their political leaders often have high hopes for the capacity of governments and their partners to supply effective governance. Political campaigns are filled with promises and with hope for reaching the “broad, sunlit uplands” of effective, efficient, and humane public governance. All too often, however, those hopes are not achieved and the public must cope with poor governance and continuing disappointment concerning their possible future. Some, like Bob Jessop, take a somewhat dystopian view on these issues and suggest that governance failure should only be expected since “failure is a central feature of all social relations” (Jessop, 2000:30). In the extreme, states and governance fail entirely and the public must confront years if not decades of poor governance, and perhaps not governance at all (John, 2010).
This chapter will concentrate attention on the rather depressing topic of failure. In part, the reason we have governments is that markets fail and societies fail and therefore there is a need for some form of collective rule-making to overcome those failings. There is a well-developed literature in economics and public policy analysis on market failure (Weimer and Vining, 2011), and the sociological literature on societal breakdowns of all sorts is indicative of the failure of societies (Mooney, Knox, and Schacht, 2011). Likewise, there is a literature on how governments fail (see Scharpf, 1988; Wolf, 1987; Jänicke, 1990; Dollery and Wallis, 1997), and indeed some of the impetus for the initial development of the government approach in political science was the perception that governments were failing to provide the collective steering necessary for society and economy.
In comparative politics and in international relations there has been an emphasis on failed states – governments without governance (see for instance Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). These are states that are incapable of providing basic security to their citizens, as in cases such as Somalia that have continuing civil wars, and they also serve as havens for terrorist activities (Piazza, 2008). Failed states can, however, also be conceptualized from other policy perspectives, as when seemingly capable and effective countries cannot provide basic public services such as education, health, and infrastructure for their citizens.