This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Bo Rothsteinholds the August Röhss Chair in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg. He is the author of The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective.
First of all, a terminological clarification is in order. My colleagues and I avoid using the word “governance”. We don’t use it not because people studying governance are doing anything wrong, but because the term is being used in many different ways in the social sciences. You have, for example, corporate governance, democratic governance, good governance, and so on. I think Wikipedia lists about 21 different contexts in which the word has been used. So we don’t use it just to avoid contributing to this terminological clutter. Instead, we use the term “quality of government”, which we define as something that relates to the exercises of political power, is not connected to the access to political power and describes how people, once in public office, implement and put into practice policies. As we see it, being impartial in the exercise of public power —that is, treating or affecting all equally as stipulated in the law, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, political connections, and so on— is a key element of good government. Why is quality of government important? Empirical evidence we have collected shows that countries with a good record of quality of government do very well in almost all measures we have on human well-being, including hard measures, such as infant mortality and living expectations, and soft measures, such as satisfaction with life and social trust. We have also found that a good record of quality of government makes people perceive their government as legitimate and reasonably free of corruption.
The most important factor is that citizens perceive that there is a fair and reasonable social contract between the state and citizens. That is, for instance, if they pay taxes, they would expect in return a reasonable amount of social services, such as police protection, free universal education for their children, pensions and other services that they think are important to their lives. If they perceive that the social contract is neither fair nor reasonable, they might not contribute to improving the quality of government. They could, for example, stop voting or not voting against corrupt politicians. According to our findings, other important factors that positively affect the quality of government are meritocratic recruitment to public service, a well-functioning auditing system for citizens to know how their tax money is handled, gender equality in public administration, a fair and competent taxation system. We have also found that bribes are an across-the-board factor that negatively affects the quality of government. If you know you can bribe your children way into good schools and universities or bribe the taxman to exempt you from paying, then at some point things will start to deteriorate.
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