Building effective governance

The summer break has given me the chance to step back from the usual flow of things (even if ‘flow’ might seem an ambitious description of the EU right now), and has let me spend some time with one of my other interests in life, namely cycling.

Sadly, professional cycling seems to be not so very different from European politics at the moment.  Both face systemic challenges; both are hampered by ineffective governance structures that lack fully credible enforcement mechanisms; and both have image problems.

In cycling’s case, the issue is doping, and has been for a very long time. With the case of Lance Armstrong making front pages this month and many other cases of major figures being implicated in drugs-use over the years, one might imagine that this would be enough to force a structural revolution to address the issue (you’ll notice where I’m going with this).

In practice, what has happened over the past decade has been the bolting on of a much-expanded anti-doping regime, with associated institutions, to the existing governing body for cycling, the UCI. This brought the benefit of splitting off anti-doping from the UCI’s other role of promoting the sport, which clearly generated a conflict of interest. The problem has remained that the relationship between the UCI and the anti-doping bodies (not to mention the IOC, which also likes to get involved) has never been properly resolved.

The Armstrong case highlights this, with his contestation that the US anti-doping body, USADA, isn’t competent to impose a ban on him. The UCI has performed more u-turns than the average politician, switching repeatedly between ‘respecting’ USADA’s authority and challenging it. The unwillingness of the UCI to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – one of the few bodies that is respected – means that this is likely to remain a problem for the foreseeable future. And all this simply confirms many peoples’ suspicions about the integrity of the sport as a whole, with all the associated reputational costs.

In brief, the issue is one of competing authorities claiming agency in particular areas, without an overarching framework to guide them: even CAS can over provide very limited solutions to specific cases. The global bodies for sport – especially the IOC – suffer their own problems and one would hesitate to ask them to fill the void.

I’m loathe to spell out all the parallels, but it seems evident that for governance to be effective, there has to be some convergence of attitudes at all levels on what is and isn’t acceptable, in order to build a set of norms of behaviour that in turn can underpin an institutional arrangement. Commercial interests (markets) need to be recognised for their role, but they cannot be the key determinant of practice. And finally, for governance to be sustainable, it needs to be transparent and accountable: that’s a lesson from which we can all learn.