The four principles of good governance

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Author: Jochen Werne | First published in German on September 6, 2019 in the BANK—BLOG

Author Jochen Werne

How banks create stability to survive in change

The “cobra effect” is a prime example of failed incentive structures. Good governance in banks and savings banks must serve stability and flexibility at the same time. Compliance with four principles is indispensable.

Well-intentioned is not well done yet. Science calls this the cobra effect. It goes back to an event when India was still a British colony. In order to control a cobra plague, a British governor placed a bounty on every snake that he killed. With the result that enterprising Indians began to breed cobras to collect the bounty. When the governor learned of this practice, he had the program stopped and the breeders released the snakes. Result: The problem had multiplied.

The Kobra effect is regarded as a prime example of failed incentive structures – and thus of failed governance. This word, derived from the French “governance” for government, is often used today, and with its almost inflationary mention, the blur surrounding it is also growing.

So let us recall: governance refers to the structures and forms of governance that exist in a society. This refers to the interaction between the state, the private sector and interest groups. The aim is to improve the management of an organisation or a political or social unit in order to achieve better results.

Stability as an objective of governance

However, it has become common practice to use governance primarily when it is not a question of state structures. For example, the term plays an important role in practically all companies that deal with the public in the form of customers or stakeholders. As a result of the blurred use of the term, case studies from politics are often used today to explain economic frameworks.

Undoubtedly, there are many parallels between the governance of states and the governance of private companies, in their structure and processes and thus also in their form of governance. The decisive factor for both is first and foremost stability and thus the ability to cope with major crises. For states, the core of stability is the constitution, which enables leadership during the crisis and at the same time serves as the basis for a way out of the crisis. A current example of this is the national crisis in Austria. The government has failed; until the next elections a transitional government of experts will lead the country and thus guarantee stability. Around this core, however, a state structure must also have a certain flexibility in order to be able to react to developments.

Stability plus flexibility

And this is where the differences to the private sector begin. States are not in competition with the private sector and generally continue to exist even after crises, even if in extreme cases the political system and its fundamental form of governance may change. The situation is different for companies. Of course, they also need a stable core. But they must be extremely flexible and adapt to market situations in order to survive in the long term. Their stability is based on the flexibility of the process organisation. When it comes to flexibility, smaller companies often have an advantage over large, difficult-to-maneuver corporations. We see this in the financial services industry with the example of FinTechs and InsurTechs. However, these relatively small companies often lack the stability they need to survive when consolidating.

Let’s take the example of the banking industry: It faces clear challenges – digitization, new competing business models, exponential technology leaps and ever shorter product cycles with lower margins and increasing regulation. Sustainable answers and the resulting strategies will only be found by those houses that are stable in themselves on the one hand, but are also capable of a degree of flexibility that has never been demanded of them in history on the other.

Four principles of good governance

But how does a company obtain the necessary stability? There are four principles for good, i.e. successful, governance, which must always be present:

Accountability: There must be an organization that is controllable and controlled.
Accountability: The company as a whole and each individual employee are accountable for their actions.
Openness: Only when employees, customers and stakeholders understand what is happening is transparency actually lived out.
Fairness: Ethical conduct is one of the foundations for long-term value creation.

Governance must be lived

In order to achieve a satisfactory situation for both sides, the four principles of governance are indispensable. However, it is not enough to lay them down in statutes; they must also be lived by each individual.

In addition, the current major transformation issues, which not only the banks but also the entire economy have seized, should be seen as an opportunity for companies with a consolidated governance structure and remind us of a statement by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “Only the tree that has been constantly exposed to gusts of wind is firm and strong, because in battle its roots are consolidated and strengthened”.

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