It remains to be asked how this emergence of urban governance is to be interpreted in terms of democratic legitimacy and accountability. Undoubtedly, governance networks are usually organised in a less hierarchic manner than governments and can be joined by a multitude of different actors much more spontaneously. Yet, this does not automatically render them more democratic. As a matter of fact, urban governance arrangements are usually neither democratically elected nor controlled. Due to their project orientedness and often ephemeral character, these networks are hard to grasp and control for outsiders. Aren’t these features interpretable as a perfect precondition for alarmingly undem ocratic policies thrusting aside governing by government, which – at least to a larger extent – was based on transparency, electoral legitimacy and accountability? In fact, manyscholars have been deeply worried about these developments. They have regarded urban governance networks as the ideal breeding ground for short-term, particularistic and profit-oriented interests. Indeed, these are the main concerns of the authors who fear that European cities run the risk of becoming “Americanised” in the long run. Are these concerns well-founded? Are governance and democracy two contradictory phenomena? At this point, it is helpful to bring to mind the contextual argument again! As the example of the local state debate has shown, we should be careful with universalistic and functionalist conclusions and implications. However, note that asking the question “What kind of effect does a shift from urban government to governance have on the aspect of urban democracy?” clearly does imply these universalistic and functionalist assumptions:
Firstly, it entails that there is a direct causal link between the rise of governance and the issue of urban democracy. Secondly, it suggests we can hope to find a generally and universally applicable answer to this question. In what sense does context matter also for the question of urban governance arrangements? Most importantly, like many other concepts in urban studies the discussion on urban governance has emerged in an Anglo-American context. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was in the United States where public- private partnerships (PPP’s) first came to dominate urban politics.4 Instead of referring to a terminology of “governance”, scholars started to deal with this phenomenon using the labels “urban regimes”, “public private partnerships” and “entrepreneurialism”. Soon it became evident that these non-elected public-private arrangements were chiefly dominated by economic interests such as growth, profit, competitiveness and efficiency (see for example: Kearns and Paddison 2000). When in the 1980s, scholars started to recognize that also in European cities elected officials were about to become increasingly dependent on the collaboration with non-governmental actors, it was widely assumed that also the results can be expected to be very similar to those in the USA. In other words, experiences and theories from America have often been directly imported to Europe.
Seen from a contextual point of view, this does not seem compelling at all. The mere dominance of governance networks in politics does not tell us anything about the modes of governance yet, i.e. about the actors involved, the power constellations among them, the political goals prevailing within these networks as well as the final outcomes. “Governing by governance” does not per se imply or favour any specific normative political goals – it rather is an empty shell to be filled with content first. As a term, it merely describes the trend of a partial destatisation, multiplication and informalisation of the collective actors in charge of political decision making. As a consequence, the point is that the political and social consequences of such a shift from urban government to governance will differ decisively, depending on the context these arrangements are embedded in and confronted with