Interview: Zhiyong Lan on Sustainable Governance and Development

Zhiyong Lan is Professor at Tsinghua University and Rapporteur-General of the IIAS-IASIA Joint Congress, to be held in Chengdu, China on 20-23 September 2016

Knowledge Portal: What are the differences between the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals?

Zhiyong Lan: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are 8 international development goals set by the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. All 189 United Nations member states at the time (193 now), and at least 23 international organizations, committed to help achieve the following Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015.

The Millennium Development Goals are:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce child mortality
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

As the MDGs era comes to a conclusion, 2016 ushers in the official launch of the bold and transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, are aiming at a higher level of objectives and were adopted by 193 countries world leaders in September 25 of 2015 at the United Nations. It includes 17 goals with 169 targets.

The 17 goals include:

  1. end poverty;
  2. end hunger and achieve food security;
  3. ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all;
  4. ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning;
  5. achieve gender equality;
  6. ensure water sanitation; access to affordable reliable;
  7. sustainable and clean energy;
  8. promote sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
  9. build resilient infrastructure promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation;
  10. reduce inequality among countries;
  11. make citizen and human settlements inclusive; safe; resilient and sustainable;
  12. sustainable consumption and production;
  13. combat climate change;
  14. conserve sustainably use the oceans and marine resources;
  15. protect restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss;
  16. promote peaceful and inclusive societies;
  17. strengthen and revitalize global partnerships.

As we may see, the MDGs were lower targets trying to satisfy our low-level needs, focusing on economic development; while Sustainable Development Goals are high level of targets after we have managed to satisfy the lower level needs as specified by Maslow.

“The MDGs were lower targets trying to satisfy our low-level needs, focusing on economic development; while Sustainable Development Goals are high level of targets”

Sustainability concerns come from environmental scientists. When a society is well developed and humans have mastered the ability to harness energy and massively produce goods, human ability to over-deplete our resources has also become a possibility. Industrialization brought us productive power as well as the power to pollute and destroy our environment. Sustainable development is thus becoming a critical concern. As a group living together in this shrinking global village, we need to work together to protect our environment and use our resources wisely. Therefore, we have the Sustainable Development Goals. Critics say those goals are too ambitious and impossible. By looking through the list, we should know they are all what we desire and we probably do not have a choice but to implement them. The only route is to work hard, work together, and manage to achieve them.

K.P.: Which role is granted to public administration in the SDG framework?

Z. L. : Public administration plays a major role in order, stability, peace maintenance, and particularly, in sustainable development. We live in a world of diversity, and of conflicts. Individuals, groups, communities, and nations are different from one another, having different value systems, and different interests. In the past, people solved their conflicts by way of force, by going to war and killing one another. Gradually, we realized we have other means – peaceful means – for solving our problems. Religion – ideological inculcation – is one of these means; bureaucracy is another, working by way of rules, regulations, and authority; market is perhaps the third one, by way of exchange and purchase of cooperation.

« Without public administration, market alone would not work, monopoly, information manipulation, externalities, pollution, and transaction costs problems are the norm rather than exception »

Public administration aligns more with the use of bureaucratic methods –alternatively, the governmental methods – to resolve our conflicts. It uses command, hierarchy of offices, specialization, controlled resources, and public policy to coordinate our activities. It also helps facilitate the market operation by correcting market failure, and ideology/culture formulation by culture maintenance. Today’s public administration is much more proactive than it used to be. We realize that there are so many things that would not happen automatically.  The society needs leaders. Leaders could come from government, business, and the community. Among them, public administration and public policy are by far the most influential if handled well. To me, all the 17 goals have to do with Public Administration. The very fact that leaders from different countries could sit down together to discuss issues of common concern and plan to solve these problems together is a practice of public administration at the International Level.  With the establishment of UN and other international organizations, we are much less likely to start a war.

For a while, some thought the market alone could solve all our modern problems. But as we carefully look back, we realize that without public administration, market alone would not work, monopoly, information manipulation, externalities, pollution, and transaction costs problems are the norm rather than exception if not addressed. In the 1990’s, Fukuyama wrote The End of History, where he claimed a complete triumph of global capitalism with a libertarian twist. However, the big international financial crises of 2008 seemed to have brought us back to square one, inviting to revisit the importance of public intervention into the market system. In fact, the success of the poverty alleviation in the past years also attested of the importance of efforts made by public administration.

K. P.: Which public administration research agenda is needed to contribute to these SDGs? What should the different universities and schools do to help achieving sustainable development?

Z. L.: In terms of research agenda, first, we may want to look deeper into the central arguments of traditional liberal capitalism and traditional socialism, examine the pros and cons of each, summarize the experiences we gained in the past century, and come up with a governance system that can surpass the traditional arguments and address real issues of modern governance. What matters is not the debate on public versus private ownership of the means of production, on laissez-faire versus regulated market, or on capitalism versus socialism, but having a robust and workable governance system that can make a difference in service delivery and social wellbeing improvements. We want to search for a modern governance system that can ensure democracy, efficiency, freedom, and justice for all.

Second, the governance of our cities, communities, and our cultures is an important area for research. How to integrate our legacies from the past with our ambition and aspirations for the future, how to gain desirable results through the interactions between public, private, and societal forces, are questions of our real concern.

Thirdly, sustainable development is definitely an important research concern. From environmental and resource sustainability to regime and organizational sustainability, all are important topics for public administration scholars to explore.

    Fourthly, I personally think that learning from one another’s best practices and best value imperatives are important. While many may argue that each culture has its own value system, and each country has its own way of doing things, I do think that there are always better ways than others everything else being constant.  While a strong man can lift a heavy rock, we may find another man not as strong using a lever or crane to lift an even heavier rock. We can learn from others skills we may not otherwise have. While one person in old times would think that a 50 year old is an old man, in our modern times, we can change our perception by viewing him a middle age or even a young person since many could live up to 80 or 90 years of age. How can people manage to live that long, or in a new scenario what is considered old are all questions of interest: through the efforts to get them answered, we learn what we did not know before. In the same fashion, governance mechanisms, public policies, and even perceptions can be learned from one another. Public administration and policy can help facilitate such learning and promote change and innovation.

In the years to come, the Post World War II global order will be under challenge to maintain world peace, enable all countries to better work together to govern our world, address issues of common concern, and to achieve the SDGs”

Finally, we also need to address global governance issues. The successful establishment of UN, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, EU, etc. have greatly enhanced the capacity of countries working together. But there are still many problems in today’s world, how can our international organizations work better, more efficiently, more engagingly, and more fairly, are all critical issues helping us to move to the next level. In the years to come, the Post World War II global order will be under challenge to maintain world peace, enable all countries to better work together to govern our world, address issues of common concern, and to achieve the sustainable development goals. These are central questions for all enlightened world citizens.

K. P.: How do you think we have to organize this research agenda concretely?

Z. L.: Our research can be organized according sectors in a society, such as public, private, and non-profits. We prefer public and non-profit sectors papers because we have other large business conferences discussing private sector efforts.

As the saying goes, in our fast changing world, the most dangerous route is not making changes but making no changes”

Our research can also be organized according to levels of the problems, individual level, citizen-group, community-level, city-level, national-level and global level. We can also organize our research according to how innovative the efforts are,  comparing status quo, conservativeness, and innovativeness to see how things can actually change, with culture, technological intensity, and environments as all important controlling variables.

Other ways of organizing our research can be more conventional, including addressing management techniques, human resources, budget and finance, technology, organizational structure and processes, value systems, institutional arrangement.

Learning and innovation can be a theme that runs through all these possibilities. As the saying goes, in our fast changing world, the most dangerous route is not making changes but making no changes. When everyone is learning, innovating, and changing, the unchanged shall be obsolete. There is an equivalent of the Chinese saying which says, “thousands of boats would sail head and surpass you if you sunk and stay on the same spot”; or alternatively, “when you are sailing against the current, unless you make constant advances, you are bound to back down.”

K. P.: Some people say that the SDG framework is so ambitious that no country in the world will be able to achieve everything, that translating the framework into the local context and setting national priorities is the first step to undertake. How does China look at this SDG framework? 

Z. L.: Yes, it is an ambitious aspiration but truly desirable and must be done. More and more people are realizing this fact.

“Given the economic achievements, and the observable environmental pollution, Chinese leaders are extremely high on promoting sustainable development and made unthinkable efforts to enforce this rationality”

Five to ten years ago, you could not say China was not paying attention to sustainability; they were: many policies and resolutions have been passed to address sustainability issues. I performed research on the efforts China has undertaken on sustainable development, and bundled the results in a book. They actually worked hard to pass many policies at all levels to promote sustainable development. However, in real practice, priorities were given to economic development. It was very expensive to enforce those politics.

Mentality is changing very fast. The new generation of Chinese leaders are relatively well educated and travelled all around the world: they know what is good and what is bad. So when the international community was advocating the concept of sustainable development, China agreed to support it. Now, given the economic achievements, and the observable environmental pollution, Chinese leaders are extremely high on promoting sustainable development and made unthinkable efforts to enforce this rationality. As a fast developing and growing country, China embraces the sustainable development goals, from top leaders to grassroots individuals.

One example is, when in the past, the US embassy in China started measuring pollution levels (p.m.2.5), some people were accusing US for smear China’s public image. Now that they realize pollution is for real, they appreciate those efforts and support governmental initiatives to fight pollution.

K. P. : How can we monitor achievements in terms of sustainable development? Is it important to invest in monitoring systems? It was a contested issue with the MDGs.

Z. L.: It is important to invest somewhat in sustainable development monitoring. But I personally think we should not overdo it. It is important to use our resources efficiently. Rather resources should be used to address problems rather than monitoring problem solutions. Sometimes we pay more for the saddle than for the horse, meaning more for evaluation than for problem solving. Often, the places that need monitoring the most are the places that can hardly reasonably monitor, and the resources are the most stringent. Therefore, the rule of thumb is, expenses on monitoring should occupy only a small percentage of the entire budget. Using some simple yardsticks, we are able to know if good practices have happened.

“Resources should be used to address problems rather than monitoring problem solutions”

Often, the places that need monitoring the most are the places that can hardly reasonably monitor, and the resources are the most stringent. Therefore, the rule of thumb is, expenses on monitoring should occupy only a small percentage of the entire budget. Using some simple yardsticks, we are able to know if good practices have happened.

K. P.: The IIAS congress will focus on sustainable development and governance, and you will be general rapporteur. What kind of papers do you want on the programme?

Z. L.: First, I would like papers advocating the ideology of sustainable development. We want to live in an environmental-friendly world, and would like every participant to contribute to it. Secondly, papers talking about how these standards should be achieved are very welcome. We need best practices, experiences, and guidelines. Finally, I want papers acknowledging and emphasizing cultural differences. In a classroom setting, you would like all the kids to reach a bottom line of performance level. But you can’t really judge their success by the same yardsticks. Every kid is born different and has different talents. As long as they have worked to their full potential and has learned something for real, it has a value for share. I would look at our papers this way as well.  As long as they can clearly tell a story of interest that is relevant to our theme and has value to be learned by others, I would consider it an acceptable paper.

z-lanG. Zhiyong Lan (China)

G. Zhiyong Lan  is Professor at the School of Public Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Professor Lan obtained his B. A. from Nanjing university, China and his Ph.D. degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University (1991). He started his teaching career at Arizona State University, USA in 1990 and became a tenured full professor in 2002 at Arizona State University. His teaching and research interests include public policy/administration reform, urban governance, conflict resolution, and government and business relationships.

He has published 4 books, over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and other publications in the United States and China. He won a number of research and service awards, and has been listed in Marquis Who Is Who in America multiple times. Professor Lan was a research fellow at the China Center for Economics in Beijing University (1997), a research fellow at the University of Hong Kong (1997-1999), and was a Fulbright Lecturer in 2004-05, and currently Fulbright senior specialist candidate (2006-2011). He serves as an external program reviewer or thesis reader for some Hong Kong and Singapore universities. He holds adjunct professorship at Zhejiang University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Nanjing University. He has been a speaker at many international conferences, community gatherings, local government training sessions, and high level policy forums.

Professor Lan was Executive-on-Loan to the city of Phoenix in 2000-2001 and served as its Chairman of the Chengdu Committee in 2002-04, through which he coordinated international training and many international visits to American local governments and businesses. He serves on a number of editorial boards and is now editor-in-chief of the journal: “Public Administration and Policy Review” published by Renmin University Press. Professor Lan consults with local governments both in the U.S. and in China and with the World Bank on China’s public administration reform.