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Best practices in global governance

  • Steven Bernstein (a1) and Hamish van der Ven (a2)

Best practices are increasingly used to govern a range of global issues. Yet, the rise of global governance through best practices has received scant attention in the International Relations literature. How do best practices differ from other modes of governance? How are they constructed? And to what end? We offer a novel conceptualisation of best practices as a unique mode of global governance principally distinguished by basing claims of political authority on existing practices. Belying their apolitical terminology, best practices in global governance are purposively constructed by political actors to steer targeted actors toward desired ends. We illustrate the characteristics of governance through best practices with reference to state and non-state global governance initiatives in a wide range of issue areas, ranging from finance and development to human rights and the environment, and through an in-depth case study of the ISEAL Alliance, a disseminator of best practices for transnational sustainability standard-setters. We find that governance through best practices has both positive and negative consequences. While it offers a pragmatic approach to global governance under conditions of fragmentation and polycentricity, it can also mask underlying power dynamics and political agendas and therefore requires ongoing critical scrutiny.

Corresponding author
*Correspondence to: Steven Bernstein, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, 100 St George Street, Toronto, ON, M5S-3G3. Author’s email:
**Correspondence to: Hamish van der Ven, The MacMillan Center, Yale University, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven CT, 06520-8206. Author’s email:
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1 For this conceptualisation and histories of the use of the concept in public management, see Overman, Sam E. and Boyd, Kathy J., ‘Best practice research and postbureaucratic reform’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 4:1 (1994), pp. 6784 ; and Pal, Leslie A. and Clark, Ian D., ‘Best Practices in Public Management: A Critical Assessment: A Working Paper for the Best Practices in Public Management Project’, available at: {} accessed 24 May 2016.

2 The quality management movement was particularly influential in the growing use of best practices. See Chapter 4 in Murphy, Craig N. and Yates, JoAnne, The International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Global Governance Through Voluntary Consensus (London/New York: Routledge, 2009).

3 Broome, André and Seabrooke, Leonard, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’, New Political Economy, 17:1 (2012), pp. 7 , 11.

4 Pal, Leslie A., Frontiers of Governance: The OECD and Global Public Management Reform (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 165 ; OECD, ‘Governance Outreach Initiative – Annex 1’, available at: {} accessed 25 May 2016.

5 Bernstein, Steven, ‘Legitimacy in intergovernmental and non-state global governance’, Review of International Political Economy, 18:1 (2011), pp. 1751 ; Bernstein, Steven, ‘The publicness of private global environmental and social governance’, in Jacqueline Best and Alexandra Gheciu (eds), The Return of the Public in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 120148 ; Rosenau, James, ‘Governance in the twenty-first century’, Global Governance, 1:1 (1995), pp. 1343 .

6 Ruggie, John Gerard, ‘Global governance and “new governance theory”: Lessons from business and human rights’, Global Governance, 20:1 (2014), p. 5 .

7 Cutler, A. Claire, Haufler, Virginia, and Porter, Tony, Private Authority and International Affairs (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999); Green, Jessica, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Hall, Rodney Bruce and Biersteker, Thomas J., The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

8 Bernstein, Steven and Cashore, Benjamin, ‘Can non-state global governance be legitimate? An analytical framework’, Regulation & Governance, 1:4 (2007), pp. 347371 ; Cashore, Benjamin, Auld, Graeme, and Newsom, Deanna, Governing Through Markets: Forest Certification and the Emergence of Non-State Authority (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Cashore, Benjamin, ‘Legitimacy and the privatization of environmental governance: How non-state market-driven (NSMD) governance systems gain rule making authority’, Governance, 15:4 (2002), pp. 503529 .

9 Kirton, John J. and Trebilcock, Michael J. (eds), Hard Choices, Soft Law: Voluntary Standards in Global Trade, Environment, and Social Governance (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

10 Bernstein, ‘Legitimacy in intergovernmental and non-state global governance’.

11 Haas, Peter, ‘When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process’, Journal of European Public Policy, 11:4 (2004), p. 576 .

12 Suchman, Mark C., ‘Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches’, Academy of Management Review, 20:3 (1995), pp. 571610 .

13 CDP and IBM, ‘Making Advances in Carbon Management: Best Practice from the Carbon Information Leaders’, available at: {} accessed 6 April 2016.

14 However, as we elaborate below, the more they reflect overt authority claims as a mode of global governance the greater we expect public pressure for their development to adhere to evolving meta norms that demand stakeholder participation and active deliberation in informal law-making. Pauwelyn, Joost, Wessel, Ramses A., and Wouters, Jan, ‘When structures become shackles: Stagnation and dynamics in international lawmaking’, European Journal of International Law, 25:3 (2014), pp. 733763 ; Murphy and Yates, The International Organization for Standardization.

15 UNDG, ‘MDG Good Practices’, available at: {} accessed 6 April 2016.

16 Gibbon, Peter, Ponte, Stefano, and Vestergaard, Jakob (eds), Governing Through Standards: Origins, Drivers and Limitations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 2 .

17 ISO, ‘ISO Gives Thumbs up to Occupational Health and Safety Work’, available at: {} accessed 6 April 2016.

18 British Standards Institution (BSI), ‘ISO 45001 Whitepaper: A New International Standard for Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems’, available at: {} accessed 6 April 2016.

19 BSI, ‘OHSAS 18001:2007’, available at: {} accessed 4 April 2016.

20 Gibbon, Ponte, and Vestergaard (eds), Governing Through Standards, p. 2.

21 World Trade Organization, ‘Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade’, Marrakesh, Morocco: WTO, Annex 1 (15 April 1994).

22 The incorporation of best practices into standards documents further illustrates the distinction we draw between types of governance (that is, standards) and modes of governance (that is, the strategies standard-setters use to steer targets). Stepan Wood, ‘Four Varieties of Social Responsibility: Making Sense of the “Sphere of Influence” and “Leverage” Debate via the Case of ISO 26000’, Osgood Hall Law School,

Comparative Research in Law & Political Economy Research Paper No. 14/2011.

23 European Parliament, ‘Comparative Study on the Best Practices for the Integration of Resettled Refugees in EU Member States’, available at: {} accessed 3 April 2016, p. 9.

24 Adler, Emanuel and Pouliot, Vincent, ‘International practices’, International Theory, 3:1 (2011), pp. 136 .

25 Newspaper references comprise references to the terms ‘best practice’ AND ‘governance’ in English-language newspapers according to calendar year. Figures are based on data from ProQuest Newstand, which covers 1,300 newspapers in the US and Europe. Scholarly references comprise references to the terms ‘best practice’ OR ‘best practices’ in scholarly articles published in International Relations or political science journals. Figures are based on data from JSTOR which covers 287 relevant journals.

26 Murphy and Yates, The International Organization for Standardization, p. 69, emphasis in original.

27 For a comprehensive history of voluntary consensus standard-setting, see JoAnne Yates and Craig Murphy, ‘The Role of Firms in Industrial Standards Setting: Participation, Process, and Balance’, unpublished paper, n.d., available at: {} accessed 1 August 2016.

28 Best, Jacqueline, Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of Global Finance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). See also Broome and Seabrooke, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’.

29 Best, Governing Failure, p. 116.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Informally known as the ‘Ruggie Principles’, Ruggie proposed them in 2011 while serving as UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. The UN Human Rights Council endorsed them in June 2011.

33 Ruggie, ‘Global governance and “new governance theory”’, p. 8.

34 Abbott, Kenneth W., Genschel, Philipp, Snidal, Duncan, and Zangl, Bernhard (eds), International Organizations as Orchestrators (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Abbott, Kenneth W. and Snidal, Duncan, ‘Strengthening international regulation through transnational governance: Overcoming the orchestration deficit’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 42 (2009), pp. 501578 .

35 Ruggie, ‘Global governance and “new governance theory”’, p. 10.

36 Ecofys, ‘Global Good Practice Analysis on LEDS, NAMAs and MRV: Summary Report’ (2014), available at: {} accessed 13 January 2015.

37 Gillenwater, Michael, Broekhoff, Derik, Trexler, Mark, Hyman, Jasmine, and Fowler, Rob, ‘Policing the voluntary carbon market’, Nature Reports Climate Change, 0711 (2007), pp. 8587 .

38 ICROA, ‘Code of Best Practice for Carbon Management Services’ (2012), available at: {} accessed 13 January 2015.

39 David Suzuki Foundation, ‘Doing Business in a New Climate: A Guide to Measuring, Reducing and Offsetting Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ (2010), available at: {} accessed 13 January 2014.

40 A recent campaign by Greenpeace likening Volkswagen to Darth Vader for opposing EU climate change legislation is an example of a more conventional morality-based NGO approach.

41 Bernstein, ‘Legitimacy in intergovernmental and non-state global governance’.

42 Ibid.

43 Barnett, Michael and Coleman, Liv, ‘Designing police: Interpol and the study of change in international organizations’, International Studies Quarterly, 49:4 (2005), pp. 593619 ; Finnemore, Martha, National Interests in International Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Meyer, John, Boli, John, Ramirez, Francisco O., and Thomas, George M., ‘World society and the nation-state’, American Journal of Sociology, 103:1 (1997), pp. 144181 ; Reus-Smit, Christian, The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity and Institutional Rationality in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Ruggie, John Gerard, Constructing the World Polity (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 2225 .

44 Kirton and Trebilcock, Hard Choices, Soft Law; Pauwelyn, Wessel, and Wouters, ‘When structures become shackles’.

45 Held, David and Koenig-Archibugi, Mathias (eds), Global Governance and Public Accountability (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).

46 Bäckstrand, Karin, ‘Democratizing global environmental governance? Stakeholder democracy after the world summit on sustainable development’, European Journal of International Relations, 12:4 (2006), pp. 467498 .

47 Pauwelyn, Wessel, and Wouters, ‘When structures become shackles’, p. 758.

48 Ibid., pp. 755, 762.

49 Ibid; Bernstein, ‘Legitimacy in intergovernmental and non-state global governance’.

50 Bernstein, Steven, The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

51 Best, Governing Failure.

52 Ruggie, ‘Global governance and “new governance theory”’, p. 9.

53 Ibid., p. 9.

54 Entities not targeted for governance may also constitute part of a community of practice (for example, related civil society groups), however the importance of these community members for legitimation will vary depending on the case. Wenger, Etienne, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard, and Snyder, William, A Guide to Making Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), pp. 2829 .

55 Wenger, Communities of Practice; Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, A Guide to Making Knowledge.

56 Eberlein, Burkard, Abbott, Kenneth W., Black, Julia, Meidinger, Errol, and Wood, Stepan, ‘Transnational business governance interactions: Conceptualization and framework for analysis’, Regulation & Governance, 8:1 (2014), pp. 122 .

57 See, for example, Ven, Hamish van der, ‘Correlates of rigorous and credible transnational governance: a cross-sectoral analysis of best practice compliance in eco-labeling’, Regulation & Governance, 9:3 (2015), pp. 276293 .

58 While the ISEAL Alliance is the most identifiable arbiter of best practice in sustainability standards, other organisations have also made efforts to shape the rigour, credibility, and legality of such standard systems. These efforts include the WTO’s Annex 3 to the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (WTO 1994), the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 14020 and 14024 standards (ISO 1999, 2000), and the FAO’s efforts to create guidelines for the eco-labelling of wildcatch and aquaculture fisheries (FAO 2001).

59 Derkx, Boudewijn and Glasbergen, Pieter, ‘Elaborating global private meta-governance: an inventory in the realm of voluntary sustainability standards’, Global Environmental Change, 27 (2014), pp. 4150 ; Fransen, Luc, ‘The politics of meta-governance in transnational private sustainability governance’, Policy Sciences, 48:3 (2015), pp. 293317 .

60 ISEAL Alliance, ‘2014 Annual Report’, available at: {} accessed 11 April 2016.

61 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Our Mission’ (2012a), available at: {} accessed 21 January 2015.

62 Ponte, Stefano and Riisgaard, Lone, ‘Competition, “best practices” and exclusion in the market for social and environmental standards’, in Ponte, Gibbon, and Vestergaard (eds), Governing through Standards, p. 246 .

63 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Our Mission’.

64 ISEAL Alliance, Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards – Version 5.0 (London: ISEAL Alliance, 2010a).

65 ISEAL Alliance, Code of Good Practice for Assessing the Impacts of Social and Environmental Standards – Version 1.0 (London: ISEAL Alliance, 2010b).

66 ISEAL Alliance, Code of Good Practice for Assuring Conformance with Social and Environmental Standards – Version 1.0 (London: ISEAL Alliance, 2012b).

67 ISEAL Alliance, ISEAL Credibility Principles: Principles for Credible and Effective Sustainability Standards Systems (London: ISEAL Alliance, 2013).

68 Loconto, Allison and Fouilleux, Eve, ‘Politics of private regulation: ISEAL and the shaping of transnationals sustainability governance’, Regulation & Governance, 8:2 (2014), pp. 166185 .

69 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Pathway to ISEAL Membership’, available at: {} accessed 13 January 2015.

70 ISEAL Alliance, ‘FAQ’, available at: {} accessed 11 April 2016.

71 ISEAL Alliance, Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards – Version 5.0 , p. 14.

72 Pauwelyn, Wessel, and Wouters, ‘When structures become shackles’, p. 749.

73 ISEAL Alliance, ISEAL Credibility Principles.

74 Telephone interview with a former WWF employee, 8 December 2014.

75 Telephone interview with a participant in the Aquaculture Dialogues, 22 November 2014.

76 Loconto and Fouilleux, ‘Politics of private regulation’, pp. 11–12.

77 Telephone interview with a representative from an organic aquaculture standard, 20 November 2014.

78 ISEAL Alliance, ‘ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards – Draft Version 5.2’ (2014a), available at: {} accessed 14 January 2015, p. 15.

79 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Standard-Setting Code Revision Draft 5.1: 1st Consultation Comments’ (2014b), available at: {} accessed 14 January 2014, p. 20.

80 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Standard-Setting Code Revision Draft 5.1’, p. 20.

81 ISEAL Alliance, ‘ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards – Draft Version 5.3’ (2014c), available at: {} accessed 14 January 2015, p. 20.

82 ISEAL Alliance, ‘Standard-Setting Code Revision Draft 5.1’.

83 Ibid., p. 5.

84 Ibid., pp. 5–7.

85 Ibid., p. 12.

86 Ibid., p. 11.

87 Ibid., p. 11–12.

88 ISEAL Alliance, ‘ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards – Draft Version 5.3’.

89 Graeme Auld makes a similar point, suggesting that early standards create a template for subsequent ones. See Graeme Auld, ‘Confronting trade-offs and interactive effects in the choice of policy focus: Specialized versus comprehensive private governance’, Regulation & Governance, 8:1 (2014), pp. 126–48.

90 Pal, Frontiers of Governance, pp. 191–2; OECD, Modernising Government: The Way Forward (Paris: OECD, 2005).

91 Ostrom, Elinor, ‘Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change’, Global Environmental Change, 20:4 (2010), pp. 550557 .

92 Kanie, Norichika and Biermann, Frank (eds), Governance through Goals: New Strategies for Global Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

93 Ruggie, ‘Global governance and “new governance theory”’.

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