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Order-vitality balance essential to grid-based management

ZHANG FAN | 2021-05-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Construction workers queue up to register in a new “real-name” system for the sake of grid-based management in Nanchang, capital of east China’s Jiangxi Province. Photo: CFP

In order to build a new pattern for primary-level social governance and improve management and service mechanisms for communities, the Chinese government emphasized the importance of establishing a primary-level management and service platform, which features grid-based management, lean services, information technology support, openness and sharing in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025). 

Grid-based management will be highly conducive to enhancing the efficiency and quality of primary-level social governance. Although many scholars have studied grid-based management, further discussions are needed to clarify its true meaning, intrinsic mechanism, and underlying governance philosophy.
Academic studies of grid-based management generally center on its definition, practice, and future outlook. In terms of grid-based management’s definition, some scholars argue that it is a combination of bureaucracy with information technologies against the backdrop of technological governance; others believe it is a seamless, thoughtful, and all-encompassing management model based on public needs; and a third group defines it as the Chinese government’s innovative application of modern information technologies to governance work. 
When it comes to practice, academics lay emphasis on the connection between grid-based management and various social spheres. For example, grid-based management has been applied to community management, campus security, fire safety, and stabilization of communities, so scholars tend to analyze achievements made in these fields, existing problems, and paths for improvement. 
Regarding the model’s future outlook, some scholars hold that grid-based management has basically met the government’s demand for social governance innovation in form, but there are latent risks such as regulation failure, unsustainability, and the inhibition of communities’ vigor in self-governance. Hence, grid-based management will inevitably evolve into network-based management. 
Knowledge of grid-based management should be updated to fit changing times and situations. Vague understanding and incorrect positioning of the model will affect the government’s resource allocations and policy effects, leading to deviations in policy implementation and an asynchrony between policies and social development. Interpretations of grid-based management should focus on the following three dimensions. 
First, grid-based management represents a redistribution of geographic space and power. The formulation of related systems and the demarcation of grids essentially draw upon the logic of traditional Chinese governance systems, such as the lifang system of urban residential neighborhoods, which was initiated in the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and the baojia system for community self-defense, which was practiced during the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties from 960 to 1911. These ancient systems shed light on the connections between space and political power. The division of geographic space and the production of social space resulted in a reallocation of political power. 
Grid-based management divides management objects on a community or village level into several grid units according to certain standards, and incorporates humans, land, materials, affairs, and organizations into different grids. Each grid covers a certain number of residents and is managed by relevant administrators, thereby improving managerial efficiency, resolving conflicts in communities, and stabilizing society. 
Based on the requirements of full coverage, facilitation services and management, and seamless connection, the jurisdiction is divided into interconnected grids of similar sizes, which effectively eases such problems as imbalanced distributions of community or village areas and populations, and unreasonable resource distributions. 
Second, grid-based management structurally re-connects administrative organs. For a long time, problems were found late in primary-level social governance. Relying on digital technology platforms, grid-based management can realize information collection, file building, task assignment and processing, feedback handling, verification and closure, and examination and evaluation, strictly requiring reported cases to be solved and solutions implemented within the given time. 
Through rulemaking and embedding information technologies, primary-level governments’ resources and power are integrated, while more comprehensive methods are adopted to practically address problems in social service provision and management. This brings a structure into place with information technology platforms as the carriers, centered on problem solving, and characterized by the collaboration and flexible dispatch of all departments involved. 
In addition, grid-based management fuses residents’ senses of belonging and identity. The advancement of modernization has increased social mobility, affecting individuals’ social cognition of, and identification with, areas or groups they belong to, which weakens their senses of belonging and identity, and hinders the formation of order within social groups. 
As a countermeasure, grid-based management divides society into smaller units than communities or villages. Through daily contact and interaction, grid administrators can strengthen local residents’ cognition of, and identification with, the grids they are a part of. This encourages people to actively engage in community governance, thus creating a new social governance environment based on collaboration and broad participation with the goal of bringing benefits to all. 
In short, grids are units divided from urban and rural communities, administrative villages, and other designated spaces, for the sake of comprehensive service provision and management on a primary level. With information technology at the core, and lean management as the objective, grid-based management can make discovering and solving problems more efficient, and promote healthy interactions among subjects like residents, grid administrators, and primary-level governments, strengthening the public’s senses of belonging, security, and gain, and enhancing social solidarity and vitality. 
Order and vitality
In the process of modernization, contradictions between order and vitality have become a long-standing issue. The design of grid-based management contains both of the different governance concepts: order and vitality. The goal of maintaining social order while unleashing social vitality is a top priority for constructing a new primary-level social governance pattern in the new era. 
First, for the maintenance of social order it is vital to build up grid-based management’s capacity. There are many kinds of urban community governance systems in China, but the systems are disjointed or overlap to a certain extent, blurring the rights and liabilities of related departments and leading to conflicts between different governance subjects. 
Before the implementation of grid-based management, urban and rural communities were bothered by undesirable phenomena in public spaces, such as dumping domestic and decorative waste, and illegal advertising. 
Through seamless division and full coverage, specific functionaries were assigned to manage each grid. Grid administrators inspect grid areas within their jurisdiction and report the problems they discover to a grid-based management information platform. After receiving cases reported by grid administrators, the dispatch center will send each case to the related functional department, which will take ownership of cases, and handle them as soon as possible. The thorough search models built into grid-based management can significantly increase primary-level governments’ efficiency as they discover and solve problems, and reduce government resource waste, playing a positive role in building and keeping social order. 
Efforts should be made to tap grid-based management’s potential to invigorate society. Grid-based management is advantageous in that small, yet substantive, grids divide residents into new social groups, which conveniently boost social vitality. For example, it is more practical to conduct activities like educational publicity, public opinion solicitation, and team building within a smaller grid, where better results can be achieved. Inside each small resident group, communication will be easier, thus enhancing solidarity and the group’s senses of identity and belonging. 
The key to striking a balance between order and vitality in grid-based management is to handle the work of management and service provision well. On the one hand, grid-based management faces predicaments such as asymmetries between identity and power, overlapping responsibilities and blurred lines, and imbalances in resource allocation and task distribution. 
Specifically, administrators within each grid discover problems, yet administrators outside the grid solve them. Consequently, grid-based management is largely passive, adaptive, and in hindsight. In addition, the work scope of grid administrators somewhat overlaps with that of some social subjects, who are prone to free-riding, adding to the workload and difficulties in grid-based management. In reality, there is a severe shortage of grid administrators. In some places, each administrator is charged with managing two or more grids. 
When stimulating the vigor of society, it is important to encourage residents to actively participate in community or village affairs, admit them to the grid-based management system as volunteers, and inspire them to offer suggestions for related work. Realistically, however, some of these services become a mere formality. Problems like fabricating workflow traces and a lack of effective assessment mechanisms are acute. To raise the efficiency of grid-based management, governments at the primary level should take a two-pronged measure to maintain social order and invigorate society at the same time. 
All in all, primary-level social governance is evolving from one that serves single subjects to serving multiple subjects with multiple centers. The aim of social governance has shifted from instrumental rationality to value rationality. To build a new pattern for primary-level social governance, attention should be paid to the evolution of governance philosophy, in order to further seek balance between order and vitality in primary-level societies, and create a new type of social governance based on collaboration and broad participation with the goal of bringing benefits to all.
Zhang Fan is from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.