Networked Governance: Why It Is Different and How It Can Work

John Lim outlines strategies and implications for policymakers seeking to build and leverage the full power of collaborative networks.

Date Posted

6 Jan 2011


Issue 9, 14 Jun 2011

The "top-down versus bottom-up government" debate has become largely irrelevant, the consensus being that traditional top-down government is increasingly ineffectual in today's context. The discourse has instead turned to how governments can make that transition, and thrive in a new environment in which collaboration and networking are the norm. Consequently, policymakers around the world are now experimenting with novel ways of collaboration that bring together diverse stakeholder groups and provide more integrated and holistic responses.

Taking a network approach to public governance implies an increased reliance on (typically more informal) networks as a way to mobilise and engage citizens and organisations in the development, implementation, and monitoring of public policy. The rise of network governance and the new collaborative ethos of public institutions points to a more fundamental transformation and proliferation of the network paradigm, which Castells termed "the rise of network society".1

The key driver in the emergence of the network society is technology – primarily new information and communication technologies – although it is important to bear in mind that all new forms of societal organisation are only conditioned, not determined, by technology. Society shapes technology according to the needs, values, interests and identities of people who make use of it, and because political systems are largely dependent on the inputs from the public spaces of socialised communication for their conversion of demands into collective decisions, the political decision-making process is also transformed by the rise of the network society.


The rise of the network society changes not only the nature of public discourse and opinion formation, but also the form and content of concrete decision-making, policy development and implementation. Bang & Esmark argue that nation-states are being replaced by network states, which are “states embedded in local, regional, and global networks of governance hailed as necessary to meet the challenges of increased complexity, connectedness, and globalisation”.2 Such governance networks vary considerably in terms of the level of formalisation, stability and inclusiveness, but a common characteristic is the involvement of non-state actors from the private and third sector as stakeholders and partners in policy management and implementation. The reconfiguration of the political system according to the ethos of good governance based on the network paradigm thus calls for a re-evaluation of the relationship between government and its stakeholders. As Bang & Esmark (2009) note:

"The only reasonable approach to the rise of network ethos and network organisation in public governance is a clear refusal of the idea of the network state as a helpless victim of network society. The reorientation of steering and coordination from programmes of conventional democratic polity to the stakeholder and partnership programmes of governance intrinsic to network governance is not simply a necessary or functional response to economic globalisation, technological innovation, complexity, and wicked policy problems… Rather it is to be regarded as the core of a more fundamental transformation from a disciplinary society to a control society in which states, or at least governments, are key innovators and benefactors."3


A common misconception with policymakers is that collaboration with external stakeholders implies a process of democratic public consultation involving resource-draining feedback solicitation, and sorting through half-formed ideas and perennial complaints. The fact is that collaborative participation can be structured, selective and designed to be productive; dialogue can often be highly specialised, technical and closed (see sidebar).

New forms of societal organisation are only conditioned, not determined, by technology.

Unfortunately, while policymakers may seek to use more collaborative arrangements, they often still expect outcomes and processes that are consistent with the traditional, comfortable forms of working. Klijn4 concludes that – given existing efforts, including attempts to involve stakeholders in the designing of policy – interactive governance does not always foster more cooperation among stakeholders, nor does it necessarily facilitate better solutions or more democratic processes.

One critical reason for these failures arises from the tension between the horizontal accountability of these interactive governance mechanisms and the vertical accountability involved in the procedures of classical representative democracy. As such, an important factor to consider is the management efforts that go into collaborative processes, since they are complex and not easy to manage with traditional governance instruments. Unless policymakers understand what it means to work through network structures, they will continue to develop traditional policies and adopt management techniques that run counter to the positive results expected of networked arrangements.

Power and Trust

For a start, policymakers need to appreciate the nature of power in a network structure. As each member of a network is an independent entity, typical forms of authority do not work well, even if some actors have more formal power than others (in terms of resources or political clout). In fact, rather than relying on contractual arrangements, network structures depend on informal exchanges based on interpersonal relations. This calls for new modes of leadership which centre primarily on a facilitator or broker role. In addition, for the network to be effective, members must be able to trust each other to work to their mutual benefit.

Making The Net Work: Three Models


Technology can help solicit and gather relevant expertise from large numbers of self-selected peers working together in groups.

Read More

Traditional policies and management techniques run counter to the positive results expected of networked arrangements.

While trust is not easy to build, there are two characteristics of network structures that may mitigate these constraints. First, the formation of a network structure means that at least some of the members recognise they are not able to achieve their purposes on their own, and that all action is thus interdependent. Second, many of the participants may already know each other and may have formed pockets of trust before the network structure was formed. These pockets of trust can be capitalised on through effective management strategies.

Risk and Indicators

Inter-organisational arrangements often depend on cooperation and coordination as their primary mode of operation because they entail low risk and an acceptable level of comfort. These processes usually involve sharing of information, maintaining the autonomy of individual departments, and maintaining the ability to deliver services as usual. There is a desire to continue to tightly control what occurs in the network structure. Furthermore, government often expects it will be able to see traditional results, and see them quickly. The difficulty is that the types of results that occur through network structures have to do more with changing relationships and perceptions, which are more intangible than generating traditional programmes and numbers. Managing expectations and having the right indicators are thus critical to the survival of network structures.

There are, unfortunately, few definitive outcome measures that can conclusively demonstrate the effectiveness of a programme designed to work in a network structure among government agencies. If this deficiency persists, the true benefits of the network structure (that is, systemic change, relationship-building, innovative operating procedures and community inclusion) could be seen as less significant than it deserves. The reality is that the way governments work today is not conducive to changing traditional processes because of the risk involved. Network structures are unique responses to very complex, messy, wicked problems that do not lend themselves to business as usual. Policymakers must realise that their key role in a network environment is to lay the foundation for members to operate with the authority they need, and then get out of the way.

New modes of leadership centre primarily on a facilitator or broker role.

Start Small

With greater experience and working knowledge of the benefits of network structures, as well as an understanding of what outcomes can be expected, decision makers may be more prepared to make changes – at the margins, initially, but in ways which could enable fuller network structures to emerge as a means to address more intractable issues. Allowing longer timeframes for evaluation, putting emphasis on integration rather than simply delivery of services, changing perceptions about each other's contribution to the whole, and recognising the value of relationship-building – these signal a promising start to new ways of working together.


John Lim was Senior Researcher with the Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College. He is currently Assistant Director at the Transformation Office, Public Service Division.


  1. Castells, M., The Rise of the Network Society (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell, 2000)
  2. Bang, H. and Esmark, A., "Good Governance in Network Society: Reconfiguring the Political from Politics to Policy", Administrative Theory & Praxis, 31 (1) (March 2009), pp7-37
  3. See Endnote 2.
  4. Klijn, E., “Governance and Governance Networks in Europe”, Public Management Review, 10 (4) (2008)
  5. Noveck, B. S., “Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful”, Brookings Institution Press (Washington, D. C., 2009),
  6. Malone T. W., Laubacher, R. and Dellarocas, C., “The Collective Intelligence Genome”, (MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2010)
  7. Krebs, V. and Holley, J., “Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving”,


  1. Brown, K., and Keast, R., “Citizen-Government Engagement: Community Connection through Networked Arrangements”, Asian Journal of Public Administration, 25 (1) (June 2003), pp107-131, 02. Keast, R., Mandell, M. P., Brown, K., and Woolcock, G, “Network Structures: Working Differently and Changing Expectations”, Public Administration Review, 64 (3) (May/June 2004), pp363-371,

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