Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Ismael Blanco (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), Vivien Lowndes (University of Nottingham) and Lawrence Pratchett (University of Canberra)


The notion of networks is firmly embedded in the study and practice of politics. This notion, however, leads to various uses and interpretations. For some, network politics represents a desirable horizon, characterized by political pluralism, democratic inclusiveness and collaboration among various stakeholders to address collective problems that are increasingly complex. Others, however, conceive political networks as opaque, closed, and exclusive spaces. Networks, from this second perspective, reflect the concentration of political power in the hands of a few actors. This work sheds light on the different conceptions of networks in politics, stresses the need to differentiate them, and, finally, points at the possibility and interest of combining them.


Among the different theoretical approaches in political science that are articulated around the notion of networks, we have chosen to focus on two particularly significant ones: the Network Governance Approach and the Policy Network Analysis.


The Network Governance Approach argues that the management of public affairs has experienced important changes in the last decades, aligned with no less profound mutations in the socioeconomic arena. Public policies are no longer monopolized by state political institutions, since these have lost power downwards (for the benefit of regional and local political entities), upwards (in favour of supranational bodies), and sideways (to parapublic or parastatal agencies). In addition, the increasingly complex nature of collective problems requires the development of cooperative arrangements between public, private and social actors. Cooperative arrangements such as public–private partnerships, consortia, joint ventures, or citizen participation mechanisms, have mushroomed in recent times, from the awareness that only through cooperation can effective and democratic answers be offered as a response to complex challenges such as local economic competitiveness, social inclusion and sustainable development.


Policy Network Analysis understands, on the contrary, that cooperation between public and private actors always occurred, although in a more informal than formal way. Thus, historically, the various fields of public policy (health, agriculture, telecommunications, social services, finance, etc.) have been dominated by more or less stable coalitions of actors with stakes and resources needed for the development of policies. The sharing of resources such as information, money, legitimacy, etc. is the main foundation of the relations between these actors, including establishing relations of mutual dependence. In contrast to the first approach, this second perspective stresses that such relationships between public and private actors tend to have harmful effects on democracy, because they favour those with more valuable resources (like money or information) and impair transparency of policy processes. The limited, exclusive and highly stable nature present in many of these networks explains why public policies are so difficult to change and are so impermeable to citizen participation.


There are many examples that illustrate the validity and the empirical relevance of both approaches, although they seem to be making contradictory statements. Actually, they are theoretical approaches that respond to questions of a different nature. And yet, when combined a highly suggestive research agenda emerges. How will new forms of collaborative governance intersect with existing public policy networks? Is there scope to move towards new forms of governance that are more inclusive and democratic, or are pre-existing configurations condemning us to the persistence of the status quo? Is it possible to change power relations from political institutions themselves, or can this only be done from social pressure? The answers to these questions, do they vary according to historical moments, places and policy fields, or are common trends more significant than differences?