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Critically examine the usefulness and weaknesses of the policy network approach
In order to examine the usefulness and weaknesses of the policy network approach, we need to revise the existing literature that is concerned with this issue.
There are many different approaches to the policy network. The American literature speaks about interest groups and describes it with Lowi’s (1969) famous “iron triangle”, metaphor for a closed and powerful circle of control at sub-governmental level. In the British literature Richardson and Jordan consider the prevalence of interpersonal relationship over the structural relation inside a network. An interesting evolution has Rhodes conceptualization on policy network: in 1981 Rhodes’ point of view was that the structural relations between political institutions are prevalent over the interpersonal ones. In 1992 Rhodes’ collaboration with Marsh results into a new insight presenting what I would call an “ecological theory”, that takes into account both influences exerted on policy outcomes by the sectoral and the sub-sectoral aspects of networks, in other words: both the structure and the interpersonal relations.
Policy maker, policy making process and networks
Considering the policy maker and the network as two actors on the same stage, it can be more easily understood the interaction and the bargaining process that appears.
The policy maker has the power to access resources and to distribute them to various needs expressed by networks. The networks have the power to attribute or to alter the access of the policy maker to this privilege (of accessing and distributing the resources). Here the bargaining power of each part comes into stage. The policy maker is looking for a future where he can secure his privileges. The network is looking and asking for a decision that has as effect a policy change that suits its own goals and agenda.
In a democratic society the policy maker secures its future privilege by assuring future re-election. This re-election is reinforced by a positive public opinion that comes from policies perceived as beneficial by society and by a political support from networks. Each part of the equation is equally important, thus a policy maker must take both of them into account. The only problem is that the interest of the two – public opinion and a specific network agenda – could get into contradiction to each other. And here the policy maker should deal with the eternal dilemma of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds: to satisfy specific interests of networks and to keep the public electoral support by satisfying social, public needs. Sometimes these two types of interests can differ and thus compete for a decision on their favor under the principle of exclusion (only one of two interests may get the favorable decision).
The policy maker is expected, according to Vickers (1995, p.130) to know how to balance and how to optimize. The policy decision must satisfy the existing needs – that usually are so many and so diversified that we could consider them as infinite – with limited resources: money, energy, skill and time. When the policy does not take into consideration the limited resources or fails to satisfy the existing needs in a proper manner, that policy is the way to disaster.
The policy maker should be able to evaluate the needs and the limitations, the challenges and the risks in order to design a successful policy.
The needs respond to changes that occur in society. Changes are produced by the natural tendency for survival and growth. New interests and motivations in society express these changes. Policy making is the result of the interactions that arise in the process of the social life. The policy maker matches the internal needs and resources to external demands and opportunities.
Policy making is a communication process. According to Vickers (1995), the social change occurs by transfer of information. Communication could be used as weapon, as a “unilateral instrument of coercion”, that can be considered as a physical form of change as produces as result at least restriction of freedom. As the role of communication is to inform, to persuade, to deter, these are some of the roles of communication between the policy maker and its milieu.
Policy making is a day-to-day task, as it deals with a dynamic process. It needs to work with predictions. As the rate of change increases, there is always a gap between reality and assumption. The power to predict accurately (what is going to happen and what are we going to do), to foresee the actual results of the decision taken is part of policy making.
What and who influence change?
What are the factors that determine change? The factors that determine change are the factors that could influence the policy maker. A source of influence is the level of resources: they may shrink or grow; so the policy makers decide where the restriction or growth falls. The values and the standards by which the services are judged may change and they become an influencing factor for policy maker’s agenda.
Confronting change, the policy maker could decide to protect the present state and to reduce as much as possible a negative influence while he could choose to encourage expanding and growth.
Who or what exerts influence on policy maker? The influence is exerted by everyone that could make the policy maker dependent and by everything that could bring constraints to policy maker’s activity. Among them are, according to Vickers: “the planner, those who execute the plans, those who have the legal or practical power to veto them and those whose confidence and concurrence is required in order to make the policy effective”. (Vickers, 1995, p.110). Vickers considers that “implementing of policy must include plans to secure the necessary cooperation or to insulate it against interference”.
Questions that should be answered by the policy network approach
There are some questions to which the policy network approach is asked to answer in order to prove its utility. Some of these questions are related to the nature of network: how is formed; what motivates the individuals to get together and work together for a common negotiated agenda; how the differenced are negotiated; how does influence the result of its action on cohesion and further development of the network?
Other questions deal with the double way inter-relation between the existing network with the institution it tries to influence; how does the type of network determine the outcomes; how does the outcome determine the future structure of the network (the hierarchical/power structure)?
One of the most sought for answers in policy network approach is the predictability of the influence efforts of network on policy maker’s decision: what factors modify the influence of the network, how do they affect the policy outcomes.
In order to have a useful approach we need to understand the factors that influence the change. A policy maker is by definition not a risk taker. Its own agenda (of securing future privilege) prevents him from making adventurous decisions or controversial ones for citizens. The networks activity imply the pursuing of own objectives. Their objectives are an echo of the new evolving needs that come from the inner dynamic of life. This adaptation of network goals to real needs ask for changes, more or less challenging for the policy maker.
This problem of the dynamic of networks and the dynamic of their relation with the policy maker is one issue considered as weakness or policy network approach by some authors. Peters (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.25) points out “the absence of more explicit linkage between network models and models of the policy process”.
Answers and Different Opinions
In literature the change of the network is related to change in policy outcomes. The outside factors affect policy networks. The perception of these factors, the way they are interpreted and negotiated inside the network affect the outcomes.
Marsh and Rhodes (cited in Marsh ed, Comparing policy networks, 1998, p.53) consider as main factors that modify the influence of the network the exchange relationships and power dependence as well as the level – sectoral or subsectoral of the network.
How do the identified factors affect the policy outcomes? One weakness of the policy network approach is, as seen by Daugbjberg “it has not developed a theoretical model for explaining policy outcomes” (Ed Marsh, 1998, p.78)
Marsh and Rhodes (1992, cited in Ed Marsh, 1998) try as well to find a casual link between the type of network and the policy outcomes.
They identify the tight network where the members share the same ideology and similar values. The number of members is limited and their interaction frequent. There are little or no dissensions among members. Generally the members have similar access to resources thus their bargaining power is virtually equally important. This could be a community network of business or professional type or even social based one, composed by people that need their own political voice heard in a society where the access to political system could be closed or restricted.
Another type of network is the loose network, or the issue network. These networks accept large numbers of new members, whose involvement is usually not constant. The members that get into an issue network usually have different access level to resources, so their bargaining power inside the network is unequal. There is a core where the decision is concentrated.
Marsh and Rhodes (1998) consider that the tight network produces continuity in policy while the loose networks are responsible for unpredictable policy outcomes.
Dowding (1995) accepts the idea that networks matter but he considers the policy network model is not able to explain policy outcomes in a scientific manner.
Even if the opinions of various authors regarding the usefulness of policy network are split, there are practical efforts to find a methodology to use the policy network approach.
One interesting study resulted in the comparative analyze of the policy outcomes of environmental policy in Danish and Swedish agriculture, Daugbjerg (ed. Marsh, 1998) proves that networks type could determine the policy outcomes. Thus the Danish network could get the Ministry of Agriculture’ s support due to its cohesion and the farmers escaped the costs of Polluter Pays Principle and got it subsidized by state. The Swedish network could not obtain the same policy result because the weak cohesion of the network and weak influence on Ministry of agriculture. In the end the Swedish farmers had accepted the Polluter Pays Principle. The author of the comparative study considers that the degree of cohesion of a network determines the result, determines the decision.
This practical result of analyze is consistent with the previous theoretical supposition of Marsh and Rhodes.
A weakness of the policy network approach is the manner in which the conflicts are resolved. Peters appreciates Sartori’s efforts to explain policy change, by using the “policy advocacy” model. But Peter’s points out that outcome of conflicts depend largely on the method of solving them: one of these methods being synthesis, the second being application of political power, while bargaining mechanism is the third method. As for each method of conflict solving involves different outcomes, this equals to a low level of predictability.
Another weakness identified by Peters is the linkage between policy network approach and the agenda setting. According to him, Baumgartner and Jones (cited in ed. Marsh, 1998, p.31) introduce in literature the “punctuated equilibria” idea that considers that “agenda in a policy area are relatively stable unless there is some event or political change that upsets the equilibrium”.
A brilliant step forward in policy network approach is Compston's (2006) integrative approach in discussing the factors that influence the policy outcomes. Using the policy network theory and the Advocacy Coalition Framework of Sabatier, he identifies the process that explains a major change in policy. The conceptual contribution from policy network approach is spotting that “for major policy change to occur there must first be preexisting changes in the views, bargaining strategies, power resources or coalition possibilities of network members and these can only be brought about by external factors of the model” (Compston, 2006, p.3). Compston considers that it is nearly impossible “to predict the ways in which external events can influence public policy” and this view shows, in my opinion, that Compston understands the human dimension of the networks, an aspect previously neglected by theorists. Still he identifies some external factors that can be predicted and he calls them “king trends” –“events that constitute major long-term technological, economic environmental
and social trends“, “significant for people’s lives and expected by experts to continue for the next 20 years” (Compston, 2006, p.4). And this is a big advancement in the public policy predictability.
Policy network approach should be able to describe the evolution of each type of network from inside (how it shapes, what needs has, what standards has, how negotiate the agenda) and its relation with the external world and especially to policy maker (how the network influences policy maker’s agenda; how network can persuade and controls policy maker’s decision).
An important contribution on understanding the network dynamics is brought by Hay (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.44). Hay’s research regarding the network formation, recruitment and internal dynamics lights one of this “most sadly overlooked, least discussed, and yet obviously crucial aspects of networking”. He describes schematically network formation, where the first factor as importance for individuals to aggregate into a network is “the recognition of the potential for mutual advantage through collective (as opposed to individual) action.” Hay considers that the recruitment is a process by which the network is renewed and accesses new resources.
For the network’s life, important is the coordination of different intentions, motivations, and expectations of its constituents. Hay brings his contribution to the “network failure” concept, where his opinion is that “network failure is almost entirely a matter of perception” (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.50) and usually must be answered the question “failure for whom” in order to understand its subtitle mechanism.
Human dimension of networks
While discussing the usefulness and weaknesses of the policy network approach we should bear in mind that “all the networks are dominated by economic and government interests” (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.188). The human dimension of the networks makes me state that understanding the activity and the way a network negotiates its resources is not a matter of strictly cause and effect. I doubt that in this social domain “what determines what” can be so easily identified and more – precisely forecast. We deal in policy network with a negotiation in two steps: the first one is the internal network negotiation among its members. This result of the internal negotiation, which represents the network’s agenda, gets into the second stage of negotiation, with the policy maker. The negotiation in double steps is a totally psychological matter, where the result depends on motivations, expectations and feelings. The fear of losing something, or the desire to obtain something valuable, could be important drivers for sudden and unexpected human actions and decisions. There is no general rule or patterns for a 100% success in all negotiations. There is always a possibility for failure of the bargaining process; there are always some actors on the stage that could change the results in the last moment. Even if the literature states the possible relation that could exist between the type of state and the type of networks, I consider that is too little attention granted to the cultural specific of each country. The network has its specificity on each cultural region and this makes the general rules impossible to be given.
Another weakness in my opinion is the fact that the authors do not pay too much attention to the conflicts that arise when is negotiated an outcome between the policy maker and more than one network. We need to understand if, when, how the networks with similar interests negotiate between them and between themselves and the policy maker their own agenda with different priorities. For example: if we have two networks that militate for women rights, one of the networks having as the first priority the equality of chances in career, the other one fighting for the abortion legalization. It is interesting to find out what influences the policy maker in his first choice for action: the issue, the public’s interest in issue, the power of the network or common personal values to one of the choices. The interaction between the networks competing for common resources is an important matter of both policy networking and social dynamic.
In my opinion the policy network approach is an important instrument for future theoretical advances that could help us understanding the new developments in governance.
Firstly, the network policy is the new type of governance in European Union (EU).
Benington and Harvey consider that “transnational network are now a key part of the policy development process within the EU” (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.149). Marsh concludes that networks are more and more perceived as a “new form of governance” (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.190).
EU is defined as “a hybrid intergovernmental and supranational organization” (CIA site, 2007). Its economic goals are to eliminate trade barriers, to adopt common currency and to create common living standards. As an international agent, EU is aiming to develop itself as a political and economic power.
But we must take into consideration the reality that the historic national disputes and the difference in income among regions make EU to face difficulties in generating consensus for common policies.
The definition for the concept of networks as stated by Hay (ed. Marsh, 1998, p.38): “modes of coordination of collective action characterized and constituted through the mutual recognition of common or complementary strategic agendas” makes me conclude that EU is such a network from the moment it was conceived.
Another application that requires the contribution of policy network approach could be the research on Public Private Partnerships. The modern policy making confronts a new concept for executive level procurements: Public Private Partnership (PPP). This new concept that aims for state public service decentralization has as main goal offering better services to citizens by a close collaboration with private agents. This modern solution found for improving the quality of public services has as main concept the network policy. The transparency and accountability of the tendering and biding process are important, but equal importance has the understanding of the networking process. With the aim of better quality of its public services the executive policy maker has to learn to resist to pressures, to avoid the traffic of influence and corrupt practices in awarding the contracts. The policy maker aims for equal opportunity milieu where the only important values to be decided by market mechanism. The policy network approach findings and research could help in developing a fair and higher qualitative process for offering citizens better services.
The policy network concepts help to understand what is happening and why in modern world of policy making. Still the policy network approach needs to contribute on clarifying many issues pointed out in the present paper.
CIA – “The World Factbook -- European Union”, 2007, [WWW]. 15th March 2007, https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/print/ee.html, (Accessed on 25th March 2007)
Compston, Hugh – King trends and the future of public policy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Marsh, David, edited – Comparing policy networks, Open University Press, 1998
Vickers, Geoffrey, Sir – The art of judgment: A study of policy making, Sage Publications, 1995
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