Leslie A. Pal <email@example.com>
The public policy literature has recently emphasized the importance of "networks" in the policy process and has also argued that the new dynamics of policy networks are redefining contemporary forms of governance. Surprisingly, this literature has largely ignored the Internet as an exemplar of these new network forms and new governance practices. This paper tries to bring these two areas of research together. It reviews the policy literature to establish the point that the network concept is increasingly central to contemporary discussions. It then provides an overview of what various authors have identified as the key characteristics of the Internet and the networks that operate through it. The paper concludes with several suggestions for further research on virtual policy networks.
This paper addresses a paradoxical gulf between the public policy literature and the Internet. The literature on policy-making has of late emphasized the importance of "networks" and especially the effect of different types of network organizations on policy processes and policy outcomes. It has also argued the new forms of governance are emerging from the more conventional, hierarchical, command-and-control political systems that have characterized the West for the last few hundred years. For the most part, however, while this literature has taken a passing interest in the Internet, it has failed to recognize that the Internet may in fact be a prototype of a completely different model of policy networks and moreover that the Internet's characteristics are precisely those of the so-called new governance structures. Theory, in short, has ignored an important area of practice. I consider this to be a significant omission, since much of the network literature in policy studies tends to be abstract and highly theoretical. The Internet provides a laboratory to explore the actual characteristics of these new forms of political organization firsthand.
To date, it is still fairly common to treat the Internet as a curiosity and an organizational anomaly. It is referred to as a frontier, as something ungoverned and ungovernable. A system as complex as the Internet, of course, cannot be "ungoverned," but it can be governed in new and different ways. To the degree that the Internet does become a widely accessible and routine means of communication, it will naturally have an influence on how people organize their social, economic, and political lives. My point, however, is more fundamental. Even if the Internet were to stall and become nothing much more than a hacker's paradise with a commercial rump of "electronic malls," it could still serve as a living example of a fundamentally new form of organization and governance. Insofar as the "network" is the emerging paradigm for policy-making and governance, the Net and its governance practices should be viewed as exemplars of possible organizational futures.
The paper proceeds as follows. The first part reviews the literature on policy networks and governance and illustrates the point that networks (of some sort) are emerging as a master concept for understanding contemporary politics. The second section explores some of the recent work on information and communication technologies (ICT) and their effects on mobilization and social action. While clearly there is an appreciation in this literature of what I will call the network architecture of the Internet, for the most part this work tends to view the Internet as another (albeit powerful) resource at the disposal of citizens and groups. I will attempt to extract some broader, structural features of the Internet as a model for new forms of policy networks. The conclusion will outline possible research strategies and objectives to exploring these issues.
"Policy networks" is a relatively new key term.(1) This term and "policy communities" constitute "two of the most important conceptual innovations to emerge" in recent studies of the policy process (2). For some, the concepts are at best "metaphors,"(3) and, for others, the overlap and confusion of the complementary network concepts leads to little more than a "debate over terminology."(4) The concerns we will raise in this paper tap into another issue as well: whether the network concept goes far enough in capturing the realities and contradictions of contemporary policy-making. On the one hand, there has been tremendous pressure to broaden the policy development process to include more actors, such as interested associations and various groups of experts. On the other hand, despite the policy literature's emphasis on networks and communities, it has had relatively little to offer in the way of tools to foster, develop, and manage relationships between governments and their policy communities. The existing literature may even be inadequate to the new, emerging dynamics of networks and policy communities. One small example is the idea that "only a few or not too many actors can actually inter-act with each other" for a policy network to actually function.(5) The Internet is potentially making this idea obsolete: thousands of individuals and organizations can combine in something much closer to a true network or web than has ever been imagined in network analysis itself.
The broad backdrop to the various origins of network analysis is a concern with understanding the relationship between state and society, and in particular the organization of interests in society. The pioneering postwar book on the subject was David Truman's The Governmental Process (1951). Truman and others in the same tradition conceptualized society as consisting of an almost limitless array of interests that could mobilize around an almost equally limitless range of issues. If people shared interests, they would likely form groups. If issues arose that affected those interests in a policy sense, then the groups would politicize and lobby government. While pluralism did not use the contemporary terms of interest intermediation or associational system, it drew a distinctive portrait of each. Interest intermediation--or the way in which societal interests interact with state institutions--was sketched as a highly variable, unpredictable, unstable process that depended on the organization of interests and government institutions in each policy sector or "subgovernment." The associational system--the patterns of groups and organizations--was also depicted as a rather confusing constellation of small, medium, and large groups, competing and cooperating as they felt necessary
We can identify at least four major sources of inspiration for the broad concept of networks as it has been applied in a variety of different forms. One of the first breaks with pluralism concerned its portrait of the associational system and patterns of policy-making. Empirical case studies in the period showed that in fact patterns were much more stable and relationships far more closed than pluralists had suggested. Instead of a pleasing variety of political actors and multiple access points, the (American) policy system was actually organized in tight nodes, usually with cozy agreements among business, executive agencies and congressional committees--in "iron triangles."(6)
By the mid-1970s the notion of iron triangles seemed like a caricature too, and Hugh Heclo(7) crystallized the growing unease by identifying what he called issue networks. It is interesting to note that Heclo was not arguing for a new master concept but pointing out that the nature of the (American) policy system had changed. For one thing, the technical complexity of policy issues had increased, demanding the participation of policy experts and researchers rather than just narrow interests. There was a greater fluidity in issue generation as well, as the policy system constantly churned and produced new agenda items. Rather than the stable patterns of control that characterize iron triangles, Heclo saw issue networks as being quite permeable, with a kaleidoscope of changing faces as interest in (not stake in) policy issues waxed and waned. Heclo's work can be traced as the direct source of fresh inspiration to European research on subgovernments.(8)
A second important source of work on networks came from comparative research on industrial performance and economic policy. One of the earliest uses of the term "policy network" was in a book edited by Peter Katzenstein, Between Power and Plenty.(9) The inspiration for this work was completely different from the concerns surrounding pluralism. As specialists in foreign relations with a focus on foreign economic policy, Katzenstein and his colleagues were interested in the ways in which domestic political structures affected this policy field. Since "the domestic structures in the advanced industrial states differ in important ways, so do the strategies of foreign economic policy which these states pursue."(10) A key conditioning factor of foreign policy was the character of domestic interests and institutions, which could be termed the "policy network." Policy instruments were conditioned by the "character of the policy network spanning both the public and the private sector."(11) The key factors were the "differentiation of state from society and the centralization within each."(12)
This branch of research had offshoots that remain highly relevant to the work on policy networks today. Work on "state structures" argued that each state had a characteristic pattern of associational and state institutions. In a sense this was a search for a "macro" variable--a single pattern at the broadest or deepest level of a given society that would affect policy-making across all sectors. For example, the work on corporatism urged that some countries were characterized by corporatist structures--centralized state agencies and highly centralized associational systems, the two working in tandem to develop and implement policy--and that despite variances, corporatist dynamics would be discerned in most policy fields in that polity.(13) It also suggested that corporatist political structures were more effective in the development of economic policy. This helped feed a debate about the nature of the state and its autonomy from social interests,(14) as well as a subsequent interest in political institutions.(15) The style of analysis has stressed the structuring effect of state institutions on associational systems.(16) Other work looked more at the relation between state and society in specific (usually economic) sectors and led directly to some of the most important contributions to network analysis. The contemporary variant or application is work on state policy capacities, especially economic or industrial policy, where it is said that centralized administration and coherent associational systems will prove more competitive.(17)
A third source of inspiration for network analysis was the growing work on new social movements and public interest groups. Phillips defines a social movement as "(a) an information network of organizations and individuals who (b) on the basis of collective identity and shared values (c) engage in political and/or cultural struggle intended to expand the boundaries of the existing system and (d) undertake collective action designed to affect both state and society."(18) She points out that social movement organizations rarely act alone (they are, after all, part of a social movement), and they connect through various types of networks. The distinction between the movement and the organizations built upon it is important and gives a clue as to why the network idea spontaneously arose in this field of research. Any movement (e.g., environmental, consumers, women's) is bound to spawn a variety of organizations that address different aspects of its agenda, but those organizations will have a common cause and will seek to cooperate in order to maximize their policy impact.
A public interest group has been defined as "an organizational entity that purports to represent very broad, diffuse, non-commercial interests which traditionally have received little explicit or direct representation in the processes by which agencies, courts, and legislatures make public policy.(19) Broadly speaking, these are citizens' organizations and typically are either very similar to or identical with social movement organizations--for example, consumers' groups and environmental organizations. Both have a penchant for "expressive politics" or a political agenda that does not focus exclusively on material issues, and certainly not on direct political gain. While some skepticism is warranted regarding their altruism, it remains that, in structure and strategy, public interest groups differ markedly from traditional types of organizations. Most importantly, because they tend to be marginal and under-resourced when compared to large corporate interests, they too have been noted for their coalition or networking strategies.
A final source of inspiration for the network concept has been the changing nature of political reality, some elements of which are reflected in the sources described above. Kenis and Schneider summarize these changes as follows:
What is the result of these changes?
Increasingly unable to mobilize all necessary policy resources within their own realm, governments consequently become dependent upon the cooperation and joint resource mobilization of policy actors outside their hierarchical control. Policy networks should therefore be understood as those webs of relatively stable and ongoing relationships which mobilize dispersed resources so that collective (or parallel) action can be orchestrated toward the solution of a common policy problem.(21)
This type of analysis clearly points to contemporary forces that make styles and patterns of governance different today from what they were before. A key factor in the mix is complexity and information. Peters and Barker emphasize information requirements of the modern polity as well as the new demands for openness and participation as key ingredients forcing governments to engage in networks and communities.
But the multiplication of interest groups produces multiple sources of information that have become increasingly difficult to exclude from policy-making. Any official attempt to exclude unwanted information runs up against the increasing (sometimes legally mandated) openness of governments, as well as the increasing information needs of governments when making policy about complex topics. So governments experience political and perhaps legal trouble if they are exclusionary while also denying themselves potentially important information. The 'cozy little triangles' that once dominated policy-making how have become 'big sloppy hexagons'.(22)
The traditional paradigm of command and control simply cannot deal with this new environment. The emphasis on new instruments has paralleled an emphasis on "governance" as a new master concept for what it is that governments actually do:
The central message is that governing has to take into account the specific rationality of highly organized social subsystems, and that it can only unleash the productive forces within its constituency if it succeeds to mobilize [sic] "indigenous resources". This has a lot to do with setting free innovative capabilities and the willingness to get engaged which will hardly be brought about by authoritative regulation.... The new notion of governance respects the autonomy of societal actors and contrary to conventional thinking does not consider the successful reduction of complexity a prerequisite to effective government.(23)
The role of the state will change from authoritative allocation to mediation and negotiation, hierarchy will give way to equality among negotiating partners, and the level of political action will shift to smaller units because of the need for context-specific knowledge and mutual trust among policy partners. This new situation will not completely overturn conventional policy instruments, of course, but they will have to be placed within the context of new assumptions--a new regime, in short, that will complement the older instruments with new ones, in new combinations. Rhodes refers to this as the "socio-cybernetic model" of governance, something that complements hierarchy and market.
The socio-cybernetic approach highlights the limits to governing by a central actor, claiming that there is no longer a single sovereign authority. In its place, there is the multiplicity of actors specific to each policy area; interdependence among these social-political-administrative actors; shared goals; blurred boundaries between public, private and voluntary sectors; and multiplying and new forms of action, intervention and control. Governance is the result of interactive social-political forms of governing.(24)
Modern policy-making cannot be "directed" by government, supplemented by representations from the public or interest groups. That model died years ago, as analysts and practitioners realized the importance of new social movements, public interest groups, more complex associational systems, and the strategic value of information. Networks are if anything more important now than before, even as their fundamental characteristics have changed in light of globalization and other forces.
At this point, it should be clear why the network-community concept is as important as it is: it has filtered through both policy studies and the broader study of government and politics because it reflects some important shifts in our forms of governance. The increasing complexity of both society and government; the importance of information and expert knowledge; the reliance of government on nongovernmental actors to formulate and implement policy: these are some of the forces that underpin an interest in networks and communities. It is no coincidence that the concepts related to policy communities and networks began to multiply and develop just around the time that associational systems were becoming more complex. We saw earlier that Heclo's idea of issue networks was explicitly designed to capture the idea of a more fluid, information-based policy system in which government departments and industry players were no longer entirely dominant. Khayyam Paltiel noted that the "1960s were characterized by an explosion of self-awareness among consumers, students, women and native groups and ... by Québécois nationalism and ethnic group self-consciousness. These social movements were accompanied by a bursting forth of clientelist groups, created in response to the elaboration of the welfare state during the same period."(25) In the case of the United States, Jack Walker noted, "Over half of the citizen groups were created in the past 25 years, in a dramatic surge of growth that has changed the nature of interest-group politics in America. Profit sector organizations have not shown such a surge in growth."(26) While there are no reliable data on broad trends in the last decade, there is no doubt that groups continue to multiply across most sectors, though not likely at the same pace that marked the 1970s and early 1980s.
Globalization and increasingly sophisticated forms of ICT also continue to change the nature of policy networks. As policy issues increasingly rise to the international level, and as NGOs increasingly respond by connecting to counterparts everywhere around the globe, the idea that policy networks are primarily domestic needs rethinking. Domestic human rights groups, for example, now are routinely connected to international networks. Sikkink points out that over the postwar period there was an "explosion of NGOs" in this field, as well as the "formation of coalitions and communications networks designed to link those groups together."(27) It is widely acknowledged that "both the organizational structures and the communications facilities are expanding to bring together the forces of like-minded individuals and interest groups across national boundaries."(28) By one estimate, for example, in 1909 there were 176 international NGOs--defined as operating in at least three countries--whereas by 1993 there were 28,900.(29) Some see the possibility of an emerging global civil society in the practices and perspectives of new social movements.(30) If true, this is only possible because of communications technologies linked in what Deibert calls the "hypermedia environment," defined as "a planetary 'central nervous system' composed of a web of webs of communications devices--telephones, televisions, computers, camcorders, personal digital assistants, satellites--all increasingly linked together into an integrated network of digital-electronic-telecommunications."(31) Deibert argues that although "hypermedia do not generate these new social movements, they do create a communications environment in which such activities flourish dramatically."(32) Stanbury and Vertinsky outline some of the potential impacts of the new ICT on interest groups:
The new information technologies are making it less expensive for interest groups to operate. They enable organizations to seek out more easily others with similar interests and to communicate with them more often and for longer periods of time. The new technologies also make it easier to raise funds, to acquire information, monitor issues, communicate views, and mobilize constituents to a threat or opportunity for group action.(33)
This is about as close as the network literature gets to considering the impact of ICT on forms of governance. And yet the Internet clearly is both a factor in the rise of socio-cybernetic models of governance and an example of how new policy communities and networks might operate. We now turn to these issues.
The preceding section looked at networks (though not electronic ones) from the point of view of politics and policy. There is another growing body of literature that looks at policy and politics from the point of view of networks (mostly electronic ones). In most cases, the work on the impact of ICT on policy and politics tends to break down into two categories, that which emphasizes the resources that come from ICT and that which stresses the capacities that arise from a new form of interaction and connectivity.
Most analysts of the impact of ICT point out that mobilization of interests is potentially easier through e-mail, listservs, and the Web than through more conventional formats. As Schwartz points out: "In the past, putting such campaigns together--especially around national issues--has required enormous time and expense. The Internet almost makes it easy, especially among people and groups that are already networking online."(34) Not only does the Net provide access to information and organizational tools, it also permits a much wider range of contacts and networks unlimited by space, and it permits interactivity so that citizens and activists are not mere passive recipients of information but co-producers of it.
The more positive assessments of the impact(35) of ICT all more or less stress the same general factors. Abramson et al., for example, in an early work that concentrated more on computers than on recent ICT, argued that new communication technologies had six key features: (a) they explode previous limits on volume of information, (b) they permit exchange without regard to time or space, (c) they increase the control that consumers have over messages, (d) they increase the control for senders over which audiences receive their messages, (e) they decentralize, and (f) they bring novel two-way or interactive capacities.(36) These authors draw a useful distinction between plebiscitary democracy (usually mass voting, which itself can be augmented by modern ICT) and communitarian democracy--"participation in public space--in the meetings and assemblies, the deliberations and persuasions that distinguish the democratic process and make participation in it a transformative lesson in the common good."(37) Whereas older technologies such as TV promoted centralization, the new ones may allow decentralization to the community level. While the authors have concerns about plebiscitary politics, their assessments of the impact of ICT on interest group activity are quite sanguine: groups can use technology to break down barriers of participation and activism because they can draw on women who stay at home, they can mobilize support more quickly, and they can raise funds more efficiently. The authors say very little, however, about the nature of the networks that will arise in this new environment, except to echo the point made in the literature reviewed in the previous section that there are likely to be more issue groups.(38)
Grossman(39) concurs with most of these arguments but also comments more explicitly on the nature institutional (i.e., network) effects that are likely to flow from the new ICT. He is convinced that the U.S. political system is transforming itself into an "electronic republic" with strong elements of direct democracy. "The big losers in the present-day reshuffling and resurgence of public influence are the traditional institutions that have served as the main intermediaries between government and its citizens--the political parties, labor unions, civic associations, even the commentators and correspondents in the mainstream press."(40) The tendency of today's technology is to fragment the electorate "so that it can be reached more effectively with particular appeals crafted for audiences with specific interests."(41) Activists can reach out more quickly--almost instantly--to a widely dispersed network of supporters. "Today, computers make it possible for even little known aspirants for political office and for special-interest groups of every variety to reach out to citizens directly, avoiding party channels altogether."(42)
A resource, like any tool, is not neutral if it is used in nontrivial ways. Schwartz, Abramson, and Grossman provide good examples of analyses that focus more on the characteristics of the resource and its immediate effects than on the organizational impacts. But it is organizational impacts--the effect on policy networks--that require more reflection. A classic example of literature that focuses on organizational impacts is Cleveland's work.(43) Information, unlike other resources, leads not to the erection of hierarchies but their erosion. Populations now demands participation and networking, not command and control. Decision making takes place more openly because of the openness of information. Governments cannot hope to control information, though they might try. Access to power will increase: "My hunch is that the fusion of computers and communications will further empower the many to participate in making policy in domains to which the few, with their moth-eaten monopolies of knowledge, will have to yield more and more access."(44) The emerging portrait of state and nonstate actors looks very much like that sketched out in the policy literature discussed in the first section:
But power is leaking out of sovereign national governments in three directions at once. The state is leaking at the top, as more international functions require the pooling of sovereignty in alliances, in a World Weather Watch, in geophysical research, in eradicating contagious diseases, in satellite communication, in facing up to global environmental risks. The state is leaking sideways, as multinational corporations--private, pseudo-private, and public--conduct more and more of the world's commerce, and operate across political frontiers so much better than committees of sovereign states seem to be a able to do. The state is also leaking from the bottom, as minorities, single-issue constituencies, special-purpose communities, and neighbourhoods take control of their own destinies, legislating their own growth policies, their own population policies, their own environmental policies.(45)
Cleveland consider the impact of ICT at the global level, but similar observations about impacts have been made at the organizational level. Taylor and Every, for example, quote Robert Reich from Work of Nations in maintaining that new configurations of business are "web-like" in that they have a center with strategic insight that holds the network together, surrounded by threads that go out to a heterogeneous collection of organizations that themselves are connected to other organizations. "The key work becomes 'connectivity': in this kind of dispersed network organization, hierarchies are flatter, chains of command more fluid, and functional structures more volatile."(46) In discussing what this means for organizations, they use the metaphor of hypergraphs or hypertext to capture both the fluidity and the hidden, if elastic, structures at play:
In hypertext, nodes do not require any single, fixed definition. They can figure dynamically in a variety of associative networks, depending on the nature of the task and the needs of the moment. Their definition is contextualized. They can evolve over time. They can themselves individually represent a network. Their function varies with the context evoked. Each of those associative networks is hierarchical, examined in isolation, so that this new metaphor of organization does not assume the absence of hierarchy. All it assumes is that hierarchy is not 'single-stream' but fluid and multi-functional, reflecting the many coincident purposes and the disjointed agenda of a complex organization.(47)
It should be clear from this limited list of examples that ICT, while it certainly can serve as a new resource for actors in policy communities, also has more fundamental effects on the networks themselves. These effects mirror the characteristics that the policy communities literature has emphasized as being central to modern forms of policy networks. What are these characteristics? We can highlight the following:
This paper sought to establish three points. First, policy literature is rapidly converging around the concept of "networks" as a primary means of conceptualizing contemporary governance. Networks are more fluid and variable than conventional governance institutions and reflect an increasing number of policy-relevant actors, complex forms of knowledge, and complex patterns of interaction. Governance practices within networks perforce are different from conventional administrative practices based on bureaucratic models. Second, a representative sample of writings about the political impacts of the Net were reviewed to demonstrate an underlying sense that what is most important is the new forms--networked forms--of interaction these impacts portend. Third, a list of key features of networks was outlined to show that these patterns--of which the Internet itself is a prime example--imply different organizational forms. These features go considerably beyond even most extreme versions of "networked politics" that one finds in most policy literature. For example, the advocacy coalition framework, which is one of the most important theories about policy networks and communities, in fact argues for a very stable rather than fluid conceptualization of mobilization patterns:
The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) has at least four basic premises: (1) that understanding the process of policy change--and the role of policy-oriented learning therein--requires a time perspective of a decade or more; (2) that the most useful way to think about policy change over such a time span is through a focus on "policy subsystems," that is, the interaction of actors from different institutions who follow and seek to influence governmental decisions in a policy area, (3) that those sub-systems must include an intergovernmental dimension, that is, they must involve all levels of government (at least for domestic policy); and, (4) that public policies (or programs) can be conceptualized in the same manner as belief systems, that is, as sets of value priorities and casual assumptions about how to realize them.(48)
In short, most discussion of networks in the policy literature, while it may refer to the network as the "modern" form of governance, actually ignores the most advanced type of developed network on the planet, the Internet. Policy studies can gain hugely by paying more careful attention to how the Internet operates and what its network characteristics are.
Some of the key characteristics were mentioned above. Several research strategies recommend themselves for probing these characteristics more deeply. First, Internet governance needs to be explored from a network point of view. How does the Internet Society operate, and how does it work as an organization? Second, how does the Net respond to threats and to constraints? Third, how does it mobilize itself for action? Fourth, what effects does it have on conventional institutions and structures, such as political parties, interest groups, and media?
These questions will be addressed at the INET conference through a series of case studies that explore the nature of the Internet in these four dimensions. The cases should help cast light not only on the Internet but also on the ways in which the Internet foreshadows emergent forms of governance.