Policy Network and Governance

  • Ferdous Arfina OsmanEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1817-1



Policy Network can be defined as specific structural arrangements in policy making. Policy network analysis focuses on the links and interdependence between government and other societal actors, aiming to understand the policy-making process and public policy outcomes.


Recent decades have witnessed a proliferation of research analyzing and examining the changing trends of policy making process. Traditional approaches to policy-making emphasized on explaining the policy process as an intellectual, centralized, and hierarchical process, which is no longer considered adequate describing the policy process in modern times. In current complex societies where governments have to deal with greater expectations of citizens, accommodation of diverse interests, and fragmentation of social and political life, a more nonhierarchical, decentralized, and participatory approach to understanding the policy process is desirable. Policy networks, thus, have emerged as an alternative approach to the conventional way of analyzing the policy process, which focuses on interrelationships among public, private, and societal actors involved in the policy process as the determinant of policy outcome. Atkinson and Coleman (1992) noted, “policy networks are natural conceptual responses to both the limits of markets and hierarchical arrangements, and the enormous expansion in the types of societal actors involved in policymaking and to the dispersion of specialized policy resources.”

The concept of policy network has widely been used to analyze policy process since the 1980s, which is now frequently characterized as a new system of governance. In modern times, likewise policy making, government also needs to rely on networks of private and societal actors for public problem solving or for public service delivery. Networks between public, private, and nonprofit actors, thus shape processes of policy making and governance. This piece of writing aims to clarify the concept of policy network and its relation with governance.

Defining Policy Network

It is unlikely that public policy could result from the preference of any single actor. This emphasizes that it is not the formal institutional arrangements or governmental institutions, which solely control the policy process rather many informal, private actors, and institutions also play influential role. The process, in fact, tends to blur the boundaries between the public and the private spheres. Policies are essentially the outcome of interactions among multiple actors with separate interests, perceptions, and strategies. The concern about the interaction of this large variety of actors and its impact has given rise to the concept of “policy networks.”

Policy network analysis focuses on the links and interdependence between government and other societal actors, aiming to understand the policy-making process and public policy outcomes (Rhodes 2008). Kenis and Schneider (1991: 41) defined policy networks as “specific structural arrangements in policy making.” They explained this structural arrangement as having three key components: the policy actors, their linkages, and the policy boundary. Network is a set of public and private actors linked by communication ties for exchanging information, expertise, trust, and other political resources. The boundary of a given policy network is not in the first place determined by formal institutions but results from a process of mutual recognition dependent on functional relevance and structural embeddedness.

The overarching goal of policy network analysis is to understand how relationships between actors involved in policy making determine the outcomes of collective policy decisions (Knoke 2011). To this end, policy network analysis consists of two distinct components: (i) actors involved in the policy making process and (ii) the type of social interactions that occur between actors during the policy making process. “Network” establishes a relatively stable relationship among varieties of actors, who share common interests with regard to a policy and exchange resources with each other in order to pursue the common goals.

Definitional disputes often prevail among the terms “policy networks,” “policy domains,” “policy communities,” and “issue networks.” “Policy domain” refers to a set of actors with common orientation and concern for solving a policy problem. The policy domain and policy network concepts are interrelated, with a policy domain delineating a bounded system within which its organizational participants are interconnected by one or more policy networks (Wu and Knoke 2013). “Policy community” used in British literature, on the other hand, refers to all actors or potential actors who share either an interest in a policy area or a common “policy focus” and who, over time, succeed in shaping policy while “policy networks” describe the linking process that occurs within the community (Wilks and Wright 1987). Similar distinction has been drawn by Coleman and Skogstad (1990) who referred “network” as “the properties that characterize the relationships among the particular set of actors that forms around an issue of importance to the policy community.” Thus, the “policy community” refers to the actors; the network refers to the relationships among actors.

In contrast, “issue networks” – a concept established in literature about United States government – refer to a policy making process that is fragmented and populated by a wide and unpredictable number of participants, where a relatively large number of stakeholders are involved. An important characteristic of “issue network” is that membership is constantly changing, interdependence is often asymmetric, and – compared to policy communities – it is harder to identify dominant actors (Heclo 1978). It refers to less formal settings and involves policy actors within particular issue areas, such as health, education, or communication. Each of the policy areas develops its own distinctive channels of communication, even terminology to discuss policy issues.

Types of Policy Networks

Every policy domain is composed of a wide number of organizational actors from both public and private sectors and their role, interests, and influence over the policy process vary from each other. Given the diversity of organizational interests, limited resources, and complexity of influence dynamics, no organization can have the capacity to exert full control or dominate the process of policy making. Instead, most policy fights consist of multiorganizational coalitions brought temporarily together to work collectively on shaping proposals and advocating a specific preferred policy solution to those authorities capable of rendering a binding decision on a particular policy event (Wu and Knoke 2013). Thus, the policy actors are interdependent on each other.

Interdependency among actors is central to the network approach. Actors in networks are interdependent because they need the resources of other actors to achieve their goals (Hazlehurst David 2001). Public and private actors form networks to exchange the resources to achieve their common goal. Knoke (2001: 65) specified five basic types of interorganizational relations exhibiting distinctive policy network structures, which include: (i) resource exchange such as money or personnel; (ii) information exchanges range from technical and scientific data to policy advocacy; (iii) power relations include both formal and informal inequalities in authority and dominance, with public sector entities usually controlling more power than private sector organizations to impose their interests in a domain; (iv) boundary penetration meaning two or more actors coordinating their actions for a common goal such as lobbying; and (iv) sentimental attachments are subjective and emotional affiliation expressing solidarity and political support as exemplified by labor unions and social movement organizations.

Policy Network: Dependent or Independent Variable?

Despite the fact that there had been a confusion among the scholars for long whether policy networks should be considered as dependent or independent variable, recent research works have noted that policy network is both dependent and independent variable. Varieties of factors might influence the emergence and the type of policy networks. Adam and Kriesi (2007) noted that networks vary depending on territorial and functional/domain specificities. They identified three major contexts as the determinants of policy network: national, transnational, and policy-specific context.

National institutional structure is a key determinant of policy networks. The national context can be systematically linked to the distribution of power and the type of interaction within policy subsystems (Adam and Kriesi 2007). For instance, in consensus democracies where power is shared among several forces, power is fragmented within networks while in majoritarian democracy where power is concentrated in the hands of a few institutions, power is concentrated in the hands of few actors within networks. In addition, centralization of the state and the system of interest groups and the interactions between the state and the groups is another determinant of policy network. Degree of centralization in society and in the state is a critical variable in the establishment of policy networks. Greater degree of centralization of either the state or the groups puts them in stronger positions within networks. Strong associations with greater negotiation skill constitute the key element of the self-regulated pluralist network and strong state leads to a state directed network. If both sides are equally strong, meaning power is concentrated in both sides, interaction patterns are more centralized and consensus oriented, and corporatist networks emerge. On the other hand, when both sides are weak, interactions become competitive (Adam and Kriesi 2007).

Only the national context may not be sufficient to explain the formation of policy networks. The transnational policy environments deeply influence the domestic policy environment particularly in terms of exchange of resources, support, and information. They may also provide the opportunity for the creation of new transnational policy networks (Adam and Kriesi 2007). Examples are abound how the global environment plays a determining role in shaping various public policies in both developed and developing countries.

In addition to the national and transnational factors policy, specific variables also influence and shape the policy networks. Adam and Kriesi (2007) note that policies differ according to the incentives and resources they provide for group formation, the expectations they raise among groups or the masses, their visibility/salience for mass publics, and the traceability of their effects. Policies which invite group formation produce networks with fragmented structures and the policies that are characterized by high expectations, a high visibility, and easy traceability of policy effects may cause conflictual relations as state actors have to defend their positions against important groups and the mass public.

However, in the real world, as researchers note that there is no single determinant of policy networks rather, a complex combination of factors lead to the formation of policy networks.

Differences in structural network characteristics, i.e., the presence and absence of ties/interdependencies, have a significant impact on the policy output (Raab and Kenis 2007). The type of interaction within a policy network determines the form of policy change. In conflictual/competitive situations, one can expect rapid policy shifts, whereas incremental changes are most likely to result in bargaining situations. Cooperative policy structures are likely to maintain the status quo. The degree of concentration of power also determines the potential for change. If power is fragmented potential for change becomes greater while on the other hand, when power is concentrated, challengers lack resources to break the policy monopoly and change becomes slow.

Network as a Form of Governance

A plethora of literature on network have developed over the last three decades, which posit different meanings/dimensions of policy network. Broadly, as Raab and Kenis (2007) noted, policy network can be understood from three key dimensions: (i) as an analytical framework and as an empirical tool, (ii) as social structure, and (iii) as a form of governance.

Policy network is not a theory rather it is an analytical tool for policy analysis. Its analytical value lies in the fact that it conceives policy making as a process involving a diversity of actors who are mutually interdependent (Adam and Kriesi 2007). The central focus of the analysis is the relation between actors as a means of explaining why they behave the way they do and why certain outcomes takes place. Network is seen as a social structure with very specific features. In policy making it is characterized by a predominance of informal communicative relations, a horizontal as opposed to a hierarchical pattern of relations and a decentralized pattern of actors’ positions (Kenis and Schneider 1991: 32).

Another important dimension of policy networks is that they constitute a new form of governance characterized by the predominance of informal, decentralized, and horizontal relations among the public and private actors. The new approach of governance focusses on networks suggesting that state power is widely dispersed and the actors need to coordinate their actions and strategies in order to solve the public problems. Klijn and Koppenjan (2014) defined governance network as sets of autonomous and interdependent actors (individuals, groups, organizations) that have developed enduring relationships in governing specific public problems or policies. This new form is more than the sum of the actors and their links and more than a combination of elements of hierarchy and markets (Mayntz 1993). As a form of governance, network is characterized by a plurality of actors, as they are found within markets, and the coordinated efforts among them in order to pursue collective goals.

Governments are increasingly faced with complex, “wicked” problems when making decisions, developing policies, or delivering services, and they often find themselves unable to address these issues by themselves because they lack the required resources, knowledge, or skill to do so. Thus, dealing with public problems requires the involvement of multiple actors. For instance, developing social security/welfare policies and their implementation require coordinated efforts of governmental organizations at different levels, bureau of information/statistics, local government institutions, research organizations, nongovernment organizations, citizens forums, and also collaboration among nation states. Similarly, managing any sort of national crisis or natural disasters or controlling the outbreak of epidemics requires coordinated effort of the government and nongovernment actors. The complexity of these issues and interdependencies between actors result in intensive interactions between actors, which results in the emergence of governance networks. Thus, current complex society requires a shift from a traditional top-down way of problem solving to a more horizontal cooperative approach, called the “networks.”

Complexities in Governance Network

Networks are not simple and straight forward, rather it is complex. Complexity is not simply caused by the fact that multiple actors are present within governance, but it is also due to nature of interrelationships among the actors. Drawing on the existing literature, Koppenjan and Klijn (2004) identified three types of complexities in governance networks: substantive complexity, strategic complexity, and institutional complexity.

Substantive Complexity

Substantive complexity is about the content of the problem addressed and the nature of solutions under consideration. In many literature, substantive complexity is attributed to the lack of knowledge and information, but in practice, complexity is more caused by the uncertainty and lack of consensus over the nature of problems, their causes, and solutions. Multiple actors may have different perceptions of the problem and may also interpret the available information differently.

Strategic Complexity

Strategic complexity in governance networks originates from the various strategic choices that multiple actors make with regard to a public problem. As actors may have different perceptions about a problem, they also may have the liberty to make their own choices and strategies for its solution. Not all the actors are often aware of these various types of strategic choices. Such strategic complexity concerns the fundamentally erratic and unpredictable nature of interaction processes within governance networks (Gerrits 2012).

Institutional Complexity

Finally, governance networks are characterized by institutional complexity. Not only does dealing with complex problems, policies, and services require the involvement of various actors, but these actors often work from different institutional backgrounds (March and Olsen 1989). Interactions between actors are difficult since their behavior is guided by outlooks, organizational arrangements, procedures, and rules of different organizations, administrative levels, and networks. Thus, interaction in governance networks is characterized by clashes between divergent institutional regimes and displays institutional complexity.

Klijn and Koppenjan (2014) propose “network management” as a coping mechanism to address the occurrence of deadlocks, breakthroughs, and the consequent policy outcomes in governance networks. Substantive complexities can be addressed by supporting learning processes and arranging joint research. Network management can address strategic complexities by initiating and strengthening interactions, arranging relationships, and mediating conflicts among the actors. Network management may be used to deal with institutional complexity by engaging in institutional redesign (changing rules, resource distributions, and organizational relationships).


Policy network does neither have any theoretical grounding, nor it has any precise, concrete definition that can have a universal application. Despite this, network is considered as an immensely important analytical tool for understanding the policy making process. Along with the government, involvement of various social actors is inevitable in the policy formulation and implementation process. The nature of interaction and interdependencies among these actors form the policy network, which plays important role in determining the policy process and the outcome. These patterns of interactions are also helpful to explain governance in larger context. In recent times, political scientists increasingly view networks as an efficient way of governing complex societies.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public AdministrationUniversity of DhakaDhakaBangladesh