Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities

(podcast download)

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process. The concept also travels well and, for example, there is a common focus in many countries, such as the US and UK, on ‘sub-government’. Yet, as box 9.1 suggests, there has been a proliferation of terms to describe the nature of relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the pressure participants* who seek to influence them.

box 9.1

We should also remember that some descriptions may relate to specific places and/ or eras and often have different target audiences.

Let’s explore this potentially-confusing combination of ‘universal’ and specific meanings by beginning with the ‘logic’ of policy communities:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

Broadly speaking, this logic is likely to hold in many countries and eras (including the current ‘age of austerity’), but this level of abstraction also masks important variations over time and in different countries. For example, my bullet-point description derives largely from studies of the UK from the late 1970s. Their main targets were studies of Westminster politics, ‘centring on an adversarial parliamentary arena where successive changes of government would lead to major changes in policy imposed from the top down’ (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 236). Instead, policy communities are pervasive and most decisions are beyond the reach, or attention, of ministers.

Over time, and as networks research was at its peak in the 1980s and 90s, those targets shifted and the meaning of community changed:

Jordan Cairney 2013 meaning of policy community

As you can see from this excerpt (p238), my colleague Grant Jordan was not happy with the redefinition of ‘policy community’ over the years, but it helped accentuate a key point regarding the logic described above: it could produce a small and exclusive club mentality, as civil servants rely on a select number of groups and together they exclude most other actors, or a much messier, open, and/ or unpredictable process in which many actors could gain entry.

The latter is generally called an ‘issue network’ and associated with Heclo’s (1978) famous desire to conceptualise the changing world of US politics, as the simple ‘clubby days of Washington politics’ (and ‘cozy’ or ‘iron triangles’) was replaced by ‘complex relationships’ among a huge, politically active population. Issues which were once ‘quietly managed by a small group of insiders’ have now become ‘controversial and politicized’.

This is the main focus of several of the policy theories described in the 1000 words series, including:

  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – it seeks to measure and explain long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. A key focus is on the maintenance or breakdown on subsystem-level ‘policy monopolies’.
  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework – its focus is on actors with similar beliefs forming coalitions which compete with other coalitions in subsystems. It focuses on relatively open subsystems with a wide range of actors.
  • Multi-level Governance – it draws on the policy communities/ networks literature to track the diffusion of power, from the ‘centre’ to a wide range of organisations, and how it is shared between the actors formally responsible for policymaking and the actors seeking to inform and influence their decisions.

*Grant Jordan and colleagues prefer ‘pressure participant’ because they worry about ‘pressure group’ or ‘interest group’ being used as default terms whenever we are not quite sure how to describe lobbying activity. They argue that ‘pressure group’ can be misleading in two main ways. First, it conjures up a particular image of a group which may not be accurate. We may think of subscription-based unions or large membership groups like Greenpeace, even though many groups (and ‘think tanks’) are funded by single patrons. Second, the organisations most likely to lobby governments are not pressure groups. Instead, they are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy

31 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities

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  17. Anne

    Hi Dr. Cairney. I have another question. Thank you for all your responses thus far. It’s much appreciated! Are policy networks the same thing as advocacy coalitions? For some reason, I can’t seem to decipher the two. If they refer to separate concepts, what are the distinctions between membership in an advocacy coalition and membership in a network? Is one more powerful (influential) than the other? Thank you.

    • Not exactly. Policy network is a very broad term to describe things like group-government relations. Broadly speaking, a network describes a connection between agents, such as when people share information with each other. More specific accounts try to identify types of networks such as ‘policy communities’ (Jordan and Richardson) and ‘issue networks’ (Heclo). In the ACF, they would talk about two related concepts (which are often conflated in some discussions of networks): the subsystems in which the action takes place (think of it as the venue) and the coalitions which operate within them. People join coalitions with actors sharing their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. So, these might sometimes be thought of as separate networks, in which people are more likely to share information *within coalitions*, but there are other networks when coalitions interact with each other.

  18. Anne

    Ok. So then incorporating the use of social network analysis to analyze behavior in an advocacy coalition or between 2 competing coalitions would probably not be a fruitful enterprise. Would you agree?

    • On the contrary. We can use SNA fruitfully, to identify specific types of networks in which, for example, there are two separate and dense parts of a network, denoting a tendency for each coalition to share information (‘technical’ and ‘political’) within their coalitions, far more than they share with their competitors. If you look at my CV page there are 2 articles with Ingold & Fischer which use such analysis to apply the ACF to fracking policy.

  19. Anne

    Great! Thank you. I’ll have a look.

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