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Networked Governance: Promise and Pitfalls

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brynne VanHettinga
May 5, 2015

In a federal system like the United States, traditional views of intergovernmental relations focus on jurisdictional and power-sharing between and among the national, state and local governments. In the book Storm over the States, Terry Sanford wrote that as the system of intergovernmental relations evolved, administrators proposed a model depicted by a picket fence or a line of vertical functional autocracies dominated by technocrats and their clientele within specialized substantive areas. These vertical power relationships are made more complex by horizontal relationships, such as inter-metropolitan, regional and interstate compacts as well as a multitude of appointed boards, municipal, school, utility and water districts at the local level.

Brynne - Networked Governance

Today, most public administration scholars recognize that even the term intergovernmental relations does not fully capture the multitude of collaborative vertical and horizontal relationships at all levels of government. In an era characterized by the “hollow state,” government services are increasingly provided by a system of public-private contracts and expertise obtained from private, nonprofit and university-affiliated research organizations.

These collaborative networks have many benefits, not the least of which is leveraging increasingly scarce resources to deliver public services or solve social problems. Additionally, governments who engage in collaborative networks are able to develop long-term relationships with outside stakeholders, which serve to foster greater civic engagement and public trust. Notwithstanding these obvious benefits, there are potential disadvantages to outsourcing the people’s business. 

Loss of Transparency and Accountability 

Most, if not all, states have some version of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These statutes generally fall under the rubric of “open government” provisions, which require public documents are available and public meetings give proper notice and allowance for public participation. However, these statutes apply only to particularly defined “public information.” There is often language requiring that the information be (1) written, produced, collected, assembled or maintained by a governmental body and (2) the governmental body either owns the information or has some right of access to the information. In a networked governance setting, it is frequently difficult to trace information that is unambiguously “public,” in addition to determining what information might fall under a plethora of exceptions.

In Texas, exceptions to the Open Meetings Act expressly permit economic development negotiations to be conducted in executive session and outside of public view. By the time the “deal” comes up for a vote, there has been virtually no public input or media coverage. These deals involve millions of public dollars, either in the form of direct public investment or tax abatement. Although economic development transactions are touted as creating jobs or generating a larger tax base in the future, this is nearly impossible to prove under complex and non-transparent funding schemes. Additionally, the contract itself does not always include provisions to ensure verification or enforce compliance. 

Cooptation of Policy by Unelected Interest Groups 

The organizations and actors that comprise collaborative networks may not be elected officials who are directly accountable to the public, but private and nonprofit entities with their own mission, objectives and agendas. Agranoff & McGuire examined the intergovernmental networking component of economic development in 237 U.S. cities, specifically in the context of the hollow state:

“Faced with the need to acquire financial resources to enhance local revenues as well as information and expertise to compensate for the complexity and uncertainly of the policy area, the development manager has become dependent on many other actors inside and outside the community.”

Agranoff & McGuire analyzed economic development networks in terms of organizational linkages and strategic purpose (e.g., policymaking, resource exchange and individual project). The most frequent composition of economic development networks was county government, one or more local economic development corporations and the Chamber of Commerce.

Chambers of Commerce (COCs) can range in size from small organizations comprised of primarily local businesses to large regional organizations that include national and multinational corporations. COCs and economic development corporations often have overlapping memberships as well as congruent purposes and objectives. The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives describes most COCs as being self-funded, usually nonprofit organizations, comprised of private sector employers. Chamber members are ardent proponents of the free market system and resist attempts to burden private enterprise with regulation. The mission of COCs is to “represent the unified voice of the employer community” and foster a pro-business climate.

Agranoff & McGuire found that the most common activity of economic development networks was joint policymaking and strategy assistance, with local government seeking the advice and input of its network partners in formulating development strategy. The obvious hazard presented by these arrangements is that economic policy will be biased toward the interests of the business community and employers at the expense of the community as a whole and employees. Agranoff & McGuire suggest that future research on collaborative networks should examine issues related to loss of control and difficulties in determining accountability.

Author: Brynne VanHettinga obtained a J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1992, followed by a varied career representing middle and working class employees and families (Arizona and North Carolina), regulating/prosecuting financial entities (Florida) and legislative analysis and lobbying (Texas). In February 2015, Brynne was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University. 

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