The Frontiers of Networked Governance
In this paper, researchers from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and Ecologic Institute propose that a more decentralized governance structure is one possible solution for dealing with complex problems. The authors argue that highly complex problems, such as achieving sustainable development, are better solved by networks of diverse actors interacting and collaborating both inside and outside of government - what the authors call "governance networks". Such collaboration would make solutions more effective at the implementation stage. The report is available for download.
As the world prepares for Rio+20, it remains clear that achieving sustainable development requires a governance approach that acts on the "interconnections between the economy, society, and the natural environment", as the UN Secretary General's High Panel on Global Sustainability has advised.
The promise of governance networks lies in the incorporation of actors from outside government structures who can offer different ways of solving problems. The mechanism of networked governance can be more effective at solving complex problems than centralized governance authorities because it brings together a variety of actors with different worldviews, information, relationships, communication and mediating skills, power, and a range of other assets that, when combined in a network, can create solutions to problems that the centralized authorities could not have otherwise devised themselves.
However, the success of collaboration under these governance networks depends on a certain level of social capital. In fact, the more complex a problem is, the more social capital is necessary within a network to foster collaboration. The authors understand social capital as the trust, as well as the shared values and understanding about sustainable development, that binds actors in such networks. When this social capital is insufficient, networked governance may actually have more negative than positive consequences because conflict, opportunism, and power struggles would inefficiently use up time and resources. For this reason, it is important to invest efforts into fostering the social capital required to make these networks work effectively. Stakeholder analysis and social network analysis are helpful tools for understanding social capital.
Governance networks are themselves a complex arrangement to address complex problems. The authors acknowledge that if this complexity is not well managed, it may undermine the problem solving process. Despite the complexity and resource-intensity, networked governance is desirable in some policy areas because it recognizes that some problems, such as sustainable development, cannot be approached from single policy areas; policy-makers, policy co-producers, and stakeholders contribute different views of the problem. Incorporating these views can help ensure that the resulting solutions are not simply superimposed on the political processes they seek to influence, but that they are truly intertwined with the implementation.
Finally, the authors suggest that network governance can be enhanced by making institutions more flexible and able to collaborate with diverse actors. Collaboration across policy areas and among actors can also be encouraged by setting up governance and regulatory frameworks that facilitate information sharing and trust-building. Under such an institutional framework, governance networks can achieve desirable outcomes and the common goals of sustainable development.
The report [pdf, 1.5 MB, English] is available for download.