Network Governance and the Differentiated Polity

The following is a sample chapter from the book Network Governance and the Differentiated Polity by RAW Rhodes (first published 2017).
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Chapter 1: What A Long Strange Trip It's Been1


I was so much older then

It is intimidating to look back over a 45-year career as a political scientist. Has it been that long? Can I remember ‘the gangling youth of the prominent Adam’s apple variety’ – as one of my referees expressed it back then? It is tempting to claim I had a rationale to cover an unfolding research agenda but I find myself reading the work of somone I struggle to remember. Any overarching ratyionale would would be a patina. Often I was lucky in the people I met. The journey had many twists and turns. Looking back imposes a logic that was not clear at the time. As Bob Dylan’s evocative line from his song ‘My Back Pages’ suggests, I did seem older then but the certainties of a young academic did not last; old beliefs gave way to new ideas. Life myths were rewritten. And I told myself, the harder I worked, the luckier I got.

In the beginning, 1970-76.

The study of public administration in the 1970s was shaking off the old order. Its grand old men were William Robson (1895-1980), Norman Chester (1907-1986) and W. J. M. (Bill) Mackenzie (1909-96). All were on the cusp of retirement. For me, they represented traditional public administration, which was essentially institutional and concerned to analyse the history, structure, functions, powers and relationships of government organisations (see: Mackenzie 1975; Rhodes 1979a: chapter 5; Robson 1975). Robson represented that blend of institutional description and Westminster reformism so typical of the British school. ‘His great ability was to assemble a huge mass of data, to analyse order out of the complexity, and to argue a coherent case for change’. He was ‘one of the Olympian Fabians, worthy company to the Webbs’ (Jones 1986: 12). Norman Chester’s best books were the official history of the nationalised industries (1975) and a history of the English administrative system between 1780 and 1870 (1981). Bill Mackenzie (1975) was admired for his lucid, nuanced essays on both British government and the study of public administration. All were prominent in my undergraduate education. Robson’s Nationalised Industries and Public Ownership (1962) was a birthday present – yes, I was delighted, and still have it.

Like many a young scholar, my horizons were confined by my academic training and employment opportunities. I had an undergraduate degree in business and administration from Bradford Business School and a yet to be completed research degree from Oxford. I applied for jobs at Trinity College, Dublin, under Basil Chubb, and Aberdeen, under Frank Bealey, but both in their wisdom decided they could survive without my talents. John Stewart and Richard Chapman at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), University of Birmingham, were more discerning! So, I had ten years of teaching and research on British local government. To put no finer point on it, I floundered. I never intended to be a consultant for local government or train local government officers. I don’t think I knew what I wanted to

1 Sections of this chapter appeared in: ‘Thinking On: I was so much older then.’ Public Administration, 89 (1) 2011: 196-212.

do. I had no individual voice, just boundless, ill-directed enthusiasm. So, I wrote on the reform of English local government, Anthony Trollope and the nineteenth century civil service, developments in the study of public administration, and the impact of membership of the (then) European Economic Community (EEC) on local government. From the vantage point of 2016, I can think of no reason to be interested in competition for public works contracts, but I read and wrote about these EEC regulations, and kept an interest in EU matters for many years afterwards (Rhodes 1973, 1986c, 1996, and Chapter 5 below).

INLOGOV expected applied work relevant to its local government audience, and microspecialisation was ever the lot of the novitiate academic, more so today than then. Still, I had to prove myself. Some of my scribbling might have had passing value, but are best classed as juvenilia. I made no lasting contribution until I was commissioned by the Committee of Inquiry into Local Government Finance (Layfield) to review the academic literature on the relationship between central departments and local authorities (Rhodes 1976). This work led me to submit evidence to the (then) Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Panel on Research into Local Government (Rhodes 1977) and my appointment to the SSRC Panel on Central-Local Government Relationships. For the first time, I had an intellectual agenda.

A professional political scientist at last, 1976-88

During the 1970s, change was also afoot in the wider world. The young lions were at public administration’s door. I experienced the change first-hand at the Public Administration Committee’s (PAC) Conference on the 13-15 September 1971, at the University of York. It was my first academic conference and I was excited because it had such luminaries as Ron Brown (1971) extolling the virtues of organisation theory, John Stewart (1971) on public policy making, Lewis Gunn (1971) on public management, and Peter Self (1971), who exorcised the evil spirits of economic efficiency. The conference explored new ways of studying public administration. I was a spectator of the new generation; the successors to Robson, Chester, and Mackenzie. I also saw the future in the guise of the theory and methods of American social science. In John Stewart, I had a mentor whose commitment to ideas, to INLOGOV, and to local government was as admirable as it was infectious, even if I did not share his enthusiasm for corporate management (Rhodes 1992b).

As a postgraduate, I read American social science avidly. I was an admirer of the theoretically informed case studies of, for example, Michel Crozier (1964) and Philip Selznick (1966). I saw this work as the intellectual challenge to traditional public administration. Policy studies and organisation theory were the way forward (see also Hood 1990). The temper of the times encouraged me to apply the theory and methods of American social science in case studies of British local government in its dealing with central government. Of the distinguished speakers at the PAC conference, all are now retired and several are dead. The generations pass. But, for a time, I was heir to their ideas and enthusiasms; a modernist-empiricist in all but name. In other words, I treated institutions such as central departments, local governments and policy networks as discrete, atomised objects to be compared, measured and classified. I sought to explain these institutions by appealing to ahistorical mechanisms such as functional differentiation (see Bevir 2001).

In January 1978, I was invited to join the SSRC Panel on Central-Local Government Relationships. The Panel commissioned me to write a review of the existing literature on the subject and develop an analytical framework. My work was completed in May 1978 and an article length version was published as an appendix to the Panel’s own report in January 1979 (Rhodes 1979b). The full-length version of my report to the Panel was published as Rhodes 1981. The work I did for the SSRC was modernist-empiricist: the subtitle of one report was ‘the search for positive theory’ and gives the game away (Rhodes 1978a). The theory was ‘interorganisational analysis’ and my main influences were Kenneth Benson (1975), Michel Crozier and Jean-Claude Thoenig (1976) and James Thompson (1967). To this day, exchange theory lies at the heart of policy network theory. Thus, ‘an organisation has power, relative to an element of its task environment, to the extent that the organisation has the capacity to satisfy needs of that element and to the extent that the organisation monopolises that capacity’ (Thompson 1967: 30-31). I elaborated this idea arguing that any organisation is dependent on other organisations for resources. To achieve their goals, the organisations have to exchange resources. The organisation’s dominant coalition employs strategies within known rules of the game to regulate this exchange relationship (paraphrased from Rhodes 1979b; 1981: 98-9).

So, I argued local authorities were embedded in sets of relationships and we should analyse the patterns of interdependence, not just the links with central departments. Following the lead of Heclo and Wildavsky, I suggested that these networks were structured by policy area or function (Rhodes 1978b and Rhodes 1981: chapter 5). So, the inter-organisational links between central departments and local authorities took the form of ‘policy communities’ of:

personal relationships between major political and administrative actors – sometimes in conflict, often in agreement, but always in touch and operating within a shared framework. Community is the cohesive and orienting bond underlying any particular issue (Heclo and Wildavsky (1974: xv).

I did not know it at the time but here were the roots of ten year’s work on policy networks (see Chapter 3 below).

Policy Networks

As I began to explore policy networks, Margaret Thatcher was intent on transforming the public sector about which I was writing. The age of managerialism in its twin guises of performance measurement and marketisation was upon us. Mainstream public administration embraced the new public management. There were a sceptical few. Christopher Hood (1990) argued the rise of managerialism meant the field had lost coherence. It had fragmented into sub-disciplines, still including, but not limited to, organisational studies and policy analysis. The challenge was find a framework and a language to compare and contrast these several paradigms. I argued for an explicit multi-theoretic approach, methodological pluralism and, above all, the need to set our own research agendas (Rhodes 1991a). No matter how individuals responded to the changes in the public sector, few would deny managerialism was pre-eminent (see also Hood 1991; Pollitt 1993).

I spent the 1980s in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. It set out to emulate American political science. It became, and remained, among the best political science departments in the UK. Initially, I did not prosper. The Department of Government rigorously pursued the highest standards of professional excellence in which research was the clear priority. Running an undergraduate degree may be necessary, but it was a chore. The thrill lay in your next grant, article or book and building an international reputation. It was a lesson to learn quickly if you wanted promotion. I learnt, but perhaps not as quickly as I should. My pet project was a new undergraduate degree in public administration which grew from zero to 30 admissions a year. Pet projects can slow you down. I did not publish enough. I was not promoted. So, I resigned as degree director and inflicted two large, 400 pages plus books on a world which had done nothing to deserve such punishment.

My fieldwork on the local government peak associations and their linked specialist, advisory bodies was part of the (now) Economic and Social Research Council’s Research (ESRC) Programme on Central and Local Government Relationships. It was published in 1986 as: The National World of Local Government. Subsequently, I won an ESRC personal research grant to draw together the findings of the 16 major research projects that formed the Research Programme. It resulted in: Beyond Westminster and Whitehall (1988). This book provided a full-length treatment of policy networks, and argued that Britain should be seen as a differentiated polity.

In 1988, I became Head of Department and had the task of compiling the department’s submission for the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now the Research Evaluation Framework (REF). I enjoyed the job – it was easy because colleagues were not only productive but are among the best in the country. We got our 5 stars. So, Essex in the 1980s was a department to admire. It turned me into a professional political scientist and gave me my first taste of university management.

From government to governance, 1988-98

After a decade of Thatcherism, the 1990s were an inauspicious time for the theory and practice of public administration. Managerialism was rife. The civil service had been the butt of criticism and reform for over a decade. I had just been appointed to my first chair at the University of York, and I did not think I had inherited either a healthy department or discipline. I wrote a couple of pessimistic pieces on the decline of public administration(for example, Rhodes 1997a: chapter 8). I was not the first (Ridley 1975). I was not alone among my contemporaries. Dunsire (1995: 34) noted that implementation theory and contingency theory had died. I set about doing something to revive my field, and those things were the ‘Local Governance’ and the ‘Whitehall’ research programmes.

A senior Danish colleague once told me he had reached the summit of his career when he became a full professor. I was surprised. I found becoming a professor was the start. Now, I could do things that had been closed to a mere lecturer. For example, I sat on the ESRC’s committee responsible for research programmes. I argued for both a local government (Rhodes 1991b) and a central government programme (Rhodes 1993). With Gerry Stoker, I set up the local governance programme (Rhodes 1999b). I then stepped down from the committee so I could be director of the central government programme that became known as the Whitehall Programme.

I had always been told by my elders that researchers could not get access to central government. Heclo and Wildavsky (1974) showed that claim to be inaccurate. Of course, came the retort, it was because they were foreigners. British academics could not penetrate the veil of secrecy. I had my doubts. I suspected we said’ no’ for the ministers and senior civil servants instead of asking and letting them say ‘no’ for themselves. I drew a simple lesson. I would ask. I was organising the annual PAC conference at University of York, so I invited the (then) Head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Robin Butler to give the Frank Stacey Memorial Lecture in which he signalled his willingness to encourage research on central government (Butler 1992). Subsequently, the Cabinet Office and the ESRC signed a formal accord with the former participating in a joint steering and commissioning panel to develop the research programme. So, we had access. Even more striking, the accord was to conduct ‘curiosity research’. It was agreed by the ESRC and the Cabinet Office that the Research Programme’s primary objective was not to provide policy relevant advice. Rather, it would provide an ‘anthology of change’ in British government. To continue with the language of the civil servants with whom I worked, the Programme was ‘holding up a mirror to government’ and ‘learning each other’s language’. The task was ‘to help one another understand the changes’. According to Peter Hennessy, Sir Robin was every head teacher’s dream of the perfect head boy. For me, he was the essential ingredient for getting the ERSC Whitehall Programme off the ground, making his time and other people available as necessary.

I make this process seem all sweet light and reasonableness. So it seemed most of the time. My equanimity would have been disturbed had I seen the advice given to Sir Robin at the time:

Having read the papers my own advice is that Sir Robin should treat this with a long spoon. … There is a lot of excitement in the academic community at the moment about “public sector organisation theory”, but it is never clear exactly what it means, except a desire to be academic about essentially practical matters.

… it looks as if, in order to develop academic theories, the authors of this proposal want to put a lot of senior civil servants and Ministers to a good deal of bother in submitting to interviews, answering questionnaires and being members of “Advice Workshops”.

… behind it seems to lie some jealousy of the skill with which Peter Hennessy has got into and explained present changes in the Civil Service – there are … some rather snide comments on the Peter Hennessy-style approach, i.e. “telling the story of current events or descriptions of institutional and legal arrangements”, because “such approaches are atheoretical” (Dated 26 August 1992; personal correspondence received 26 June 2016).

Even today my heart flutters on reading this assessment. And I was not jealous of Peter Hennessy. I was a fan who wanted to follow in his footsteps, and to do so I had to be different. My fortunes hung by a slender thread and I am ever grateful to Sir Robin for preferring his own counsel.

The Programme’s main aims were: to describe, to explain and to create a better understanding of both recent and long-term changes in the nature of British government; to develop new theoretical perspectives; and to encourage the use of new research methods in the study of central government. The Programme comprised 23 projects costing £2.1 million. The first project began in March 1995. The last project finished in December 1998. At its peak the Programme employed 49 people (and for a short history see: Rhodes 2000).

My rationale for the Programme lay in two ideas; the core executive and network governance. Instead of asking which positions are important in British government, prime minister or cabinet, the core executive idea asks which functions define the heart of the machine. The core functions of the British executive are to pull together and to act as final arbiters of conflicts between different elements of the government machine. This notion directs our attention to two key questions: ‘Who does what?’ and ‘Who has what resources?’ (see Chapter 9 below).

In his review of administrative theory in Britain, Dunsire (1995: 34) speculated that just as public administration had become public management in the 1980s, it could become governance in the 1990s. I first used the term ‘governance’ for the launch of the local governance initiative when I wrote a short piece entitled ‘Beyond Whitehall: researching local governance’ in the Social Sciences (Rhodes 1992a). This work on governance was a logical extension of my previous work on policy networks. It came out of my reappraisal of Beyond Westminster and Whitehall (1988), which was necessary after Thatcher’s reforms. My reappraisal was published as Understanding Governance (1997 and Chapter 9 below), which developed over the next few years into ‘the Anglo-governance School’ (Marinetto 2003). The notion of governance became ubiquitous, and, as with any idea worth its salt, fuelled critical debates (and for a survey of the critics and a reply sees Rhodes 2007b and Chapter 12 below).

Apart from studying British government, a central aim of the Whitehall Programme was to compare the changes in British government with those in other member states of the European Union (EU) and other states with a ‘Westminster’ system of government.2 Until now, with Vincent Wright as my patron, my comparative interests had been limited to writing the chapter on Britain in edited collections of country studies (Peters, Rhodes and Wright 2000). Vincent got me invited to various international workshops. Others were irritated by the brusque Northerner in love with the chip on his shoulder. Vincent just smiled and steered me in productive directions. The Whitehall Programme gave me the opportunity to branch out on my own and do genuine comparative work. It fostered my collaboration with Patrick Weller (Griffith University, Brisbane).

The initial product of our partnership was a collaborative project structured around the ideas of the hollowing out of the state and the changing role of the core executive (Weller, Bakvis and Rhodes 1997). We covered Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands but we did not write country studies. Instead, everyone wrote on every country and we focused on the functions of the core executive: winning and keeping support for government, collective government, policy advice, resource allocation, coordination, and reform. If there is a single conclusion it was that we told ‘sad stories of the death of Kings’ as we identified the manifold shackles on leadership.

We then turned to the changing role of the public service (Rhodes and Weller 2001). It was a collaborative project again, although this time the research was based around country studies. We covered Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and New Zealand. However, there was a shared framework and a set of agreed methods. We created a data set on the characteristics of the administrative elite, covering such topics as age, sex, education, recruitment, training, career paths, and departure. We explored a common set of topics on what they did and how their roles were changing. Finally, and most distinctive, we wrote short biographical portraits constructed from lengthy interviews with the public servants. We tried to let them speak for themselves. This work demonstrated that the social science ideas of hollowing out, the core executive and network governance have purchase; they travel and illuminate governance practices in other countries (see: Elgie 2011; EymeriDouzans et al. 2015; Heilman and Stepan 2016)).


2 It is pedantic and tedious to switch between EEC, EC and EU depending on the date. I refer to the EU throughout.

In 1996, I had a downbeat view of the state of my discipline. Hood (1999: 288) noted, I was pessimist who thought, ‘an optimist would describe the future as bleak. A pessimist would be living and working in America’. Hood (2011: 128) demurred and inclined cautiously to a ‘never had it so good’ view of the state of the discipline. In fact, emigrating to America (or Australia for that matter) was not the only option. I may have thought the discipline was in a precarious condition but that did not stop me from trying to do something about it – hence my involvement with the ESRC. I would date the good times from the mid-1990s when I wrote my prophecy of doom! In the 1990s, the ESRC funded major research programmes on local governance, Whitehall, and devolution.

The discipline has survived even thrived because some of its leading players mastered the ‘trick’ of linking policy and academic relevance. We may specialise in central-local relationships, public service delivery or other topics of the day, but we must link such topics to broader agendas in the social and human sciences. Otherwise we become either mere technicians or loyal servants of power or, of course, both. I have been fortunate. My field has benefited from the work many outstanding scholars throughout Europe over the past 25 years, including, to name but a few, Christopher Hood, Erik-Hans Klijn, Christopher Pollitt, Johan P. Olsen, Renate Mayntz , Fritz Scharpf , Paul ‘t Hart and Jean-Claude Theonig. Indeed, a significant trend over the past 25 years is this shift to a European community of scholars known to one another and engaging with one another’s work.

I get ahead of myself. All journeys have starting points and mine was the study of policy networks and governance. These topics are the focus of the rest of this volume. The interpretive leg of the journey is the subject of Volume II.