Networks are not an alternative to markets and hierarchies. And they won't necessarily make public services cheaper.
The concept of a ‘networked state’ has been referred to by many names and by many people: David Cameron’s 'Big Society' in 2010, IPPR’s ‘relational state’ (2012), Mariana Mazzucato’s book ‘the Entrepreneurial state’ (2013), the recent UK government’s establishment of a centre for ‘social action’, Ed Milliband’s 2014 pledge for ‘people-powered services’, or as a recent Nesta report simply puts it ‘people helping people’.
There has also been considerable academic debate about what networks are and what networks do, and how they can or could improve the design and delivery of public policies. In the light of all this work and healthy debate, not least within the Nesta team itself, I was piqued by Dr Francis Fukuyama’s dismissive remarks at a book-launch event last week. Let me clarify.
Even before the recent economic downturn and the return of austerity policies, the idea that the modern State, and the services it provides are under strain was common-place. Firstly, because of an assumed ‘deficit of democracy’ in ‘big State’ bureaucracies, and secondly because the resources made available for service delivery are generally not considered to be as expandable as the population’s needs. So what to do? How do we design the society and services that people actually want? And how do we fund it?
From the late 1990s, public administration theorists have explored alternatives to the highly-centralised State and public service bureaucracies. It is fair to say that the marketization of public services in the UK since the 1980s has not met with much success on either count, achieving neither popular support nor, in a number of notorious cases, the expected public sector savings and increased efficiency.
But what about networks? Networks, in theory at least, allow state, service delivery staff, and users to jointly participate in the design and delivery of public policy. Such an organisational mode, colleagues at Nesta have argued, may put greater democratic legitimacy, greater efficiency and better services (at lesser public cost) all within reach of struggling late-modern States.
As a social scientist schooled in the actor-network-theory, I am of the view that all worldly things are inextricably networked. All humans and things are connected historically, spatially, and materially. Modern States rely on the links they have built with their citizens over time, the patterns of behaviour they sediment in bureaucracies, and the resources exchanged in the daily operations of delivering the ‘public good’.
Hierarchies, markets, and networks are not alternative organisational systems, but are all networked networks: particular distributions of people and things simultaneously enabled and constrained by their content and preferred mode of operation.
The rise of the ‘networked State’ is not the collapse of statehood, nor the opposite of the free-market, but the acknowledgement that all social organisations are naturally precarious, and constantly re-negotiate complex arrangements of existing and emerging forces. If you want to see a place run by networks, stay here, and just look around.
Tout se transforme. Inviting greater citizen participation in public service design and delivery does not guarantee cost-savings. It is true that volunteers may become involved in areas where only paid staff would traditionally have been, but they are rarely replacing paid staff, and do not necessarily lead to reduced spending. Involving volunteers has the potential to create value by stretching public service activities in sectors it may not have been involved in before, and re-shaping some of the ways it already operates in for greater efficiency and/or public and staff satisfaction.
But this potential added value comes at a cost: firstly, it costs volunteers time. Even if freely and happily given, it will come at the expense of other areas of people’s social and professional life. This cost cannot be under-estimated, as in order to gain and retain access to volunteers’ time, traditionally bureaucratic and exclusive organisations have considerable efforts to make. Successfully drafting and sustaining meaningful unpaid public involvement is a skill. It requires training and expertise which organisations, if they want to tap into this resource will need to invest in seriously.
As I have argued earlier, the public networking of public services is not an alternative to existing organisational forms. Many latent links exist, which may be activated in different ways to reach different goals. Volunteer involvement in public services is thus not the replacement of paid staff by free labour, but a re-working of all kinds of resource distribution, and ought to be conceptualised as a viable and legitimate form of organisational growth rather than decay.
Investing in tighter ‘networking’ of public services between their commissioners, designers, implementers and users is not a radical alternative to hierarchies or markets and it will not miraculously solve the cost/effectiveness/lack of funds problem. However, done properly, it provides a real opportunity to narrow the gap between public expectations and actual service delivery. More inclusive and active networks within public services could well increase satisfaction and overall well-being.
 Dr Fukuyama would not disagree with this so far, though he seems less interested in discussing practical or even theoretical solutions than in pointing to the unavoidable collapse of society as we know it.