New Book Helps Navigate Governance Networks
- By Jon C. Reidel
Trevor Lashua, assistant manager for the Town of Essex, is the target audience Professor Chris Koliba hopes to reach with his new book, Governance Networks in Public Administration and Public Policy. With a focus on the importance of understanding and working with multiple stakeholders in government, the book rings true on numerous levels for Lashua, who deals with public and private entities while trying to advance the goals of the Town of Essex.
One of Lashua's current initiatives, for example, involves the transformation of a 99-acre tree farm into a public recreational facility with involvement by the State of Vermont, a local non-profit, the Village of Essex Junction, the Town of Essex, multiple youth soccer organizations, and area residents.
Town managers, Koliba writes, are often "caught between a host of public and private actors with interests defined by the narrowness and expansiveness of their concerns." Koliba, associate professor of Community Development and Applied Economics, authored the book with help from Asim Zia, assistant professor in CDAE, and Jack W. Meek, professor of public administration at the University of La Verne. The book illustrates how important skill sets of oversight, resource provision, negotiation and bargaining, facilitation, collaboration and systems thinking are within the landscape of public administration today.
"There is an intuitive component to the job, and interpersonal and people skills are definitely important," says Lashua. "But without these skill sets, the rest of it becomes a lot harder, and it's far more difficult to leverage the full effectiveness of these governance networks."
The complex nature of cross-sector alignments
"The case we make early on in the book is that governance networks have always been there," Koliba says. "You can go back to the founding fathers and their dilemmas around divided government and the three branches of government -- that's a network." But since the early days of American democracy, government networks have multiplied, Koliba says.
The book fills a gap in the existing knowledge and literature on how these complex networks affect contemporary policy implementation. In essence, Koliba says, there's been a shift from a unitary government offering services to a much more complicated, polycentric network organized around governance.
In the book, Koliba identifies four major governance network configurations: public-private partnerships; grant-contract arrangements; regulatory sub-systems; and interest group coalitions. When these networks intermingle, he says, complicated cross-sector alignments emerge, raising tricky questions about the role of the private sector working with, and performing, public sector tasks. These partnerships have caused "sector blurring" -- an erosion of the distinction between the public and private sector actors -- and raise questions about a trend toward running government like a business.
"There hasn't been a lot of discussion about what the implications of doing that are," says Koliba. "Where's accountability in there? What about the corporate responsibility piece? When do businesses have a responsibility to the common good? And so there's an isomorphism to sector blurring: how do the characteristics and traits of one actor in the network affect the characteristics and shapes of the other? So it's a two-way street; the membrane is permeable both ways."
Many of the concepts in the book are aligned with the mission of the MPA program, which is to produce effective public policy makers like Lashua. "Our mission is to prepare public administrators and policy analysts to understand complex governance systems," says Koliba, a mission that he says aligns with the tradition of collaborative democratic government that's the hallmark of Vermont communities.