Policy network analysis

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In the 1970s, debate raged about the future of public policymaking and policy analysis. Was it a distinctive field of study or just good old public administration under a new and fashionable label? It staked a claim to be a distinct field of study. Now we no longer discuss the question. Policy analysis is established. In this sense, there is no longer a debate about the future of policy networks. The story of policy networks follows the same trajectory as public policy making. The subject is here to stay – a standard topic in any public policymaking textbook (Parsons 1995) or textbooks on British government (Richards and Smith 2002).

What was all the excitement about? It is not just the story of the rise of an idea. It is about a new generation of political scientists. ‘Young – well youngish - Turks’ carved out a reputation for themselves by challenging their elders and betters. Sound and fury are essential to such uprisings. In Britain, added edge came from the challenge to the Westminster model, which had run out a steam as a way of understanding the changes in British government. The debate was not only about networks but also about how to study British government. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the recurrent problems of the policy network literature, for example in explaining change, mirror issues in broader political science. The rise of governance was our story of how British government had changed. It was not the story in the graduate and postgraduate texts on which we were raised. We abandoned the eternal verities of the British constitution. In sharp contrast to the fuddy-duddies, we could explain both continuity and change. Of course, we were wrong but we weren’t about to admit it. Anyway the spats were fun!

The story of policy networks is a story of a success. The ‘Young Turks’ won their elevation to the professorial peerage, ran out of steam, and moved on. A flood of doctorates and case studies followed. It is no longer an innovative idea but a commonplace notion in almost every nook and cranny of both political science texts and British government textbooks in particular. It is ripe for challenge. Controversies in policy network analysis now parallel controversies in political science, whether they are about how to explain political change or the uses of ethnographic methods.13 Policy network analysis has become one more locus for the endless debates about how do we know what we know in the social sciences. I doubt the founders could have hoped for more. I am sure their expectations were less.


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Rhodes, R. A. W. (2006). 'Policy Network Analysis'. In M. Moran, M. Rein and R. E. Goodin (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 423-45. I would like to thank Chris Ansell, Mark Bevir, Jenny Fleming, Johan Olsen and the editors for their comments and advice. © R A W Rhodes 2006.


 On Australia see Considine 1994, Davis et al 1993; on Canada see Coleman and Skogstad 1990, Lindquist 1996; on the UK see Rhodes 1988, Richardson and Jordan 1979; on continental Europe see LeGales and Thatcher 1995, Marin and Mayntz 1991; on the USA see Mandell 2001, O’Toole 1997.

2 See also Benson 1975, Crozier and Thoenig 1976, Hanf and Scharpf 1979, and Thompson 1967.

3 See for example Ansell 2000, Bevir and Rhodes 2003, Rhodes 1997a, 2000, Stoker 2004, and for a review of the literature and citations see Marinetto 2003.

4 Bob Goodin pointed out correctly that theories of complexity are also relevant to the study of network (personal correspondence). See, for example, La Porte 1975, Luhmann 1982, Simon 1981[1969]. Such ideas exercised some influence on the ‘governance club’ research programme at Erasmus University, Rotterdam (see for example Kickert et al 1997). They have not been a major influence on the rest of the network literature.

5 The analysis of 'power-dependence' is not limited to the study of networks. More generally see: Blau 1964, Emerson 1962, Keohane and Nye 1977 and 1987, and Pfeffer and Salancik 1978.

6 On the private sector see Child and Faulkner 1998, chapter 6, Ford et al 2003, and Pfeffer and Salancik 1978.

7 See Agranoff 2003, Kettl 2002, Kickert et al 1997, McGuire 2002, Mandell 2001, O’Toole 1997, Osborne 2000, and Perri 6 et al 2002.

8 The literature may be pre-occupied with adducing lessons for would be managers but it also analyses network management as, for example, brokerage. See: Bardach 1998, Carpenter et al 2004, Fernandez and Gould 1994, and Taylor, 1997.

9 See also Ansell 2000, Andersen 1990, Josselin 1997, Kassim 1993, Mazey and Richardson 1993, and Rhodes et al 1996.

10 See for example Considine and Lewis 1999, Thompson et al 1991, Powell 1991, Rhodes 1997b, and Simon 2000.

11 On the need to rethink accountability in the nation-state see Behn 2001 and on accountability in a globalizing world see Keohane 2002: 219-44 and 2003.

12 See Bevir et al 2003, Hummel 1991, Rein 1976, Van Eeten et al. 1996, and Weick 1995.

13 Of course, we also respond to debates and problems in the ‘real’ world. Much of the literature reviewed in this chapter sees networks as an effective way of managing complex problems in health and education. However, Al Qaeda and the war on terror have focused attention on ‘dark networks’ (Raab and Milward 2003), a term that also encompasses drug smuggling, the arms trade and failed states. Fieldwork may not be an option but the problems of policing dark networks cannot be ignored.

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