Thursday, January 22, 2009

The rise and rise of informal networks as a mode of governance?

I wanted to make just a short post with some brief reflections on the news that Anne-Marie Slaughter has taken leave from her post as Dean of Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton in order to head the US Department of State's Office of Policy Planning, an "internal think tank for the Department of State - undertaking broad analytical studies of regional and functional issues, identifying gaps in policy, and initiating policy planning and formulation to fill these gaps". (Hat tip to Opinio Juris.)

In October of last year, Dean Slaughter gave a lecture here at NYU, entitled “America’s Edge: A Global Country in a Global Century”. The crux of her interesting and provocative talk was focused on the idea of and potential for informal networks as a mode of governance in the 21st century. Her argument was that there would be something of a sea-change in the way the dominant modes of governance structures were organsied: from heirarchical, top-down arrangements to heterachical webs. In her view, the US is no longer well-placed to hold on to its place at the top of the heirarchical structures of global governance, faced as it is by challenges from India and China in particular. However, such structures are of rapidly diminishing importance; and America's edge is, in her view, the fact that it is uniquely well calibrated to take its place at the center of the web of networks that will dominate the governance landscape of the next century.

Slaughter offered a number of different reasons for her optimism in this regard; some persuasive, others less so. That her focus is on governance by networks will come as a surprise to no-one who is familiar with her most famous book, A New World Order, published in 2004, which focused on government networks as the main constitutents of that order. It is not, however, the empirical claim that networks are of the importance that she suggests that I want to raise here; and nor is it her particular reasons for insisting that the US is best placed to influence the governance activities that they carry out. Rather, it is her general, not-quite-but-nearly unbridled optimism regarding the structure itself that I want to note.

The first thing that it is, in my view, important to recall is that "informal networks" have been around as a mode of governance for as long as governance itself: those in power have always used such loose stuctures in order to get things done (think, for example, of the "old boys networ" in the UK - and doubtless elsewhere). What is new, in the work of Slaughter and others like her, is that networks are now overwhelmingly presented as a solution to one of the challenges of good governance rather than an obstacle that must be overcome. Networks used to be the problem; now, it seems, they are (being presented as) the cure.

It is not difficult to see why networks have been viewed as problem rather than solution in the past. They are often secretive; opaque; their membership unknown and closed to outsiders; and largely unaccountable to any public constituency (usually as a direct result of their secretive nature). Take the recent scandal of the Conservative Party Shadow Chancellor allegedly actively seeking an illegal donation from a Russian multimillionaire on the private yacht of another millionaire - this too is a form of "informal governance network", and one that it is much harder to portray in a positive light. And it should be recalled that the only reason we found out about this one was because Nat got mad at George for blabbing about the nasty things that Peter had said about Gordon at dinner - without this, we would simply never have known.

Slaughter's work does illustrate well the potential benefits to be gained from structuring governance around networks of government actors, rather than in the old heirarchical model; and this aspect of her work cannot simply be ignored. However, it is imperative that networks are viewed not only as a mode of but also a problem for good governance - that we seek to develop ways of harnessing their potential whilst lessening their shortcomings. It is this dual issue that the conceptual framework provided by the GAL project brings so sharply into focus: since the outset, networks have been counted as one of the key types of global administrative body currently in existence; and yet the whole purpose of the project is to pose the hard questions that must be asked of such structures: questions of transparency, of participation, and of accountability.

Of course, Slaughter is aware of these problems, and she devotes a chapter of A New World Order (Ch. 6, "A Just World Order") to outlining how they might be resolved, with many of her solutions fitting perfectly into the agenda and substance of the GAL project. She has long been an influential figure; and her new post will undoubtedly make her even more so. Congratulations, then, to Dean Slaughter on her appointment, and good luck to her in her new role; and, to the extent that she does seek to help fulfil her own prophecy of the future of "the network" as a governance structure, let's hope she bears in mind that it is at once - and in roughly equal parts - part of the solution and part of the problem.

Of course, if she was also to frame things explicitly in terms of an emerging global administrative law, we wouldn't be too upset...

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