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date: 24 January 2021

Networks and Public Administrationlocked

  • Robin H. LemaireRobin H. LemaireCenter for Public Administration & Policy, Virginia Tech


The term “networks” is a broad concept that encompasses many streams of research in the public administration literature. This article focuses on organizational networks as systems in order to bring to light the challenges in researching organizational networks that result from the obscure nature of networks. Three challenges are highlighted: nomenclature, dynamism, and effectiveness. Given how little discernible there is to networks, naming networks often relies on normative assumptions (i.e., collaborative governance) or the outcome of the network (coordination network). With the dynamic nature of networks, it is difficult to study networks because ties are temporally dependent, and latent ties may not be captured. Networks are also fluid, and participants come and go. Finally, networks work in the shadows of agencies and produce intangible and often indirect effects, so assessing effectiveness is difficult. In view of these challenges, the research focuses on topics that render the network visible, like structure, governance, and tasks. Structure illuminates the invisible connections; governance provides a tangible representation for the network; and tasks elucidate what the network does. However, all three of these research foci are plagued with issues, and the focus on these topics may further obscure the less discernible elements of networks. Recognizing the challenges involved in studying the complex, obscure phenomena of networks is warranted; otherwise, the network literature will continue to be confused and lack consensus.

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