Definition: Network government consists of new shapes of government based upon an organization and infrastructure of social and media networks increasingly tied together by information and communication technology.

There are three types of network government:

  1. ‘Joined-up government’: connecting various levels and agencies of government itself to provide more integrated services.
  2. ‘Networked government’: connecting levels and agencies of government with third parties to realize public services by outsourcing instead of by the government itself.
  3. ‘Online democratic government’: connecting the political and representative parts of government with individual citizens and their organizations.

The first two types are shapes of public administration and the last type is a shape of political representation and decision making. Obviously, these types are related as internal joined-up government and external network government are linked in practice and because both could be steered by online democracy in a democratic political system or state. However, practical problems in realizing them might be very different too, ranging from management problems to political problems.

The common new shapes of government are a network type of organization that may be called heterarchical (or horizontal) instead of hierarchical (or vertical), the traditional government organization. The network type of organization should be located between two other traditional types: markets and hierarchies, in this case privatization of government services and traditional government hierarchy.

In my book The Network Society, Second edition I have listed the most important characteristics of each of them:



property rights

Complementary strengths

Employment relationship

Relation of actors




Goals of organization


Reciprocal gains


Means of organization




Mode of organization


Competition and cooperation




Horizontal and vertical




Horizontal and vertical


Conflict resolution

going to court

Trust, reputation

Administrative fiat, supervision





TABLE 4.1 Forms of economic organization
Adapted from Powell (1990)

The concrete forms the new shapes of (network) government reveal cannot be discussed in this short web-contribution. See for the networked government type: Goldsmith, St. and Eggers, W. (2004) Governing by Network, The New Shape of the Public Sector. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. See for the online democratic government type my 2000 book (edited with Ken Hacker) Digital Democracy, Issues of Theory and Practice.

In The Network Society and in Digital Democracy I have portrayed network government in the following model of the political system:

A system-dynamic model of the political system
(Digital Democracy, p. 32 and The Network Society, p. 83)

‘Joined up government’ fills the lines within the core of this model, between the departments of the public administration at the national, regional and local level.

‘Networked government’ links the core of the government and the public administration with semi-public bodies, corporations and civil-society organizations (outsourcing and public-private partnerships funded and supervised by government departments).

Online democratic government links the government (the ‘peel’ of the core in this model) with individual citizens, organizations of civil society and political organizations.

A further (political) explanation of this model is from Digital Democracy, p. 31-38:

A dynamic model of the political system

The Figure supplies a system-dynamic model of politics in a broad view. In this model the political system is not restricted to government, neither to a combination of government and public administration. Their relationships with other central regulating institutions, the organisations of civil society, corporations and individual citizens cover a large part of the model. One can read the most important characteristics of Western constitutions into it: the separation of powers, the distinction between the state and civil society and the levels of (inter)national, regional and local government and public administration. Politics is broadly conceived as the sum of acts in a community meant to organise and govern this community.

The model proposed is a relatively neutral one. It is designed to be descriptive, not explanatory. The only assumption is a relational and dynamic conception of politics and power in general. Politics and power are not viewed as properties of individuals or collectivities as such, but as properties of the relationships between them. These relationships are made of communicative actions aimed towards the acquisition and (inter)change of material and immaterial rules and resources (c.f. Giddens, 1984). In this chapter these relationships are specified as relations of information and communication. So, this system-dynamic model is held to be different from the static functionalist theory and model of the political system like the classic one designed by David Easton (1953).

Taking this relational view of democracy as a point of department one feels tempted to adopt a network theory of society and politics in general. In some of these theories one can find a lot of explanatory power with regard to modern society (for instance Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998) and politics (f.i. Guéhenno, 1995), but one should not reify and exaggerate the increasing importance of networks to society and politics. So, according to Castells (1996, p. 198) the modern economy and society consist of networks. They are the economy and the society. To our view networks increasingly shape the organisation and structure of society which still consists of individuals, groups and organisations with their agencies, rules, resources and (inter) relationships (van Dijk, 1991/1997). On the political field Guéhenno predicts the ends of the nation, politics and democracy as we know them as they are replaced by a relational system of networks without a significant centre. According to him citizens in social and media networks are able to associate outside the artificial and increasingly irrelevant central institutions of traditional politics. However, he neglects the fact that networks have a centre and that they can be used by powerful central bureaucracies as well. Substantiating and inflating the formal dimension of networks (the connection), one overlooks the substantial dimension of them (the rules, resources and actions exchanged). And, contrary to McLuhan, the (medium)network is not the message, at least not the whole message.

The dynamic quality of the model suggested rests with the continuous substantial change of the relationships between the actors and institutions it describes. As it is a political system they are relationships of power first of all. The central proposition in this chapter is that they are increasingly shaped and materialised by means of ICT. The use of these means changes the relationships between the parts or actors in the model. It is still open in which direction these changes will go. Two radically opposing tendencies are both possible: a centrifugal tendency and a centralising one.

The spread and concentration of politics

The most conspicuous development of the last three decades of the twentieth century is the decentralisation or spread of politics from the modern nation state, with its institutions of government and public administration, to other actors within and without the political system. See figure 2.2 which will be explained below. National institutional politics just can not called the only political centre in society these days. Politics is spreading into society and beyond. This development is called the displacement of politics (Beck, 1992) Other actors in the political system at large with its shifting border lines - see Figure 2.1 -get involved. The system is getting polycentric. All centres are connected by relationships of information and communication which are supported by social and media networks. We will see that ICT makes a large contribution to this development.

The first step in the displacement of politics is the shift of power from government towards the public administration. The government is still viewed as ‘the head’ of society, but actually anyone can see that the executive has gained a lot of power in the twentieth century going to lead its own life in several respects. The traditional bureaucracy of the public administration has become a powerful technocracy or a so-called infocracy (Zuurmond, 1994) using much earlier and much stronger means of ICT than the government itself, the parliament included. The use of ICT clearly strengthens the independent weight of public administration in relationship to the government it is supposed to serve. The substantial and normative power of traditional politics loses and technocracy takes over.

The second step in the displacement of politics is the current policy in Western democracies to make independent, outsource and privatise parts of the public administration. These moves have been made possible by information systems. By this means the public administration, which is still held responsible, keeps controlling the output of these parts.

However, soon these parts are forced to survive on a competitive market. In this situation market regulation easily overtakes political regulation. With the rise of neo-liberalism in the West the national states gave away a lot of room for decisions to the market in general and the (trans)national corporations in particular. The boundless networks of ICT reinforce this development. Using these networks the transnational corporations, first of all, carry away economic decisions with a great political impact. In

this way political decisions are dispersed and fragmented as well. Mowshowitz (1992) speaks about virtual feudalism, a system clearly bypassing virtual democracy. In virtual feudalism every transnational corporation forms its own kingdom, a pseudo-political authority which is not based on the control of territory but of international production facilities co-ordinated in networks, first of all networks of ICT.

The national state is losing ground as well to international bodies giving up parts of its sovereignty and autonomy to them. In the European Union the member states transfer these parts to the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, among others backed by the so-called Schengen Information System. In the world at large we can observe the slowly increasing role of the Security Council of the United Nations, the NATO, GATT and the regional economic block organisations like NAFTA and ASEAN. The clearest case of the impact of ICT in this development is the effect of the financial administration of the IMF and the World Bank who, by the use of their advanced information systems, are in a better position to calculate and control the budgets of developing countries than these countries themselves.

The most extreme case of a displacement of politics is the break-up of nation states in civil wars leading to narco-states and shifting territories controlled by warlords or ethnic and religious armies, usually heavy users of digital mobile communications (for example Colombia, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Afghanistan in 1997). It might lead to a militarization of international affairs. At the same time international criminal organisations dealing in drugs, pornography and weapons or engaging in financial fraud or terrorism are gaining ground. They use advanced information technology just as well as their opponents: the military, the police and security organisations. The American NSA, CIA and Pentagon supervise about every potential danger in the world with their advanced (satellite) networks of ICT.

These cases of a spread of politics are valued negatively in every conception of democracy (see below). The power to take decisions is shifting to non-democratic, less democratic or even anti-democratic unaccountable forces. In this prospect the future of virtual democracy looks dark, indeed. It means that ICT and virtual communication might just as well bring the opposite of democracy. However, there are some cases of a displacement of politics which are valued positively in particular views of democracy. The first one is the rise of organisations of civil society like social and cultural institutions, semi-public agencies and all kinds of pressure and interest groups in most Western countries. Among them one observes a shift from the traditional vested interests of civil society, like mainstream churches and labour movements, to the new identities and organisations of all kinds of localists, ethnic representatives, religious fundamentalists, ecologists and feminists (Castells ,1997) So, the decline of interest for institutional politics to be observed in some of these countries does not mean that the motivation of citizens to participate in political affairs more generally is decreasing as well. Perhaps the ways, channels, culture and organisation of political participation are ‘only’ changing. ICT networks certainly offer these new ways all kinds of opportunities and means of transmission.

In the mean time the use of ICT is strengthening the existing tendencies of individualisation, fragmentation and the rise of informal social networking in the Western countries as well. It enables organisations and individuals in their self regulation of social and political affairs. In some views of democracy this is the most desirable way to go ahead (see below). Using direct media of ICT citizens get the chance to address the centres of institutional politics immediately and, if they want so, pass these centres altogether, perhaps even trying to create their own political system.

The last type of displacement of politics to be mentioned is the juridification of conflict management in general and the workings of the government and the public administration in particular. Both the government and the public administration reveal expanding problems in controlling or managing the rising complexity and diversity of society. This is the main reason why the jurisdiction has to fill the gaps increasingly. One of the effects is the growing importance of jurisprudence which in practise often gets more important than formal legislation. As jurisprudence is summarised and made easily accessible on CD-Roms and information networks and the prospect of a more or less automatic administration of justice is taken serious by a growing number of people, ICT is reinforcing the tendency of juridification as well.

Now we are able to return to our model of the political system. ICT does not bring about the centrifugal tendencies just described which can be read in this model and in Figure 2.2. One of the possibilities is that this technology enables and reinforces these tendencies which have their own political, social and cultural roots. In the next section we will see that they are supported by a number of views of democracy as well. Centrifugal tendencies are noticed by many observers. However, less evident and accepted are the opposing tendencies of a concentration of politics in the state, that is the government and the public administration. Still, there are at least three developments bearing this centralising movement in the political system and, what is more, they are enabled by the same technology.

The first development is the reaction of the nation state as a whole being under pressure, striking back and using all means to defend its position. According to Held (1995) the autonomy of states is restricted and their sovereignty are affected, but they have not disappeared. States are still the most important single actors in the field of global and local relationships. Their share is not diminishing as an increasing number of problems of is shifted on to the back of them : (the financial effects of) individualisation, overpopulation, ageing, migration, criminalisation, the constipation of infrastructure, the decay of the natural environment and structural employment. It can be observed that states are confronting these problems in a harder way and, among others, with the means of ICT. The registration systems of the public administration are getting more important for the citizens and the state itself. One does not have to talk about, or fear a so-called surveillance state (Burnham, 1983, Gandy, 1994, Lyon, 1995) to notice this development.

This first development is related to a second one. The state bureaucracy itself, as a kind of state within the state, is not helplessly standing by the centrifugal tendencies just described. The bureaucracy modernises. Most often it belongs to the first organisations introducing ICT on a large scale. Traditional bureaucracy transforms into infocracy. This is a mode of organisation using the networks of ICT for a clever combination of increased central control and decentralisation of executive tasks, apparently making organisations more ‘flat’ and actually removing lots of traditional bureaucratic ways of working (Zuurmond, id.). Connecting all kinds of networks and files in a growing number of sectors of the public administration this infocracy seems to create a highly efficient and machine-like state and a transparent citizenry as well, because many of these files contain personal information.

The third development also relates to the former ones. Reacting to the same centrifugal forces the state and institutional politics pack together creating some kind of party state. Increasingly the people serving the government, the public administration and (often governing) political parties exchange their places and policies among each other. This even goes for the big political parties as their active members, standing as candidates in elections seem to aspire more to a career in government or the public administration than to be a representative of the citizenry in a parliament. For many observers in society political parties appear to become a collection of office seekers. To reach this goal they transform themselves in electoral campaign organisations, exchanging their other traditional roles of being programmatic associations and bodies for citizens to organise themselves politically. Clearly, ICT serves this transformation as it is a powerful election technology (Selnow, 1994, Newman 1994). However, it is not the only way it can serve political parties or candidates. ICT can help to intermediate between political organisations and their members or voters for the purpose of association, discussion and programme building as well. The chosen direction highly depends upon the view of democracy one supports.