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Public Policy 101: The Policy Subsystem


Public policies are everywhere in today’s world, but their ubiquity is also why their definition is often elusive and the analysis of public policies tends to be complex. The Public Policy 101 series offers the reader several tools of analysis that help make sense of the complexity of public policies. This 101 series comprises eight different articles, each focusing on a different aspect, which should provide the reader with a framework of analysis to better understand the complex world of public policy-making.

The policy subsystem

The sheer size of governments today means that public policy is often conducted in a fragmented way, involving a smaller number of interested and knowledgeable participants (Cairney, 2019, p. 64). Originally, scholars mostly focused on three types of participants, called the ‘iron triangle’ of policy-making, comprised of policy-makers, bureaucrats and interest groups (Adams, 1981). These three were deemed the actors with the highest interest in policy-making. However, as the previous instalment noted, a variety of other actors, such as epistemic communities, public opinion, or quasi-legislative law-makers are today strongly involved in the policy-making process.

Regardless of the degree of engagement of the different actors, at the heart of the matter lies the idea that their participation revolves around a specific policy issue, be it healthcare, immigration, the environment, financial regulation, and so forth. For each policy issue, the ensemble of the relevant policy actors makes up a policy subsystem. The idea of the policy subsystem is the basis of several theories of the policy process, such as the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET, Baumgartner & Jones, 2009) and the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF, Sabatier, 1988). This is because, in order to have effective and stable policy-making over time, these actors need to build relationships around the policy issue at hand (see Heclo, 1978; Richardson & Jordan, 1979).

The literature around the nature of the policy subsystem employs an umbrella term that has been adopted to describe the system of relations between the actors, i. e. the policy network (this is more UK-specific, whereas ‘policy subsystem’ is more frequent in the US). Although some see the idea of policy network as a mere ‘useful fiction’ that helps visualise and analyse these relationships (Dowding, 1995), several other scholars have attempted to measure the relationships between actors to understand how their intensity can help explain policy outcomes (Ingold et al., 2016).

Figure 1: The idea of a network is central in illustrating relations between policy actors

In its most basic sense, a policy network is the set of political actors both inside and outside government that are involved in policy-making and the relations between these actors (Compston, 2009, p. 7). Its utility lies in the fact that it allows for a more fine-grained analysis of policy-making than a state-centric approach. For instance, it would allow differentiating policy-making in a sector with strong inter-firm competition from one in which the state holds the initiative. This is more accurate than assuming that the state as a whole has a liberal or statist policy-making tradition, and provides for a more fine-grained analysis.

Actors in policy networks form relatively stable relations and "engage in resource exchange over public policy", creating a system of resource interdependencies (Compston, 2009, p. 11). Public actors are the only ones who can provide authoritative decisions, such as policy amendments, veto power, taxes, subsidies, or market regulation. Private actors, for their part, may possess resources that are useful to public actors, including expertise, knowledge, investment or political support.

Therefore, policy networks are a "set of resource-dependent organisations" (Rhodes, 2006, p. 431). Groups need both the resources and the legislative authority that only the government can provide, and in turn politicians (and bureaucrats) need the groups’ cooperation for policy implementation, as well as their financial and political support to retain power. Thus, three conditions must be obtained to define a policy network: (1) a certain resource is controlled by a political actor; (2) this resource is desired by another political actor; and (3) the resource can be transferred (Compston, 2009, p. 19). Following Atkinson and Coleman (1992), the idea of policy network prompts two key questions: who participates in the network and who wields power?

Figure 2: Policy networks are often about cultivating relationships and maintaining a balance of power between actors.

To answer these questions, scholars have proposed a variety of typologies of policy networks, often with unsatisfactory explanations. For instance, Rhodes and Marsh (1992) propose a continuum based on the level of integration of the actors involved. Although such a typology may be useful to distinguish between inter-sectoral variations, it is less so when one wants to study cross-country variation in the same sector. Cawson et al. (1987) base their typology of networks on two variables, state autonomy and monopoly closure in state-group relations (i.e. the degree of market control that firms have in a given sector). Jordan and Schubert (1992) characterise eleven typologies of policy networks based on the scope of the issue discussed (sectoral vs trans-sectoral), the number of participants, and the level of institutionalisation. Atkinson and Coleman (1989) identify six different outcomes based on the autonomy of the state bureaucracies, the concentration of power, and the level of mobilisation of interest groups. Van Waarden (1992) builds on their model to distinguish between eleven different state-business relations, based on seven characteristics: actors, function, structure, institutionalisation, rules of conduct, power relations, and actors’ strategies. Adam and Kriesi (2007) propose a two-dimensional categorisation based on the distribution of power (fragmented vs centralised) and the type of actors' interaction (conflict, bargaining or cooperation). Finally, Compston (2009) identifies five key variables that influence resource exchange, either directly or indirectly: resources, preferences, strategies, perceived problems and solutions, and rules and norms.

This is far from being an exhaustive list of the relevant literature. But what is clear from the several attempts described above, is that not all scholars agree on the type and power of the actors within the policy subsystem. Often, they do not even seem to agree on what questions their typologies are supposed to answer.

It is no wonder, then, that the idea of policy network has been subject to harsh critiques (again, see Dowding, 1995; see also Thatcher, 1998). It is no wonder either that scholars have attacked each other’s preferred typology. For instance, Van Waarden (1992) criticises Atkinson and Coleman’s (1989) model because the intersection of typologies it allows is not exhaustive enough. Thatcher (1998) also notes that such typologies are those that ‘are most likely to arise’ rather than being effectively present in empirical reality.

Figure 3. Networks of policy actors are at the heart of specialised policy-making

Moreover, the policy network approach has been accused of not being able to explain policy change (Börzel, 2011, p. 51; Rhodes, 2006; Rhodes & Marsh, 1992, p. 196; Thatcher, 1998, p. 394). Hence, the categorisation of policy subsystems must precede any hypothesis regarding the policy process, which must be based on different theories such as, for instance, PET or the ACF. Only after the typology of network has been established can policy-making and policy change be explained. As Adam and Kriesi (2007, p. 146) note, after all, the policy network approach is more of an analytical tool than a theory. Its value lies in the fact that it conceptualises policy-making as a process involving a diversity of actors who are mutually interdependent, thus synthesising state-centred and society-centred approaches.

Regardless of its definitional difficulties and its scarce explanatory power (as opposed to its vast descriptive capabilities), the policy network approach remains compelling. As Cairney (2019, p. 154) puts it, when policy-makers focus on one issue, they have to ignore 99 others. In so doing, the policy process is broken down into more manageable issues involving a smaller number of interested and knowledgeable participants, often without the direct involvement of political actors, such as ministers or lawmakers or presidents.

To sum up, even though policy-making involves a large number of different actors with varying powers and interests, analysing how they relate to one another becomes paramount to understanding how policy is made. But this cannot be done without first breaking down the policy system into smaller units – policy subsystems revolving around specific issues and in which actors can build a variety of different relationships, depending on the distribution of power and the resources they need and that they can offer other actors. Hence, with the policy network approach, scholars come in possession of a powerful theoretical tool for public policy analysis. Yet, given the aforementioned critiques, it becomes paramount to integrate the concepts underlying the policy network approach and the different typologies of actors' relations it offers with the different theories of the policy process. A stronger linkage can indeed prompt stronger theorising and more accurate empirical findings in the discipline.

Bibliographical References

Adam, S., & Kriesi H. (2007). The Network Approach. In Sabatier, P. A. (Ed.). Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd edition (pp. 129-154). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Atkinson, M. M., & Coleman, W. D. (1989). Strong states and weak states: Sectoral policy networks in advanced capitalist economies. British journal of political science, 19(1), 47-67.

Atkinson, M. M., & Coleman, W. D. (1992). Policy networks, policy communities and the problems of governance. Governance, 5(2), 154-180.

Baumgartner, F. & Jones, B. D. (2009). Agendas and Instability in American Politics. 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Börzel, T. A. (2011). Networks: reified metaphor or governance panacea?. Public Administration, 89(1), 49-63.

Cairney, P. (2019). Understanding Public Policy. 2nd edition. London: Red Globe Press.

Cawson, A., Holmes, P. & Stevens, A. (1987). The interaction between firms and the state in France: the telecommunications and consumer electronics sectors. In S. Wilks & M. Wright (Eds.), Comparative government-industry relations: Western Europe, the United States, and Japan (pp. 10-34). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Compston, H. (2009). Policy networks and policy change: putting policy network theory to the test. Basingstoke: Springer.

Dowding, K. (1995). Model or metaphor? A critical review of the policy network approach. Political studies, 43(1), 136-158.

Heclo, H. (1978). Issue Networks and the executive establishment. In A. King (Ed.). The New American Political System. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institution.

Ingold, K., Fischer, M., Hekkila, T., & Weible, C. M. (2016). Assessment and Aspirations. In C. M. Weible, Hekkila, T., Ingold, K. & Fischer, M. (Eds.). Policy Debates on Hydraulic Fracturing. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jordan, G., & Schubert, K. (1992). A preliminary ordering of policy network labels. European journal of political research, 21(1‐2), 7-27.

Richardson, J. J., & Jordan, G. (1979). Governing Under Pressure: The Policy Process in a Post-Parliamentary Democracy. Oxford: Robertson.

Rhodes, R. A. W. (2006). Policy Network Analysis. In M. Moran, M. Rein & R. E. Gooding (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy (pp. 423-445). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rhodes, R. A. W., & Marsh, D. (1992). New directions in the study of policy networks. European journal of political research, 21(1‐2), 181-205.

Sabatier, P. A. (1988). An advocacy coalition framework of policy change and the role of policy-oriented learning therein. Policy Sciences, 21 (2-3), 129–168.

Thatcher, M. (1998). The development of policy network analyses: From modest origins to overarching frameworks. Journal of theoretical politics, 10(4), 389-416.

Van Waarden, F. (1992). Dimensions and types of policy networks. European journal of political research, 21(1‐2), 29-52.

Image References

Figure 1: Rzeczy, K. (2020). America rethinks its strategy in the Wild West of cyberspace. [Illustration]. The Economist.

Figure 2: British Museum (n.d.). Satirical print on the balance of power in 1831. [Drawing]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Forbes (2021, July 2nd). Representation of a network. [Illustration]. Retrieved from:


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Marco Schito

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