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David Fée et Anémone Kober-Smith
p. 143-145

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  • 1 Rhodes, R. A. W., Understanding governance: policy networks, governance, reflexivity, and accountab (...)

1The articles gathered in this issue of the Observatoire de la Société Britannique have shown that academic research on the concept of governance is still amply justified. Seventeen years after R.A.W. Rhodes published his seminal book on “Understanding Governance”1 in which he pioneered such concepts as policy networks and the differentiated polity, and in which he publicized the notion of governance, these articles from French and British academics confirm how useful for and relevant to any discussion and analysis of contemporary public policy in Britain governance is.

  • 2 Bevir, Mark & Rhodes, R.A.W., Interpreting British Governance, London, Routledge, 2003; Stoker, Ger (...)

2Although the term “governance” goes back a long time, it was only in the early 1990s that it was given pride of place in the academic literature devoted to public policy. Its renewal owes a great deal to the works of British and American social scientists and to their attempts to think public policy anew after a decade of social, economic and political reforms under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. These reforms, which were underpinned by a deep criticism and suspicion of traditional bureaucracies and favoured the market to improve accountability and efficiency in public services, appeared not just to have profoundly changed British and American societies but also, less visibly, to have reshaped public policy and redrawn the contours of the state. These social scientists, whether they adhered to economic rational choice theory or sociological theories of rationality (see Mark Bevir here), called for a “decentred” approach to public policy, as Mark Lenormand puts it in his article, namely the abandonment of the study of public policy from a traditional institutionalist angle focusing on state action and established institutions in favour of one that sought to make out the new relations that united the many organizations henceforth responsible for policy making and policy implementation. While scholars belonging to the neoliberal, rational choice school elected the market and its mechanisms as the cure for the failures of the old bureaucratic state, the New Institutionalists focused on partnerships and local networks, both formal and informal, and the contribution they can make to the governance of public services.2 They envisaged governance as a complex interaction between these networks and the state, a process that includes both horizontal and vertical lines of accountability.

3What the articles gathered in this issue have in common is the use of the concept of governance as an analytical filter to examine public policy in Britain since 1997, the year New Labour came back to power, to this day. They question this many-facetted concept and confirm what R.A.W. Rhodes had explained as 1997, namely that governance is a slippery notion that lends itself to many interpretations (six in the original book by R.A.W. Rhodes, two according to Mark Bevir or Antonino Palumbo here), ranging from the minimalist neoliberal state to joined-up-government through the regulatory state and the networked polity.

4Taken together, they demonstrate that there is no such thing as a British model of public policy governance and that a “one size fits all” model of governance for all the different areas under scrutiny has not emerged since 1997. Governance, it appears, is still very much in a state of flux. The degree of participation of the private sector and civil society in the policy making process as well as the purported hollowing out of the state vary markedly depending on the public policy area examined, as do the structures favoured to deliver policy (partnerships, markets…). Finally, not all areas have been impacted by reforms in the same way since 1997, according to the same principles or to the same degree.

5All the articles bear out the on-going – if not increasing – tendency by governments since 1997 to outsource services to the private and voluntary sectors. Overall, the sharp increase in the role and place given to these sectors in the fields of service provision and management has taken place at the expense of traditional public sector bodies (as argued by Karine Bihet). However, in most sectors the decline of the traditional unitary model does not mean that the state has given up all its power and has been hollowed out (as shown by Lucie de Carvalho and Thibaud Harrois). It clearly relinquishes power when it chooses to, in a non linear way, and still wields power through regulation and the control of financial resources. Steering by the state therefore remains very much the order of the day. Conversely, market-based mechanisms are still the favoured mode of service delivery while quantified targets are still used to guarantee minimum standards and verify output (see Louise Dallingwater here). Since 2010, the renewed emphasis on efficiency and cost-cutting in a context of imposed, top-down budgetary constraints also raises continuing and unresolved issues regarding the quality of the services provided, staff engagement and morale and the policy implementation gap.

6Clearly, the traditional Westminster Model is no longer alive and can no longer account for the way Britain is governed today. Britons live in a multi-level polity where the EU exercises increasing influence over policy-making. Yet a crucial issue is the continuing tension between centralisation (of overall policy-making and budgetary control) and fragmentation (of service delivery). This tension – and its consequences in terms of actual transfer of power and accountability – raises issues of legitimacy and democratic representativeness. The accountability mechanisms of the regulatory state – mainly markets, the principle of consumer choice and centrally-set targets – may have increased rather than decreased the “democratic deficit” of public services, while the focus on networks and accountability to the non-elected, non-majoritarian institutions of the new governance model has not resolved the issue either (as argued by Mark Bevir). So far, the state has responded to the challenge of the “democratic deficit” by retaining its steering capacity, defining minimum standards and multiplying user surveys, therefore remaining in the realm of the regulatory state paradigm. Yet all the articles point out – directly or indirectly – that this is not an adequate response to the thorny issue of how to ensure social justice as far as the definition, scope and delivery of public services are concerned (see Mark Bevir and Antonino Palumbo here). It would seem that a move from present forms of governance towards a new, more representative polity, that would involve citizens at all stages of the policy-making process, and that would make service providers more directly accountable to them, is a highly desirable goal, though its precise contours and means of implementation remain to be defined. Further research on these issues would clearly be useful for policy makers and the civil society at large.

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1 Rhodes, R. A. W., Understanding governance: policy networks, governance, reflexivity, and accountability. Buckingham Philadelphia, Open University Press, 1997.

2 Bevir, Mark & Rhodes, R.A.W., Interpreting British Governance, London, Routledge, 2003; Stoker, Gerry, ‘Governance as Theory: Five Propositions’, International Social Science Journal, 1998, 50.

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David Fée et Anémone Kober-Smith, « Conclusion », Observatoire de la société britannique, 16 | 2014, 143-145.

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David Fée et Anémone Kober-Smith, « Conclusion », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 16 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1753

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David Fée

Professeur à l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3

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Anémone Kober-Smith

Professeur à l'Université Paris 13

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