During the last 15 years, there has been a persistent erosion of the perceived effectiveness of the public sector. Leaders across the political spectrum have put forth bold plans and initiatives that have failed in their execution, and have mismanaged challenges as varied as financial crises, natural disasters, and accusations of their own internal corruption. When a government initiative collapses, there is always someone available to blame. But what if the source of these failures is the nature of government itself, not the individuals who lead it? What if there has been a mostly unacknowledged, tsunami-scale shift in the context in which government operates — so that it takes a very different kind of public-sector organization to succeed than it did in the past? And what if most leaders have not yet come to terms with this new reality?
That’s the thesis put forward by Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. In her 2004 book, A New World Order (Princeton University Press), Slaughter suggests that the most effective public-sector initiatives, particularly on the international scale, are those that take place quietly through networks of professionals working on common problems. And in her new book, The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (Perseus, 2007), she argues that if governments can use networks to become more responsive, collaborative, and flexible, they will more closely embody the ideas and principles that fostered modern democracy in the first place.
Transgovernmental networks typically emerge in response to global challenges. For example, government officials of what is now the Group of Eight (G8) nations (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, Canada, and Russia) began to meet informally in the 1970s in response to that era’s oil price crisis. Although they never established a formal administrative structure, the G8’s network of finance ministers is now one of the primary groups that make decisions about international debt relief. In A New World Order, Slaughter cites many other such networks: financial regulators seeking to freeze terrorist assets; law enforcement officials sharing information on criminal suspects; environmental agency officials coordinating regulations; judges exchanging decisions on the Internet; and legislators reaching out to one another on such issues as the death penalty and human rights.
Some of these networks are increasingly well known, including the Group of Twenty (G-20), which was set up in response to the Asian financial crises of the late 1990s; the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO); and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an international network for enforcement of weapons bans. Other networks are so informal that they don’t even have names, let alone structures. These new networks will not, in themselves, solve the problems of government today. But just as corporate leaders have moved from rigid, top-down hierarchies to more flexible structures that take better advantage of the capabilities of employees and better reflect the realities of the hyperconnected world, government is also under pressure to change.
Slaughter’s insights provide a starting point for not just understanding those changes intellectually, but also feeling our way to the kinds of changes we need to make in ourselves, whether we are young professionals beginning careers, veteran government agency staff members, or business leaders seeking roles in the larger sphere.
This view of networks will remind some readers of Joseph Nye’s theory of “soft power” or Francis Fukuyama’s writing on the political importance of trust. (Both Nye and Fukuyama were active members of the recently concluded Princeton Project on National Security, which Slaughter codirected.) It also resonates with a concept familiar to readers of strategy+business: the design of “megacommunities” as meeting grounds for multilateral action by public, private, and civil organizations. (See “When There Is No Cavalry,” by Douglas Himberger, David Sulek, and Stephen Krill Jr., Autumn 2007.)