If a city can be regarded as an enterprise in itself, then it might be a good idea to take a more network-based approach to local government so as to foster innovation.

Networking is key to innovation in public institutions

In the business world, the effectiveness of networks has been amply demonstrated – whether we are talking about people development or improving the way companies work. So perhaps the smart city should be applying the same logic in order to drive innovation and collaboration.

This is certainly the view of Christophe Assens, Associate Professor of Management Sciences and Deputy Director of the  ‘Laboratoire de recherche en management’  (Management Research Laboratory) at the University of Versailles St Quentin-en-Yvelines. He is the compiling editor of a book entitled Les réseaux de service public - Menace ou opportunité pour l’action publique? (‘Public service networks – threat or opportunity for public action?’), published (in French only) by the EHESP press. L’Atelier interviewed Professor Assens on the subject.

L’Atelier: How would you define a network today, and how could this approach be applied in the public authority field?

Christophe Assens: This is a very hot topic, especially as regards the online social networks. A network should be regarded as a collaborative setup based on trust. So whenever you need to engage in collaboration beyond the traditional institutional framework and you also need to forge a relationship of trust to make that collaboration work, we could say that here we’re talking about a network.

The problem for public bodies is that they are usually hierarchical and bureaucratic. So it’s sometimes necessary to find a way around bureaucratic delays by working as a network between one section and another, between one department and another, one local authority and another, or one civil service group and another.

Can we also see this as a way of promoting innovation within this kind of body?

Well, nowadays innovation is a major goal at both national and international level. Today we’re well aware that we won’t be able to create new sources of wealth unless we innovate. And it’s just as true for local authorities as commercial companies that you can only innovate by working in network mode, i.e. by opening up to others, forging relationships of trust and so fostering new things. If you stay closed off within your own institution, within your department, with your old certainties and procedures, you won’t be capable of innovating for your citizens or – in a company – for your customers.

However, a network can also act as a sort of bulwark against institutional change. Within local authorities, ‘corporatist’ attitudes are widespread – civil servants hiding behind an ‘officer corps’ mentality and exploiting every situation to their own advantage. In such cases a network can be used to exert influence, to lobby, to justify corporatist interests.

This can be a real threat because it prevents local authorities from acting in the public’s best interests. On the other hand, where more hybrid, more diverse networks exist, involving different echelons of civil servants, or civil servants plus people from civil society and private sector players, you can come up with some very useful innovative solutions for modernising local authority structures and improving services for citizens.

What role can the citizen play in this kind of network?

Well, I believe it’s becoming ever more important to take into account what citizens want. Citizens must be brought into the local authority value chain. The authorities need to listen, to ask people for their views and work together with them. On the other hand, we mustn’t fall into a situation where some citizens dictate policy in a way that overrides the general interest and supersedes the political process based on elections. We need to find the right balance.

I feel that the online social networks exert too great a pressure when it comes to political communication. However, I think that it would be very much in the interests of local authorities to get closer to their residents and try to understand what is and is not relevant, rather than shutting themselves away in offices, far from everyday reality.

Do you have any concrete examples of positive initiatives fostering networking between public bodies and citizens?

I have one good example of participatory democracy. A few years ago the mayor of the town of Partenay [western France] set out to involve all the local residents in the political decision-making process by creating a direct link between himself and the townspeople, without going through the traditional channels. This kind of networking helped to, for example, create a number of non-profit organisations in a town that had been somewhat left out in the cold by the main regional bodies.

The flipside of the coin was that after short-cutting the traditional channels, the mayor failed to get himself re-elected because he had lost part of his political base. So what was gained on the social front was lost in the political arena. Something that’s positive from one angle may perhaps not be from another. So I think any model for society in the future will need to make the horizontal and the vertical work together – i.e. political power together with economic power and social reality. 

Listen to the podcast  interview (in French only) with Christophe Assens on L'Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital)

By Aurore Geraud
Senior Editor & Analyst