Networking Policy

In January, I attended the Masters of Networks event organised by Alberto Corttica of INSITE. The event brought together policy makers and network scientists. The aim was to see whether insights about the behaviour and nature of networks could help answer policy-related questions such as, “is it possible to track a democratic conversation across different online media” and “what is the main determinant of access to public funding- a good broker or the quality of a proposal?” So, armed with questions and some datasets, we gathered. This post is my attempt to clarify my thinking on how network science can help with policy making, and consider possible next steps. Some of the other attendees, Catherine Howe and Millica Radojevic have done the same.

To harness the power of networks we really need to know more about how they work. There are many sources of information that can help us visualise networks and get a better understanding of how they work. The government’s digital strategy encourages better use of online social networks (one source of information) to improve policy development and services. But what constitutes a network? How can we determine the representativeness its membership or the insights it yields, relative to those of the wider stakeholder group? What does the information from the networks we study actually tell us? These are some of the questions that civil servants are going to have to grapple with in order to make the most of the insights from network science. Given the amorphous nature of networks this isn’t going to be easy.

A really useful tool but policymakers’ knowledge and experience remain important. Network science can support policymakers but it won’t be a silver bullet, it’ll be yet another tool in a growing toolkit. In answering the questions I mentioned above, policymakers’ knowledge is still important both for correctly defining the boundaries of the network we’re interested in and interpreting the information we get from observing its behaviour.

There are ‘feedback loops’ everywhere. The event got me thinking, yet again, about ‘feedback loops’. I’m not alone in this – Stefan Czerniawski articulates this brilliantly in his post about bus drivers and conductors. If policymakers are going to have to draw on knowledge of their policy areas knowledge in order to make the best use of network science, then I think feedback loops are going to be important.

At the same time, network science can help us identify better feedback loops as we learn more about how a given network behaves. I think this will make it even more important that policy makers directly engage in the communities associated with their policy areas in order to to better understand these communities at a network level.

Multidisciplinary teams help and we need more interaction with experts in this area. Listening to the various conversations taking place, I was struck by delegates’ differing perspectives (unsurprisingly, the split was along disciplinary lines) on the interpretation of the information the networks provided and assumptions about how network participants influence one another. For example, many policymakers expected to see ‘connectors’ within networks, something we often see in real-life communities while the network scientists were sceptical that these could be easily or consistently identified. Instead, they prioritised information about the behaviour of the network as a whole. I found it really useful to have my assumptions challenged. I think as we learn more about how we can use this new tool (network science), this sort of interaction will prove very useful. Suggestions on how best to build and maintain these relationships are very welcome.

So, where do we go from here? There’s still a lot to work out. I’m aware that I haven’t covered the issue of whether we should use information from social media networks (even though it’s published and publicly available) and if so, how we should use it. This isn’t yet a settled matter as highlighted in Anthony Zacharzewski’s post on reactions to social media monitoring by the European Parliament. How and when should we have the broader conversation on this? In the meantime does anyone think it could be an interesting experiment to visualise some policymaker networks?  I do. I also think it would be interesting to see if, and how, they intersect with those of their stakeholders. I’ve not yet thought through how we might go about doing it but if you’re interested then drop me a line.