Open access peer-reviewed chapter

The New Institutional Approach as a Lens on Local Network Leadership

Written By

Anna Uster

Submitted: 26 September 2021 Reviewed: 13 December 2021 Published: 21 March 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.101988

From the Edited Volume

Leadership in a Changing World - A Multidimensional Perspective

Edited by Muhammad Mohiuddin, Bilal Khalid, Md. Samim Al Azad and Slimane Ed-dafali

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This chapter derives from an overview of key research findings and core concepts on network leadership, focusing on leading purpose-oriented networks. These are increasingly viewed as prominent modes of local service delivery as local government transitions to “local governance” and where local government mostly follows a lead organization format. The literature encompassing local leadership emphasizes the context of structures and processes for any leader’s action. This chapter treats the importance of the institutional factors in the era of local network governance, using the New Institutional approach, focusing especially on discursive institutionalism, together with and network governance theory. As public managers are increasingly relying on inter-organizational networks providing public services, the manner they lead them is of great importance. The following chapter presents vital factors that may assist their effective leadership in an era of local network governance.


  • local networks
  • network leadership
  • new institutionalism
  • purpose-oriented networks
  • local government

1. Introduction

The past three decades have witnessed changes in the structure, function, and leadership modes of public organizations, both at the local and national levels. These changes are captured in the literature by the Post New Public Governance (NPG) approach [1], a holistic view of government in which citizens and non-governmental actors become partners in the public management process [2, 3, 4]. “Focus on governance involves the use of institutions and structures of authority and collaboration to allocate resources and to coordinate and control joint action across the network as a whole” [5]. The literature describes these changes using various terms, such as collaborative governance, collaborative leadership and management, new public governance, co-governance, and meta-governance [1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13]. Ansell and Gash [9] define governance as both the structure of “laws and rules that pertain to the provision of public goods” and as the process of “collective decision making that includes both public and private actors” (p. 545). The move toward a collaborative mode of governance derives from the phenomenon known as the hollow state, “…a metaphor for the increasing use of third parties, often non-profits, to deliver social services and generally act in the name of the state” ([14], p. 360).

At the local level, this condition occurs due to the lack of local government (LG) capacity to provide multiple services to meet the needs and demands of the citizenry. Consequently, local government is growing increasingly conscious of the potential of working as a collaborative network to provide these services in the municipal arena [15, 16]. Collaboration enables external organizations such as non-profits, non-local public, private organizations, and citizens to share knowledge and experience to initiate novel solutions to different social, educational, and environmental wicked problems [17, 18].

Local authorities now employ network modes of governance to include people and organizations which play a greater role in the provision of local services, generally organized as a purpose-oriented network, defined as “a network comprised of three or more autonomous actors who participate in a joint effort based on a common purpose” ([19], p. 210). Berthod and Segato [20] and Lemaire et al. [21] proposed the term “purpose-oriented” networks to extend the well-known term of art “goal-directed networks”. According to this line of research goal-directed refers to network members who have identified and agreed on a set of goals that guide the work of the network, which is not necessarily reality-based [22]. “Purpose-oriented networks’ (PONs) highlight the collective purpose that is “translated into actionable goals whose achievement can be monitored” (Carboni et al., p. 15), thus encompassing the complex reciprocity between the network members as well as the environment in which they operate. Such networks are understood to solve the wicked problems which characterize service delivery in local authorities.

The idea underpinning PON’s is that by combining actors’ differing capabilities, skills, and resources the network’s outcomes will be improved [23]. In the local arena, these networks are generally headed by one lead organization, e.g., the local authority, which selects the other network partners, while coordinating decisions and activities [5]. This organization usually possesses sufficient resources and legitimacy to lead together with the capacity to take on most of the responsibilities of running and coordinating the network’s activities. Given local policy makers’ increasing reliance on networks to achieve the provision of public goods and services, leadership constitutes a paramount challenge facing contemporary local governance. Thus, changes in leadership style and form are required [24, 25], and these, in turn, affect the establishment and coordination of these networks [26].


2. Major challenges to local leadership in era of purpose-oriented networks

Synchronizing collaboration activity and enhancing informational flow presents a primary challenge, due to the multiplicity of opinions and interests of the various network actors [27, 28]. Moreover, even with a strong lead-organization, network organizations are dynamic, not static [29, 30], often including and excluding certain actors or adapting to changing needs by altering the form of network governance [5]. Networks create numerous managerial dilemmas by diminishing the lead actor’s degree of control over adherence to public policy. Monitoring and coordinating public policy implementation, for example, while at the same time permitting autonomy to network actors concerning the delivery of the public service requires constant attention [1, 10, 31, 32, 33]. There is always a risk of poor coordination and of defection by one or more partners [34]. Furthermore, in certain cases, an action can increase conflict and create tension in a network. These tensions might lead to misunderstanding and a reluctance to engage with the lead organization in the future [35]. Different cultural characteristics may cause friction, diminishing a commitment from different management levels: the internal world of the organization employing the participants and the external world of the network in which their organization is involved [36]. Cultural tensions may include different approaches to decision-making, levels of professionalism, and methods of providing service. When individual parties within the network expect different outcomes from the collaboration because of different norms or have different ways of communicating cultural friction is almost inevitable. In sum, these tensions create coordination fatigue, with the result that the coordination of network activities requires considerable time and effort. In addition, unequal distribution of power between network members can create cases in which powerful stakeholders influence network decision-making to favor certain interests, resulting in harm to the public interest and potential corruption [37]. Naturally, these types of tensions may impair the local network’s ability to produce high-quality local services and perform effectively.

Therefore, leading autonomous organizations, not directly subject to local authorities, raise questions about accountability, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to shape, implement, and monitor local policies reducing the quality of local services [38]. To overcome these tensions and affect the overall local network, network leaders should possess the capacity to make decisions and mobilize the resources required to implement their policies [39]. As a result, considerable effort has been taken in the public administration literature on this issue, focusing on diverse coordinative, facilitative, and mobilizing leadership skills and behaviors required for effective local network leadership [28, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48]. The main thrust of this research holds that lead organization managerial and leadership behaviors exerted by the local authority with the aim of enhancing network collaboration may help minimize the mentioned these above-mentioned risks, thus adapting to complex and dynamic environments [49].

However, while most literature draws attention to leadership skills, less attention has been paid to the characteristics of the specific local context as a crucial factor. Local government literature thus calls for a new local leadership style concentrating more on agenda-setting and network brokering in creating a vision, but less focused on policy implementation [50, 51]. This entrepreneurial model concentrates on context to mobilize and attract resources, generating new policies which establish collaborative networks with other governmental or non-governmental actors [25, 52, 53, 54].

Consideration of context is important because local leaders do not act in a homogeneous local environment and because various features distinguish local authorities from each other. Local government does not operate in a vacuum; it is embedded in the external political the environment within the local context [55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61]. This situation is quite evident in the local contexts where, in addition to structural characteristics, there is a cultural difference in the local authority. Together these factors shape the leadership environment influencing the leaders and their ability to govern [25].


3. The new-institutional approach to local leadership: discursive and sociological and environmental factors

“Political institutions do not determine the behavior of political actors, but provide the framework of understandings within which actors identify, compare and select courses of action.” Lowndes and Leach ([59], p. 560).

The new-institutional perspective’s premise is that to understand the causes and consequences of different forms of leadership we should consider whether the institution has constraining or enabling effects on the leadership behavior (in terms of formal and informal rules), and judge their level of effectiveness as well as the extent of their activity [50, 62]. Accordingly, different leaders respond differently to the same situation, depending on their environment. This environment includes structural factors, such as legislative rules and regulations, intra- and inter-organizational interactions. Thus, leaders behave contingent upon the locality’s context including local authority size, socio-economic status, central-local relationship as well as leaders’ structural position in various networks [53, 55].

Further, cultural identity and norms are important factors influencing a leader’s ability to govern. This captures the new-sociological institutionalism which has become particularly important in research on norms and legitimacy, focusing on an understanding of the importance of how and why norms, formal rules and culture in institutions [63, 64, 65] to shape their leaders’ actions of the leaders.

Parallel to this stream of new institutionalism, a discursive perspective on leadership arises. Discursive institutionalism emphasizes the role of ideas and discourse to dynamic reality. Discourse is considered the interactive process of conveying ideas. Therefore, discourse does not only consist of ideas or what is said but includes the context in which we map why and by whom a particular message is delivered. Applying the two forms of discourse (coordinative and communicative discourse) to leadership research enables us to argue that the first form, coordinative discourse, refers to the communication among the network actors themselves, focusing on central actors’ coordinative ability to lead the networks. The latter term refers to communicative discourse, that is, the communication and messages delivered from network actors and their leaders to the external stakeholders.


4. Discursive factors in network leadership research

“This shift in governance structure often necessitates that public managers not only lead the agency in which they are employed, but also work within, and often lead, a network. These two different contexts in which public managers operate require different managerial and leadership approaches” [66].

Scholars propose that leadership in the network governance era be characterized by certain specific skills and behaviors. Network management and network leadership study mostly emphasize the importance of facilitation behaviors, which increase cooperation and coordination between network members and thus change both the network’s rules and structure [9, 67, 68, 69, 70]. Most studies focus on leadership skills as facilitating [48], framing and synthesizing [45], and bridging [43], and these capture the idea of coordinative discourse within the network. For example, Agranoff and McGuire [45] grouped network leadership behaviors into four categories based on their operational differences: activation, framing, mobilization, and synthesizing. Framing involves behaviors designed to establish work rules. Examples include ensuring individual roles are understood by all network members, asking network members to follow standard rules and regulations, and sharing the leadership role. Synthesizing regards behaviors promoting productive interactions among network participants by looking out for the personal welfare of network members, fostering trust, brainstorming, encouraging network members to use their own judgment in solving problems, and setting expectations for network members. Williams [71] noted several necessary leadership behaviors which promote communication inside the network: understanding of and empathy with the partners, trust-building, developing sustainable interpersonal relationships, and communication aimed at establishing shared meanings and resolving conflicts. Bass [72] defined such behaviors as structuring work relationships utilizing encouragement and rewards on one hand and sanctions on the other.

The literature on collaborative leadership distinguishes between three facilitating roles of collaborative leaders: that of convener (or steward), mediator, and catalyst [73]. Conveners facilitate and safeguard collaboration while maintaining project integrity. Mediators facilitate collaboration by managing conflict and arbitrating exchange between stakeholders. Catalyzers facilitate, help identify and realize value-creating opportunities. According to Ansell and Gash [73], “facilitative leadership will typically require leaders to play all three of these roles” (18–19). Piatak, Romzek, LeRoux, and Johnston [74] examined the management of goal conflicts in public service delivery networks and found that the lead organization should play the dual role of both network manager and member. Their data suggested that network managers should exert formal, vertical authority, combining it with informal, horizontal interactions which build goal consensus, thus relieving goal conflict. They also underscore the important use of rewards and sanctions when leading successful networks [75].

Provan and Kenis [5] proposed three modes of network governance which capture discursive coordinative communication in institutions: the network leader, or Participant-Governed Networks (participatory and internal coordination); Lead Organization-Governed Networks, featuring centralized and internal coordination, and; Network Administrative Organizations, emphasizing centralized and external coordination. In Participant-Governed Networks, for example, control and reflexive coordination of activities occur through direct collaboration in participatory decision-making. By contrast, coordination in Lead Organization-Governed Networks one central leader coordinates, often drawing its power from resource dependencies or other types of obligation. The final mode, Network Administrative Organizations (NAO) is coordinated via a separate, neutral administrative body, acting as a central broker for the activities of the entire network and bridging between diverse actors Berthod et al. [76].

Coordinative and communicative discourse is well-manifested in the literature on internal and external legitimacy. Leading the networks requires maintaining both two types of legitimacies [44]. The former, the internal legitimacy of the network, is concentrated on the communication inside the network, developing trust-based ties between members, resolving conflicts to everyone’s satisfaction, and building communication mechanisms emphasizing the leader’s coordinative and facilitative ability.

By contrast, building external legitimacy consists of seeking new members, promoting the network and its activities to outsiders, and mobilizing outside resources to achieve network goals matching the activating, mobilizing, and abilities of the leadership [43, 45]. These capture in communicative form the “discourse” in discursive institutionalism.

Reviewing the literature we may conclude that a network leader should invest the effort to develop both forms of discourse: promoting the coordinative abilities inside the network and communicative abilities from the network outward toward external actors and the environment.


5. Environmental factors in network leadership research: the local authority context

Contexts are the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood ([77], p. 75).

As network collaborations are embedded in a specific context their functioning is logically dependent on that context [11, 75]. More specifically, an effective local network in one context may not be successful in another, even when they have a similar purpose [78].

Virtanen [79] distinguished between two types of scientific knowledge in the context of public administration: conceptual and factual. The former relates to frameworks and theories through which certain phenomena in public administration are explained. The latter maintains that public administration is part of social reality and refers to such factors as actor and place, sector, culture, and institution. Public administration scholars study various contexts according to the research topic. For example, context is prominent where institutional embeddedness, environment, background, and settings are concerned [80, 81, 82], or administrative tradition and government capacity [83], and the network characteristics of decision-making [84]. In team leadership studies, context plays an important role in the relationship between shared leadership and performance [85, 86, 87].

Public administration scholars note that structures and processes define the context in which leaders act [88]. According to Provan and Milward’s [89] networks framework any change in the network’s environment originating outside, such as financial stability, challenges the network’s overall effectiveness [89, 90, 91]. Researchers have established that an integrated structure through network centralization and direct mechanisms of external control has a positive effect on network effectiveness. However, these relationships are moderated by contextual conditions, such as stability and the availability of abundant resources.

According to the contingency approach, the tasks and goals of collaborations affect a leader’s ability to collaborate successfully and promote collaborative innovation. For example, in their research on workforce development, Ansell and Gash [9] identified four contextual conditions influencing the efficacy of a collaboration leader: (1) access to resources; (2) the strength of the relationships with current and potential partners; (3) regional, state and local governance and service delivery infrastructures, and; (4) historical perceptions of workforce development shared by industry and economic development stakeholders. They found that local autonomy and conditions for economic competitiveness were the most important contextual characteristics for leading successful collaborations.

Contextual factors may include environmental complexities under government regulation, legal constraints, or a combination of organizational culture, norms, and management practices [92]. Local government studies bestow great importance to community characteristics in context [93, 94, 95, 96]. In fact, research has shown that a community’s socio-economic status affects the local leader’s capacity to govern [97], and studies have supported the argument that local efficiency is positively related to the level of education in the community; more educated residents tend to select more capable leaders and have a better understanding of the issues on which they vote [47, 93, 94], tend to be actively involved in local affairs [98] and press the leaders for more accountability and have better evaluative tools to cause the standard of service to conform to their expectations [99].

In his comparative project on local political leadership in Europe, Steyvers [55] focused on mayoral business orientation as an aspect of external networking to show that institutional form affects leadership behaviors while being highly contingent upon leadership context. The indicators of leadership context include the municipalities’ size and institutional position of municipalities in the intergovernmental arena.

Further, the cultural context of the community where the network operates can be crucial for leading effective networks [100, 101, 102]. More broadly, Klijn et al. [84] found that effective meso- (changes in the relationship between network organizations) and micro-level characteristics of network management (the level of decision-making and implementation) highly depend on the cultural context. Uster Beeri and Vashdi [103] continue this line of thought, focusing on the importance of such contextual issues as socio-economic status and ethnicity in a local authority to the relationship between network leadership and effectiveness. They found that the manner in which the local authority leads the local network derives from network structure, which in turn impinges on effectiveness. A sample of 586 participants from 68 networks indicated that this association is contingent on the politico-cultural characteristics of the local authority and its socio-economic status in which the network exists.

In general, local government research points to the differences in local authorities based on their size, economic stability, and type of population [25, 59, 94, 104]. Local authorities differ enormously in their structural, political, cultural, and socio-economic indicators, not just cross-nationally, but also within a specific country, and these factors influence local leaders’ ability to govern [61, 95, 105, 106]. In sum, both the local political and cultural systems and the intergovernmental context within which the local networks are situated are crucial explanatory factors for local leaders` behaviors.


6. Structural factors: a leader’s position in the network

Mouritzen and Svara [53] classified legislative-executive relations in terms of a combination of factors encompassing the acquisition and maintenance of the leadership position, the degree of control leaders has over appointment responsibilities, and the integration of leadership functions in the institutional position.

Some studies propose that leaders in a central position (when network is integrated through a central organization, and all members connect to a principal actor) better coordinate with other organizations to achieve network goals [107], using this central position to prevent free-riders while monitoring and controlling other network members [89, 107]. Further, they have an advantage over decentralized systems (with their multiplicity of players and linkages) in their ability to facilitate both integration and coordination [89, 108]. This is crucial to local purpose-oriented networks, which require better coordinative skills to achieve the network-level goal. Additionally, leaders holding central positions may more efficiently promote systems and integrate services [89] through an organized exchange of information and the coordination of collective action [109, 110].

The “brokerage” is still another structural position that could be a crucial factor for a network leader. While the leader may play a role of a broker, connecting disparate groups, he or she can more easily identify opportunities for creating new knowledge or products [111, 112], thus facilitating communication among diverse actors [113]. The position of broker plays a substantial and influential role in leadership ability, enabling governance by controlling access to resources and information across differing set of actors [114, 115, 116, 117, 118] while reducing the costs of interlocal cooperation [119]. According to Paquin and Howard-Grenville [120], brokers influence the network by “developing common goals, spurring actor interest and engagement, and/or defining norms of action” (p. 1625).

More recent conceptualizations of brokerage regard this role not as a mediator between two actors, but as a function that improves the quality of the relationship between these actors [121]. For example, leaders holding a brokerage role tend to resolve conflicts between organizations better, increase the network’s social capital, and find resources to support collaboration [122]. Thus, the brokerage position enables leaders to act as a catalyst enhancing cooperation that builds and sustains connections in the network.

Therefore, an organization’s position in a network is essential to affecting its ability to lead effectively, enhancing its cooperative and coordinative skills.


7. Conclusions

This chapter aimed at providing an overview of current thinking on network leadership and related factors affecting local governance. The study focused on the leadership of local purpose-oriented service delivery networks, as these are prevalent in the local arena. To reiterate, the leadership of inter-organizational networks is concerns more than organizational leadership [123]. Such leadership requires organizational ability to achieve goals through collaboration with other organizations, and as a result, challenges emerge and evolve, necessitating the autonomous organization to be reconstituted in network form. The question then arises: How can local leaders administer networks so as to provide improved local services? The literature as reviewed above proposes many factors which affect the ability to lead those networks. The focus here has drawn on the New Institutional lens which encompasses the whole cycle of factors unique to local government and considered relevant to local leaders’ ability to administer the networks. By combining the literature on network leadership in public administration with local governance the chapter offered insights on the structural, discursive, and environmental factors affecting a local lead organization’s ability to run the networks.

These factors include the local lead organization’s coordinative skills with the network itself. Such communicative abilities act as a bridge between the network and external stakeholders, thus enhancing its external legitimacy. Further, certain structural factors regarding a lead organization’s position in a network were shown to be essential in leading the network. Finally, examining network leadership in the local arena, attention was directed to local environmental factors. These environmental factors refer to locality characteristics such as the intergovernmental context, political, cultural features of the specific municipality in which the network runs, alongside its size and socio-economic status of its community, and are crucial for the local lead organization. Future research might examine the combination of the factors discussed here in the context of conditions under which local lead organizations could bring about better functioning of local networks.


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Written By

Anna Uster

Submitted: 26 September 2021 Reviewed: 13 December 2021 Published: 21 March 2022