Why don’t we trust networks to do things at scale? #ukgovcamp13 #lsis13

A picture of a traditional set opf scales with german writing
Image thanks to vividbreeze on flickr

I’ve had a bonkers busy few weeks – meeting and talking to a wide range of people and it’s helped me start thinking through a problem with networks:  they tend not to be trusted to reliably deliver solutions at any sort of scale.

Let me share how and why I’ve started looking at this (and I’m sure I’m not the first).

Catherine Howe  (her govcamp piece here) and myself were both in a session at the fabulous ukgovcamp last Saturday.  It was the end of the day and  I think (I came in late)  it was on what makes cross sector collaboration work and  convened by  Jag Goraya with a big dose of help from Saul Cozens.

A problem of scale?


The bit of the discussion that helped me went along the lines of.   “The answer to a lot of public sector problems do sit in developing healthy networks and developing and encouraging the cultures which help networks thrive.  Do that and  people tend to do what makes sense, rather than what is prescribed.”  I was trying to understand why achieving this is so difficult and suggested that it was a problem with scale, something along the lines of…

  1. Large budgets and large problems tend to lead to large things being created and commissioned.
  2. These have a direction of their own and – on the whole – need to be seen to succeed.
  3. Networked activity is different – it is often lots of small activity with little or modest innovation – that doesn’t appear to be capable of delivering at scale.
  4. So large organsiation charged with sorting large problems are loathe to trust to a networked approach.

In truth I think networks can deliver at scale.  A city is such a thing, the families that make up a community likewise. The benefit for using networked approaches for sorting big problems is we don’t need to invest everything in one large solution then persuade ourselves it has worked.

Dollops and cock up


Instead we need to learn how to recognise the pattern of networked progress:  plenty  of success, a good dollop  of treading water and a decent slice of cock-up, indifference, waste and failure.

I think way forward collectivity this will improve on social problems more steadily and in a way that people can more easily get involved with than a large scale service offer tends to do.  It’s also relates to why I’ve had problems with unrealistic expectations – that setting expectation too high leads to harming social movement – zero expectations encourage success – high expectations make even achievements look like failures.

That was the gist of where ukgovcamp  had got me to.  It was built on other things recently:

  • Listening to a conversation the week before at a conference I spoke at for the Hampshire Association of Local Council’s digital conference  (again with Catherine Howe) amongst a group of councillors from some of the larger
  • At the LSIS Governance conference in Manchester late last week I started talking to a Clerk to a Further Ed college that had been asked to improve educational attainment in a particular neighbourhood.  They wanted a steady approach that built community links, strengthened social capital and relationships and built aspiration in the community. The funders wanted rapid change – so what they are likely to buy  is intense extra activity with the students about to take their GCSE’s – one is the big and brittle – v the modest but maybe meaningful.

Capturing the subtle incremental change that comes through networks is partly why we have been working with Gateway Family services and Birmingham Settlement and Nominet Trust to develop an impact assessment app which measures and organises the modest – as well as the sometimes downright remarkable –  shift that happens in people and places.  But turning this into something that politicians and policy makers will trust to deliver is an interesting problem.

Any solutions?


Other govcamp posts:





Rowena Farr

Dave Buckster

David Bicknell

John Glover

Jonathan Flowers

Julia Chandler

Ben Procter

Ann Kempster

Dave God Briggs

Jason Cobb



  1. Kate Cooper says:

    I suspect the lack of trust is because no-one is in control of a network. All a “leader” can do is tweak things a tad, which can seem about as productive as throwing a stick into an ant hill.

    Kevin Kelly wrote “New rules for the new economy” in 1998, way back ago. It’s hard for traditional leaders to trust these rules. Let me reiterate ’em here:
    1 Embrace the swarm
    2 Increasing returns
    3 Plentitude, not scarcity
    4 Follow the free
    5 Feed the Web first
    6 Let go at the top
    7 From places to spaces
    8 No harmony, all flux
    9 Relationship tech
    10 Opportunities before efficiencies

    then he concluded with
    A thousand points of wealth

    I’d add in failure, fast failure . . .

    Now all that sounds like gook or worse, subversion + gook to most leaders.

    What we need do is propagate stories of success.

  2. Matt Daniels says:

    It’s an interesting discussion. My personal view is that most people consider a network as ineffective in most ways other than as a mechanism to share and communicate between network members – an inward environment, rather than as a collective force that can achieve outward goals as well as internal.

    This doesn’t hamper the success of a network if it truly wants to be successful, but i think another key issue of a network is that it’s inherently democratic, and trying to strike the right balance between leading and allowing all to have a voice it difficult and can, at times, lead to inertia.

    The killer issue though is that networks (relatively organic ones anyway), are traditionally built without strong capacity and resourcing which has the obvious flaw that from day one the network competes with the many and varied (and often prioritised) urgent issues and tasks of the network members primary roles/organisations. In times of high stress, high workload or difficulty it will always then be the network that suffers.

    My own view to developing an effective, efficient and successful network is to have a clear strategy that encompasses the collective aims and needs of network members (both for themselves and for the network), with established capacity and resources and ideally an effective network facilitator to keep everyone focussed on the goals of the network, and working towards achieving them.

    Without a level of driving, and of resource and capacity to continue the momentum, networks do, inevitably, sink, as would any organisation or initiative without leadership and strong strategic focus.

  3. Nick Booth says:

    Thanks for the comments both – Matt, I not sure I’m thinking about networks development per se – yes individual networks can be brittle. I’m thinking that a lot of activity across a lot of different networks can deliver change – but public services tend not to think like that.

  4. Scribe says:

    Why do we not trust markets to be equal?

    Or to be more positive about it, how can we ensure that the benefits gained from networked models propagate to those elsewhere?

    Is economic inequality fundamentally the same problem as network inequality, but with different media?

    Are we talking about outputs, products and outcomes being disseminated, or about collective, vicarious learning? Why would I care about what others have failed at?

    Why would we value our own journey of learning and development over product purchases?

    Does the network always start with the self?

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