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October 11, 2009 / Tom Hill

Governance: Formal vs Informal Systems. Really?

Street gangI’ve been catching up with one of my favourite journals, Conflict, Security and Development. I’ve been meaning to post some summaries of a few of the most interesting articles of recent months. Before that, however, here is an aspect of one article that I want to pounce on.

Robert Egnell and Peter Haldén have an excellent article on Security Sector Reform (SSR) and the implications of state theory, entitled “Laudable, ahistorical and overambitious: security sector reform meets state formation theory”, CSD, Vol. 9, No. 1. It’s a first-class analysis that I’ve found highly thought provoking. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in SSR or post-conflict reconstruction/governance issues in general.

However, on p.44/45 they go into some of the failings of SSR in Sierra Leone and the stagnation in governance and economic development there. They explain how part of the problem is that the state is bypassed by a “complex web of informal networks”. As a result, the state cannot occupy any kind of central position in the running of society and governance in general:

“In such networks ‘big men’ distribute resources, organise their followers in collective endeavours and co-ordinate communication … Clearly, these networks offer ways for individuals and groups to gain their livelihoods and, although to strikingly different degrees, security, power and wealth. These structures are not clans or tribes – which would be tantamount to ‘organisations’ – they are unofficial networks that encompass organisations and actors such as secret societies, businessmen, chiefs, the military, warlords etc. They are tied together by key persons, called ‘big men’ which means that the channels and vehicles of power are not bounded, permanent nor grounded in territory or other kinds of fixed membership. Indeed it has been pointed out how ‘fluctuating’, ‘changing’, ‘intangible’ and ‘fluid’ these highly important networks are. Hence this fluid situation is one in which ‘exit’ from one network to another is normal, in a similar way that a consumer may shift between purveyors of goods or providers of services, depending on which network is best at satisfying one’s political needs.”

In my past life I was a civil servant in the UK’s MoD. Anyone who’s spent time as a civil servant will find that even in such a centuries-old, formal state structure, the real business, the major leaps, the initiatives almost all really get done through (or as a result of) informal networks. These networks are unnamed, often fleeting, sometimes momentary and always “fluctuating, changing, intangible and fluid”. Informal coalitions, strong “big men” personalities always emerge to shape how things get done within the formal, official structure of the civil service. In my view, the official structure is really a veneer of officialdom in which we take comfort, but beneath that it really comes down to the individuals and their relationships with each other, which are by necessity informally based.

I understand that informal networks that are illicit and clandestine, and hence often serve highly unpleasant purposes, are of course different to the informal networks within formal state structures that I am describing. But the point I am ambling towards is that getting things done through informal networks is not itself a bad thing per se. In fact, it’s very rare for any of us to use systems that aren’t based on informal relations in some way (the exceptions perhaps are things like police arrest and court procedures, but those are pretty stark procedures compared to most of the activities that day-to-day governance relies upon).

I would say that in even the most developed states, most government and non-government business gets done through the same “complex web of informal networks” that Egnell and Haldén descibe. It’s just how humans work. An organisation (whether a business, university faculty or government department) may have a formal diagram indicating the structure and mechanisms it professes to run upon, but at the end of the day it’s the personalities and the relationships between individuals that decides how things get done. The formal structure doesn’t really do anything itself other than acting as a diagrammatic approximation of the informal network, which will itself be of variable accuracy.

Informal networks aren’t bad, they’re fundamental, and can actually form the basis of some of the best of social initiatives (for a conflict resolution example think of the Anbar Awakening, but I’m also talking of even the most banal internal UK government initiatives). Instead of formal vs informal, the real difference between good and bad governance is the accountability, oversight and intervention mechanisms for protecting people and public interests. It’s these latter factors, not formality or informality, that is key to the result I feel.


One Comment

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  1. Phil Ridderhof / Oct 13 2009 20:30

    While we all recognize and work with informal networks, I think we underestimate how important formal structure is in our western society. We talk of “rule of law” and written law provides the structure we work within.

    While I haven’t read it, I agree with the thrust of the article you summarize in this post. Our informal networks are still built around structure that we all understand is the basis for authority. In fact, informal networks, depending upon how they work, can be illegal. We normally use informal networks to grease the skids–to make the formal network work better, or at least to our advantage.

    In other societies, I think that the informal networks are the “rule” and basis. We see government bureacracies constantly change because they need to be shaped to fit the current personalities–the informal power network that is in place on a relatively temporary basis.

    I saw this in Iraq where all Coalition attempts to create accountable Iraqi bureacracies that also supported the “non-sectarian” agenda we were pushing, were subverted by the Iraqi leadership shaping new bureacracies that bypassed the formal structures and supported specific political agendas. As fast as we would try and get them to adapt these new formal-faced structures into something permanant and less amenable to personal political meddling, the Iraqis would change again.

    In a sense, our western formal networks, when they work, require constant attention and are subject to constant friction. The whole structure is in a continual state of low-level chaos because it is based on the weaker link of loyalty to postion/billet vice loyalty to a person. The informal structures reduce this chaos by establishing stronger ties between actors–its the relationships between the personalities that count, not the formally defined relationships between the offices they hold. However, the informal network is more susceptable to massive turmoil as those personalities change.

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