Democracy and Hybrid Governance in Australia


Hume Dam, a major dam across the Murray River.


How adaptable is democracy? Australia, like many other advanced democracies, is experiencing a range of pressures on its democratic system. Globalisation continues to change the way we experience market economies. It increases our interdependence with other countries and international institutions, while limiting the primacy of the nation-state over economic policy and decisions, encouraging us to experience public services as consumers first and citizens second.

The breakdown of traditional divisions between public and private spheres places new demands on democratic governance but also creates new opportunities for policy design and service delivery. In response governments have created hybrid institutions, drawing private sector bodies with citizens and communities into bespoke institutional structures. In this they blend diverse resources to offer the greatest chance of achieving common goals that they otherwise could not.

These hybrid arrangements are now in evidence across the policy spectrum and their development shows no sign of abating. Indeed Colin Crouch argues that hybrid governance is the norm rather than the exception in advanced capitalist economies as institutional entrepreneurs use their agency to adapt structures to fit for contemporary purposes. For some these hybrid forms are an example of democracy’s adaptability to changing circumstances but for others their development presents democrats with difficult challenges, attendant risks and unexpected consequences.

What is hybrid governance and what does it look like in Australia?

In a recent study colleagues and I described hybrid governance as structural arrangements that:

involve the interpenetration of different spheres of activity— government, business, civil society, not-for-profits … [in] parastatal organisations such as public-private partnerships, collaborative management, and governance or policy networks.

This definition allows for the fact that hybrid governance is not a singular status and form. There is variation in structure and in the degree to which different state and non-state actors are present and powerful in different hybrid arrangements. Any helpful definition or categorisation needs to include the core characteristics of hybrid governance and embrace structural and agentic elements.

Australian governments at state and federal levels have been enthusiastic supporters of hybrid governance, with at least four distinct but overlapping forms dominating the public policy space: public-private partnerships, shared stakeholder governance, service coordination and innovation, and community partnerships.

Public-private partnership (PPP) is one of the most common forms of hybrid governance that governments make use of in trying to secure improved public outcomes in infrastructure development or public service provision. PPPs are formalised long-term arrangements between public and private actors that may make use of private finance to leverage public good, and that operate through a particular organisational form. Well-known Australian examples include the City Link road scheme in Melbourne and the Sydney road tunnels.

Shared stakeholder governance is most frequently employed in relation to policy dilemmas defying easy resolution. Often described as ‘wicked’ problems, these policy dilemmas are evident in the conflicts that surround decision-making about the appropriate management of some natural resources in Australia, particularly water, where the Murray-Darling Basin is probably the best known example. Any sustainable solution requires the active involvement of stakeholders from all sectors, public, private, community and not-for-profit, whose proximity to the basin will vary over space and time, but who each feel strongly attached to it for commercial, social, environmental or cultural reasons.

Service coordination and innovation institutions are developed in public policy areas where alleviating a condition or a problem requires action from a range of state and non-state actors over time. Community partnerships are established to address policy failure in relation to disadvantaged or marginalised communities, often after many years of conventional policy activity failing to alleviate poverty and exclusion. In Australia attempts at hybrid governance have focused on specific populations, such as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and disadvantaged neighbourhoods—exemplified in the Victorian government’s Neighbourhood Renewal Program. These partnerships can also involve non-state actors from the private and not-for-profit sectors.

Hybrid governance can be seen as complementary to democracy as it enables greater participation of expert actors in the process of policy design and delivery and greater responsiveness to end users.

What does hybrid governance mean for democracy?

Hybrid governance can be seen as complementary to democracy as it enables greater participation of expert actors in the process of policy design and delivery and greater responsiveness to end users.

In the context of a continuing decline in trust in government in Australia, these hybrid forms can offer greater representation and voice in decision-making to service users and communities as well as securing stronger accountability relationships between service providers and users.

These arguments are made most often in the context of community partnerships and service coordination and innovation hybrids. However, shared stakeholder governance can also complement representative institutions by creating a space for democratic deliberation between competing interests and expertise and supporting the development of agreed courses of action.

Hybrid governance offers a means of securing consent to and legitimacy for proposed activity while also working towards more equitable outcomes. Public-private partnerships tend to feature less often as a source of complementarity to democracy but it is possible to make the case that theoretically they are legible, albeit highly specialised institutions that may be held accountable.

Globalisation continues to challenge democracy. As it becomes increasingly difficult to govern in ways that do not take account of the global-local dynamics, so too those dynamics will be present in hybrid governance forms, whether through the operation of global firms as public service providers, or through more interconnected global and national governance arrangements. This may mean that things not previously considered as forms of hybrid governance become so.

One example is the employment services industry, which arguably exercises policy influence over national governments because of its global capacity and reach.

It is also possible that policy and practice will become further differentiated by the scale at which hybrid institutions operate, such as megaprojects with their complex legal frameworks and often opaque accountability arrangements. This may generate a particular kind of challenge to democracy, while citizen-led projects focused on ‘co-production’ offer rather different ones.


This is an essay from the democracy issue of Meanjin, Vol 74, No 3, Spring 2015.

Image: Tim J Keegan/Flickr

Professor Helen Sullivan

Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne

Published Date
September 17, 2015