The development of the public sector over the last couple of decades is often described in terms of a more or less linear shift from traditional public administration, via New Public Management, towards New Public Governance. Increasingly, governance scholars question this view and point to the emergence of hybrid governance arrangements, due to the mix of institutional logics (Billis, 2010; Karré, 2011; Koppenjan, 2012; Skelcher and Smith, 2014). In dealing with the complexities of current societal problems and the high demand imposed upon the delivery of public services, governments increasingly combine various governance modes, seeking to combine their strengths.

November, 09 2020   |   P.M. Karré, J.F.M. Koppenjan & C.J.A.M. Termeer

This has led to the rise of what we, together with several colleagues from around the world, have called smart hybridity in a recent volume. With this term, we denote hybrid arrangements not intended as comprehensive reforms through a grand design, but new, innovative and tailor-made governance practices that attempt to deal with complexities within an existing governance context by combining and bridging new and already existing instruments and logics. Although this may involve the intensive use of (big) data and new information technologies (like social media), smart in this context refers in the first place to combining various governance logics and modes of coordination. These new governance practices are smart because they are hybrid, hence the concept of smart hybridity. This notion implies ambitions to realize effective, efficient and legitimate governance solutions that deal with the complexities and dynamics of current society. Although smart hybridity tries to bypass the drawbacks of existing governance modes, it is not simply aimed at realizing quick fixes. Real smart hybridity aims at the realization of solutions and services that are sustainable and enhance institutional trust and the resilience of both governance structures and society as a whole.

In this short text, we focus on the following three questions concerning the notion of smart hybridity in theory and practice:

  • What characterizes new hybrid governance arrangements?
  • What are the mechanisms behind these arrangements?
  • What to make of these new hybrid governance arrangements?


What Characterizes New Hybrid Governance Arrangements?

Smart hybridity refers to governance arrangements that combine hierarchies, markets, self-governed communities and cross-boundary networks in tackling society’s wicked problems. This is done as a response to the inadequacy of these traditional forms of government—sometimes because these are simply ineffective or too expensive, sometimes because the scale of governance does not match the scale of the issues at hand, and sometimes because government is underperforming or even absent.

As different governance modes are combined, hybridity becomes an issue. That means that these combinations lead to tensions between governance modes, which can have beneficial (innovation, synergy) as well as detrimental effects (e.g. market drift, cultural clashes and accountability issues). This hybridity is also a result of sedimentation: although old governance modes make way for new ones, there is never an entirely clean break with the past (Christensen and Lægreid, 2010; Fulgsang, 2010; Streeck and Thelen, 2005; Lowdness and Roberts, 2013). For example, in the 1990s, when there was a focus on business-like government, classic core values of traditional public administration, such as equality, rule of law and democracy still applied. Today, we as citizens continue to expect the government to use its available resources well and set up its services in an efficient and effective manner, in addition to being responsive to our wishes as a society.


What Are the Mechanisms Behind the New Hybrid Governance Arrangements?

The rise of smart hybridity is driven by several societal and political developments. For example, several of the governance arrangements studied in our volume were strongly influenced by new institutional economics and thinking in terms of market instruments, as they were propagated in the 1990s under the label of New Public Management (NPM) (Hood, 1991; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2004). Other hybrid governance arrangements were especially influenced by ideas from more sociologically-oriented governance and network theories, today often labeled New Public Governance (NPG) (Osborne, 2010; Koppenjan and Koliba, 2012b; Torfing and Triantafillou). Forms of contractual governance are supplemented with relational contracting, discussion, round tables, etc., with the intention of committing parties to shared goals and collaboration. This type of governance is therefore less about realizing predefined agreements and targets and more about facilitating learning processes, discovering and realizing shared interests and dealing with shared challenges. Whereas traditional governance makes use of predefined targets and performances, this new way of working allows for a greater degree of flexibility.

The rise of smart hybridity shows a shift from coercion and control to a more enabling approach. There is also more focus on a relational, sociological and political form of governance, moving away from the rational “homo economicus”. There is a focus on public values and trust, but also on power and irrationality. At the same time, self-governance and self-organization appear to be an important common ingredient, as are collaborative techniques such as coproduction, certification, contracting and commissioning, as the contributions of Termeer and Boersma in our volume show. The governance arrangements we describe in our volume as smart hybridity strive to create room for other, non-government parties to make an optimal contribution to the coproduction of solutions and services based on self-organization.


What to Make of These New Hybrid Governance Arrangements?

Based on the case studies of smart hybridity and the reflections of colleagues from different parts of the world, our evaluation of new hybrid governance arrangements highlights three points for attention:

First, smart hybrids emerge as a more or less deliberate attempt to better deal with wicked problems that cross the boundaries of organizations, policy sectors, public-private domains and jurisdictions. These hybrids do not only combine modes of governance and instruments, but also various governance theories, contexts and cultures, and institutionalized practices. Hybrid governance thus inherently involves processes of transformative change including barriers and resistance of existing governance regimes and related power systems.

Second, the evaluation of the level of smartness of new hybrid governance arrangements inherently requires a variety of criteria and values: does the arrangement in question work (effectiveness), does it use new information (systems) and does it realize innovations (innovativeness), is it legitimate and for whom (legitimacy and accountability), and does it result in sustainable practices that help to realize solutions and public services that hold in the long term (resilience)? Hybrids that merely focus on effectiveness thus do not qualify as smart, since they neglect the variety of values society expect governments to take into account in dealing with complex challenges and providing public services.

Third, smart hybridity is hard to grasp. Due to inherent connections across scales and domains in complex societal systems, an arrangement that qualifies as smart today may evolve into tomorrow’s problem. Therefore, a crucial characteristic of smart hybridity is the capacity to learn, to adapt and to respond to foreseen and unforeseen circumstances and trade-offs.



Given bad experiences with opaque governance structures and failed hybridity, one can hold the position that hybridity is inherently problematic and pure governance modes should be the norm. We believe that given the increasing complexity of both societal problems and governance systems, the question whether we want hybridity or not is no longer relevant. We now have to deal with the question of how hybridity can best be governed; how smartness can be realized.

The concept of smart hybridity provides practitioners within the public sector with a new perspective upon how to deal with complex challenges and demanding assignments. It may help them to understand the tensions and dilemmas that need to be addressed in order to fruitfully manage the hybridity of the instruments and arrangements at their disposal and to fully use their potentials.

The concept of smart hybridity also sheds light on new avenues of research with regard to the limitations and potentials of these new governance arrangements and the requirements their use imposes upon public organizations, public servants and others involved. Such a research agenda should include the following topics:

  • The possible and impossible combinations of various governance arrangements, and the (toxic or magic) dynamics and added value these combinations bring about given the underlying mechanism and logics;
  • The specific next step challenges and (moral) dilemmas that result from particular forms of hybrid governance and the strategies and coping mechanisms actors use to deal with them;
  • The further development of assessment models to evaluate the smartness of hybrid governance arrangements, more specially with attention to the use of information systems, the plurality of public values involved, representation, participation, legitimacy, trust-building, and accountability;
  • A lifecycle analysis of hybrid governance arrangements including their long term effectiveness and sustainability and their (conditions of) termination, continuation, adjustments and upscaling;
  • The possibilities and limitations of deliberately designing hybrid government arrangements, especially the potentials of designing hybrids as experiments, and the implications thereof;
  • The resources, capacities and skills of actors to successfully manage smart hybrid arrangements and deal with the (moral) dilemmas they encounter. This research might also address issues of supportive leadership and the adaptive capacity and learning ability of actors involved;
  • The institutional conditions for the governance of smart hybrids, including the way public organizations are internally organized and managed to deal with hybrid arrangements. This research may also be aimed at making sectoral, regional and international comparisons, to clarify how different contexts may impact on the evolvement and smartness of hybrid arrangements.


P.M. Karré is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. J.F.M. Koppenjan is Professor of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. C.J.A.M. Termeer is Professor of Public Administration at Wageningen University & Research.


Contribution based on Koppenjan, Karré & Termeer (2020): Smart Hybridity: Potentials and Challenges of New Governance Arrangements, The Hague, Netherlands: Eleven International Publishing.



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