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Issue networks are an alliance of various interest groups and individuals who unite in order to promote a single issue in government policy. Issue networks can be either domestic or international in scope, and many are active solely within the domain of the Internet. Usually, issue networks push for a change in policy within the government bureaucracy. An example includes the wide ranging network of environmental groups and individuals who push for more environmental regulation in government policy. Other issue networks revolve around such controversial issues as abortion, gun ownership rights, and drug laws. In the United States, the various parties within an issue network include “political executives, career bureaucrats, management and policy consultants, academic researchers, journalists, foundation officers, and White House aides.”
An issue network is a type of policy network, and is "characterized by a large and/or wide range of affected interests, fluctuations in contacts, access, and level of agreement, unequal resource distribution combined with varying abilities to deliver member support, and unequal power distribution among the group members." It differs from the more consolidated "policy community."
Iron triangles are the mutually beneficial relationships between interest groups, usually private businesses and corporations, congressional oversight committees, and federal agencies. The relationships within Iron Triangles seek only to benefit the three actors involved by pursuing a favorable policy for the interest group, at the expense of the constituencies that Congress and the Federal bureaucracy are supposed to represent, namely the general public.
Issue Networks differ from Iron Triangles in that they seek to support the public interests, not private ones, by seeking to benefit a wide ranging constituency that supports their side of the issue. Issue networks can be antagonistic to iron triangles as they may oppose a policy pushed by a private interest group, and carried out by a government agency. This is particularly the case in regards to environmental issue networks that disagree with the lax environmental standards pursued by private energy companies. It is also important to note that different Issue networks also compete with one another, as in the case of proponents and opponents of abortion.
In political scientist Hugh Heclo's model, an issue network is a rather fluid, loose grouping of people and organizations who seek to influence policy formation. Thus, an issue network is not as easily identifiable or as neatly categorized as an Iron Triangle or subgovernment: "Looking for the closed triangles of control, we tend to miss the fairly open networks that increasingly impinge upon our government."