Alternative governance approaches in which non-state actors play a substantial role in policy making and implementation are currently attracting attention. Government-centred water bureaucracies have to adapt to increased complexity. Relationships among state and non-state actors in the English water sector have markedly changed in the last few decades in connection with the privatisation of water services, reform of arrangements for flood management, and implementation of the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD). The paper assesses whether such changes represent a shift 'beyond bureaucracy' and the beginning of a new era of multi-party 'water governance'. From an examination of institutional reform in river basin management and flood risk management, the paper concludes that the water bureaucracy has actually strengthened its control, despite using language emphasizing partnerships and collaborative governance. Responsibility for policy implementation has been reallocated among a range of public, private and civic groups. This 'neo-bureaucratic' arrangement is problematic because the government-centred water bureaucracy has lost some of its accountability and legitimacy, while the newer collaborative arrangements have little real influence over the direction of water policy. Governance capacity needs to be enhanced by adopting a collaborative approach to development of water policy in addition to its implementation.