Public managers serve many sovereigns, work within fiscal constraints, and face competing demands for finite resources. Our latest work in Public Administration Review applies a strategic management lens to local government sustainability capabilities to examine the conditions under which local governments diversify into new areas of service delivery and when they do not. Building on recent efforts to apply resource‐based theories to the public sector, we distinguish between more and less fungible capabilities and posit that local government officials make such commitments to enhance the competitiveness of their communities. Two surveys of U.S. cities provide evidence that governments that rely on tax incentive‐based development approaches may struggle to make sustainable development gains. Such cities are more likely to devote resources disproportionately to delivering benefits to firms at the risk of incurring increasing opportunity costs over time. Prior commitments to traditional, firm‐based economic development capabilities appear to inhibit their ability to pursue broader sustainability policies. However, economic development strategic planning can also positively influence some investments in greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Moreover, cities facing more competition for development are more likely to integrate planning and performance measurement to assess their sustainability commitments.
The key takeaways for sustainability practice:
- Local governments can make sustainability gains by identifying fungible organizational capabilities that can be more easily reassigned to similar functions.
- Strategic planning that involves both economic development and sustainability efforts can identify more avenues for leveraging existing capabilities.
- Cities located in more competitive markets for economic development should devote greater attention to performance measurement and management to justify investing resources in sustainable development efforts.
- Over-reliance on tax-incentive-based economic development strategies, which often drain communities of resources, can impair broader commitments to sustainable development.
SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the virus that causes coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has exposed weaknesses—not in the United States’ federalist fabric, but in its degraded administrative systems and capacities. This article in the American Review of Public Administration argues that individual citizens—as tribalized and fractious as they seem—have been poorly served by public officials with career incentives to avoid risks, downplay long-term threats, and enact administrative burdens. Public administrators must advance a more equity-based assessment of vulnerabilities in American communities and more risk-based communication strategies. Citizens have never had access to more information—and thus more difficulty in discerning facts from fallacy. Public administrators are the planners, engineers, analysts, auditors, lawyers, and managers on the front lines of this and future existential crises. It is their job to sift through the information environment and—however boundedly—tackle problems. For the sake of the American democracy, public administrators need to regain the people’s trust. They could start by leveling with them about the challenges ahead.
Read on here.
House Democrats in June unveiled a 547-page climate action plan which includes a proposed re-start of the U.S. Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program. While the plan is a political document unlikely to become law this year, the EECBG portion is good public policy. Let me explain why.
The EECBG program was funded as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It steered approximately $3.2 billion to 2,187 state, local and tribal governments, which undertook more than 7,400 energy-efficiency projects. Despite documented energy savings and job-creation, the program was never re-funded.
Under the House Democrat plan, the EECBG re-start would be "for building electrification, which would expedite full decarbonization of buildings and early adoption of more ambitious building codes to achieve net-zero emissions." Local governments love these kinds of green-building projects, but often struggle financing or incentivizing them.
Before local governments could get EECBG funds, they would need to "identify the communities most in need of energy efficiency improvements, including low-income communities with high energy cost burdens, and distribute funds according to those needs."
This is basically what Megan Hatch, Eric Stokan and I recommend in a recent Public Administration Review article focused on equity-based responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the program was deemed a failure by some within the Department of Energy (largely because of implementation delays ), it produced a net job gain of 62,902 job years, avoided 25.7 million metric tons of carbon emissions, and led to $5.2 billion in total cumulative savings on energy bills, of which 70% came from residential consumers. It also helped many local governments which lacked the financial and technical capacity to launch their own programs from scratch.
While hundreds of U.S. local governments have started sustainability efforts over the last two decades, the vast majority of these efforts minimize or ignore social equity. Research we published in Urban Affairs Review suggests local governments are also heavily path-dependent - especially when it comes to efforts to address racial and social inequities.
We think re-starting and modifying the EECBG program to target social vulnerabilities is good policy because of the empirical evidence of the program's implementation lessons – but also because of the loss aversion tendencies of local governments.
In essence, local governments are risk-averse when it comes to innovative policy endeavors. But they are more likely to double-down on their past investments. This is the difference between exploration strategies and exploitation strategies. When it comes to community development, climate policy and social equity, local governments are far more likely to exploit (stick with) what they already know how to do.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, William Swann, Richard Feiock and I examined this risk-aversion tendency in the context of the EECBG program.
Using surveys of EECBG program participants, our study found that local governments engaged in risk-seeking behavior in order to minimize the potential loss of their prior effort. In other words, they were more risk-taking and likely to continue their sustainability efforts despite bad experiences, because they already had sunk costs or "skin in the game." However, our experimental results confirmed that local government administrators are risk-averse when asked to evaluate the merits of initiating a new sustainability program.
The bottom line: federal instigation of sustainability programs is likely to be a more effective catalyst of climate action and social justice than simply leaving local governments alone. Using block grant-style programs to achieve policy aims also has the virtue of being a tried-and-true mechanism local governments have a lot of experience using.
Like it or not, our federalist system has created tremendous local government dependencies on federal grants and policy directives. Re-starting a program like EECBG has the potential to provide both.
COVID‐19 is exposing a nexus between communities disproportionately suffering from underlying health conditions, policy‐reinforced disparities, and susceptibility to the disease. As the virus spreads, policy responses will need to shift from focusing on surveillance and mitigation to recovery and prevention. Local governments, with their histories of mutual aid and familiarity with local communities, are capable of meeting these challenges. However, funding must flow in a flexible enough fashion for local governments to tailor their efforts to preserve vital services and rebuild local economies. Co-authors Megan Hatch, Eric Stokan and I argue in this Public Administration Review article that the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) programs are mechanisms for how to provide funds in a manner adaptable to local context while also focusing on increasing social equity. Administrators must emphasize the fourth pillar of public administration ‐‐ social equity ‐‐ in framing government responses to the pandemic.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has exposed a lack of governmental capacity and preparedness for pandemics within the United States and around the globe since its emergence in December 2019. Besides the much-publicized failures to make enough tests and medical supplies available, U.S. federal, state, and local governmental officials have struggled to coordinate a consistent, coherent message for citizens to social-distance. President Donald Trump has quarreled with governors and belittled the media. Federal health agency experts have been sidelined or contradicted. Some states, such as Florida and Texas, have appeared to prioritize the economic consequences of the pandemic.3 In households across the country, citizens are being exposed daily to contradictory arguments from various messengers on the need to shelter vs. preserve the economy.
I recently conducted an artefactual survey experiment on a nationwide panel of U.S. adults, in which public-health information regarding COVID-19 was transmitted via alternative issue frames and different government messengers.
The analysis suggests the use of the pro-health frame generally had a positive effect -- in tandem with a presidential messenger -- on respondents’ preference to avoid unnecessary social activity. Conversely, the use of a pro-economic frame had a negative effect on the preference of respondents for social-distancing. Effective public messaging during emergencies may be shaped by the type of messenger. But clearly, the message matters.
As climate change challenges the sustainability of existing water supplies, many cities must transition toward more sustainable water management practices to meet demand. However, scholarly knowledge of the factors that drive such transitions is lacking, in part due to the dearth of comparative analyses in the existing transitions literature.
This study is the starting point for a recent $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant my team from Arizona State University, Vanderbilt and the University of Nevada Reno recently received. The study seeks to identify common factors associated with transitions toward sustainability in urban water systems by comparing transitions in three cases: Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. For each case, we develop a data-driven narrative that integrates case-specific contextual data with standardized, longitudinal metrics of exposures theorized to drive transition. We then compare transitions across cases, focusing on periods of accelerated change (PoACs), to decouple generic factors associated with transition from those unique to individual case contexts. From this, we develop four propositions about transitions toward sustainable urban water management.
We find that concurrent exposure to water stress and heightened public attention increases the probability of a PoAC (1), while other factors commonly expected to drive transition (e.g. financial stress) are unrelated (2). Moreover, the timing of exposure alignment (3) and the relationship between exposures and transition (4) may vary according to elements of the system’s unique context, including the institutional and infrastructure design and hydro-climatic setting. These propositions, as well as the methodology used to derive them, provide a new model for future research on how cities respond to climate-driven water challenges.
Over the next four years, we will be working to scale up this approach to additional cities.
Local government managers are often tasked with running a political gauntlet: preserving or enhancing services as resources become more constrained, responding to a myriad of stakeholders with diverse preferences, and proactively considering long-term opportunities and threats.
When it comes to complex policy problems like sustainability, this is often described with the 'chicken-and-egg' cliché. Organizations that have resources can afford to be more risk-taking and innovative, while those with fewer resources struggle to make gains.
Linking strategic management to performance has been called essential for public managers to confront pernicious environmental and community problems in the twenty-first century. I am especially interested in whether doing so can help struggling local governments overcome their own resource constraints.
In a new study, co-author William Swann and I examined the role that a local government's "entrepreneurial orientation" - the willingness to take risks, be proactive and innovate - play in the strategic management of sustainability.
What we found was that an organization's "EO" plays a much larger, direct role in the cyclical process of building and using organizational capacities, which are the fiscal, human, and political resources managers cultivate and deploy. However, EO by itself had no direct influence on performance gains.
So, what does this mean? We illustrate the significance of the findings as a "strategy-capacity-performance" system in which EO is stoked by the levels of organizational capacities but also acts as a kinetic energizer of sorts. In other words, EO matters - but not because it directly enhances performance. Rather, it facilitates the development of the capacities and strategies which do so.
This is practically important for several reasons. The management reform literature of the last three decades seems to equate innovative and "out of the box" thinking in public organizations with the personal characteristics of their leaders. While leadership is undoubtedly important, our work suggests public organizations need more than just charismatic or visionary leaders - they need new processes or routines to inculcate major performance gains. Developing an entrepreneurial culture is important for "sustaining" sustainability, but EO alone is not enough.
A second implication is that managers remain keenly risk-averse. Our interviews with city managers in the Chicago region drove this point home. Managers must assess the level of risk-taking which is acceptable within their communities. While this may seem intuitive, it is also problematic because managers -- like all humans - tend to cognitively overweight the potential for losses relative to gains. "We do not take risks. We may say we do, but we don't," one manager reiterated. This is likely only part of the story (managers do take risks when facing potential losses). But it suggests that proponents of sustainability need to think of ways to re-frame the risks and rewards of local sustainability (and researchers need to devote more effort to examining loss aversion and framing effects in this context).
A final implication is that establishing strategic management processes or routines can have a broad impact; any local government can do this. It shouldn't be acceptable for local government officials to claim they cannot be innovative or proactive simply because they lack resources.
Hopefully, this and future work we have in the pipeline can help managers and policymakers understand that making sustainability gains requires a process for developing capacities, carving out a space for acceptable actions, and learning from experiences.
Institutions are the rules, norms or conventions which bind collective human activities, structure interactions between people and organizations, and provide the incentives for behavior.
This is a typical academic definition of a concept which I have spent years researching and trying to relate to the broader world occupied by non-academics (i.e., public managers, students, media, consumers and producers of government services).
Institutions matter. Just ask the FBI. Or, the International City/County Management Association. Or any lawyer. But they are a difficult topic to quantify, model and relate to practice.
I used to be a political reporter covering state legislatures and governors. Every day, my editor would bust my chops about making arcane Capitol processes and conflict meaningful for a general audience. I have a similar frustration in academia. So, I guess this is my manifesto to try and do better.
Starting this fall, I am re-organizing my research agenda along some lines which have been percolating in my head for several years. I am starting a new job at Indiana University and standing up a research lab organized around the analysis and synthesis of institutional and behavioral change over time. I’m calling the lab the Metropolitan Governance and Management Transitions (MGMT) Lab, and I’m seeding it with some funding from a National Science Foundation grant and a few other sources (hopefully many more in the future).
The MGMT Lab will strive to advance our understanding of the drivers and barriers of local government transitions toward more sustainable development and resource management. I know that sounds a bit amorphous. But, there is a lot of nuance and complexity involved in the arena of urban sustainability. There are environmental issues, equity issues and economic issues. Scholars can spend their entire careers at the macro-, meso- or micro-levels of analysis. I want to do work that scales up and down. I am particularly interested in mid-sized and smallish communities which don’t have the resources of a Chicago or New York to hire chief data officers, create sustainability offices, or develop their own mini-Paris Accord climate-action plans.
There are many wonderful academic research labs on universities devoted to advancing our theoretical understanding of local governance and sustainability. Rather than organizing this lab around a particular theoretical framework, it will be focused on advancing understanding of how communities a) formulate long-term sustainability strategies; b) develop the capacities to carry them out; and c) assess and improve performance. Think of it as a social science research station, in which the dynamism and experiences of local governments are studied over time. The actual research will involve a combination of sequential and embedded mixed-methods research designs that include collecting text-based data on local planning efforts, survey and interview data on management capacities and routines, case studies to strengthen causal inference, and survey experiments to test behavioral applications.
Academic research has a lot to offer communities which fall along the entire spectrum of sustainability: those attempting to formulate long-term sustainability and resiliency strategies; those attempting to develop resources for implementation; and those attempting to track their progress and make adjustments. But to do so, I need to build collaborative partnerships and engage as many stakeholders as possible. For instance, two IU-based centers have agreed to be collaborative partners to this future work (once it’s funded): the IU Center for Rural Engagement, which collaborates with Indiana communities on pressing challenges; and the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, which develops forecasts, strategies and communication methods to enhance environmental resilience.
Over time, the MGMT Lab will build infrastructure for future research by developing a comprehensive database of variables generated across the three phases. This dataset will facilitate predictive modeling and will be scalable for other states. Students will train in both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Research efforts and findings will be incorporated as learning modules into local government management classes.
Down the road, community workshops, outreach and webinars will be in the works. I’m excited about the potential for this work, but I am also cognizant that this is a learning process. Hopefully, the fruits will be concrete policy prescriptions which can help struggling communities adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
In the meantime, feel free to reach out with any recommendations, concerns, opportunities: firstname.lastname@example.org
A toast for 2019: To managerial behavior, Dewey's pragmatism, and regaining a seat at the governance table
Public managers are unresponsive, routinized bureaucrats. Or, maybe they are attuned to social needs and equitable service-delivery. Managers resist change and love process. Or, they are problem-oriented, entrepreneurial agents interested in reforming their organizations.
These contrasting stereotypes have been with us for some time. They shape mass and elite perceptions of public employees and drive wave after wave of government "reform." For four decades, researchers have studied the role local government managers play in shaping organizational missions, objectives and activities. As Jered Carr (2015) noted in his Public Administration Review literature synthesis, the consensus view is that the council-manager form of government does influence public policy choices at the margins. Empowered managers steer the ship of state toward a more equitable distribution of resources in some contexts. But does this knowledge have any practical use? Does it help managers make decisions? Does it help academics address the “big questions” of how to improve governance?
These are questions researchers interested in management and governance regularly revisit, particularly in these troubled, politically tribalized times. One way I am trying to develop a “general theory” of managerial behavior (O’Toole and Meier 2014) is by exploring relationships among institutional arrangements, organizational context, and strategic management. This involves identifying when managers may shift between proactively or defensively positioning organizations to respond to major threats.
In an article recently published in Policy Studies Journal, I describe this concept as “managerial friction” and show how it is measurable through incremental and punctuated changes in land-use policy (Deslatte 2018). The idea is that public managers have some ability to move policy processes out of incrementalism, even when bureaucratic lethargy acts as a drag (Deslatte, Tavares, and Feiock 2016). Studying Florida comprehensive plan amendments over a turbulent time period (2002-2010), the study synthesized theories of political markets and punctuated policy change to explain why local government managers may shift land-use management strategies to capture desirable growth or stave off undesirable development.
Those of us who study policy and management are quite effective idea appropriators. This idea of punctuated policy change borrows heavily from evolutionary biology. But there are always limits to this kind of borrowing. Prindle (2012) cautioned scholars appropriating the concept of punctuated equilibrium from paleontology that, while stripping the metaphor of all content from the original theory of Darwinian speciation, they had never identified the mechanisms by which human choices were translated into mechanical outcomes “without losing the symbolic and emotional processing that is its substance” (p. 37).
In other words, how do we build better bridges between macro-level outcomes and the micro-level behavioral processes underlying them? The concept of managerial friction — reflecting the agency of managers shifting between inward and outward strategies -- is one emotive construct that provides a bridge. But understanding how the cognitive biases of managers are aggregated into such organizational behavior presents a clear future path for this research. Ultimately, managerial friction must be further unpacked as a behavioral mechanism of human choice. One conclusion I came to at the end of this project was that this type of institutional research had probably run its course at this “macro” level without an infusion of brain-level insights. This isn’t a novel or new idea; it’s Herbert Simon stuff.
In recent years, considerable efforts have been made within public administration to apply theories from social psychology and behavioral economics to the study of the minds of managers and citizens (Grimmelikhuijsen et al. 2017; James, Jilke, and Van Ryzin 2017). At the same time, criticism from within and outside the field has asserted public administration has shied away from asking “big questions” and become less of a player in important decisions of governance (Fukuyama 2004; Roberts 2017). Some have even cautioned about the emergence of a “schism” in the field between micro- and macro-level researchers, leading to competing conferences, journals, and networks for scholarly efforts (Moynihan 2018).
I’d like to work from a premise that answering big questions and regaining a seat at the governance table requires a focus on “applied theory,” which attempts to solve real-world problems.
Applied theory here is defined as an “epistemological tool box” approach scholars may use to explain administrative phenomena of practical importance (Bendor 2015). That is, researchers interested in applied theory are animated to identify problems, select theories, and take analytic approaches with pragmatism in mind. They are less concerned with cordoning themselves off into methodological tribes then in solving practical problems through whatever methodological tools are necessary or readily available to researchers. Insights from research need to scale, both up and down, in order to yield practical results.
Public administration is by definition an interdisciplinary, explicitly normative, problem-oriented field. Theories of bureaucratic control, institutions, collaborative governance, public management, and decision-making each share an orientation toward what John Dewey might call “transactional realism.” This means they encompass both an ideal for what is desired as a society and an appreciation of what is realistically possible (Dewey 1984). When a program or policy fails to produce expected results, the explanation rests on a detailed examination of the program or policy design, simulations of outcomes under varying conditions or contexts, and a theory of policy design or administrative behavior which integrates outputs of the model with the specifics of the case under investigation.
Growth management in Florida, for instance, is a tale of good and bad intentions, policy development, implementation failures, and the work of local governments and state-level actors to reach consensus on what outcomes were desirable or achievable for taming the growth machine in a mega-state. Evaluating the success of this massive, multi-decade policy effort requires analysis at many levels, and theories of the managerial role are only capturing part of the story. Nevertheless, one practical insight from my research is that local government managers -- through both strategic planning (the routines) and rapid adjustments to these plans along the way (the entrepreneurial side) -- held considerable sway over growth-management outcomes despite a lack of state funding and constant interference from politicians in Tallahassee.
But was it successful? This requires a deeper dive into how stakeholders define success -- and I would argue now in hindsight, a different epistemological approach to generating knowledge. Ok, you’ve read this far, so please stay with me.
Dewey’s pragmatism as a philosophy of science depends on an interaction or experience with the phenomena of interest. This is not a radical leap. Researchers interested in individuals, organizations, or institutional arrangements may all share a normative bent, an experiential orientation, and a concern with both structure and cognition. And at a basic level, they are all interested in problems associated with allocation of attention, information-processing, and decision-making. At its inception, followers of scientific management were focused on identifying principles to enhance organizational outcomes, and they immersed themselves in factory warehouses. Today, public management remains focused on performance, but is becoming more experimentally oriented and focused on the motivated reasoning and cognitive limits of managers, street-level bureaucrats, elected officials, and the public (Baekgaard et al. 2017; James and Van Ryzin 2017; Olsen 2017).
There are many examples in the field which demonstrate the complex interconnections between micro- and macro-level phenomena. Theories of bureaucratic politics and control focus on how to preserve or enhance administrative accountability, recognizing the paradox that exercising greater control over bureaucracies can inhibit performance (Miller and Whitford 2016). Institutional theory focuses on how structure, rules, and norms influence organizational processes, choices, behaviors, and outcomes. But work examining ecologies of institutions and barriers to institutional collective-action have recognized the less-understood role that cognitive limitations, biases, groupthink and limited attention spans play in collaborative governance (Deslatte and Feiock 2018; Mewhirter, Lubell, and Berardo 2018). Normative decision theory has also undergone a transformation from developing heuristics or tools for humans to make more rational choices to today’s pivot to machine learning and artificial intelligence. But what overarching lessons for public administration can we tease out from these examples that attempt to bridge theories of the individual with organizational and/or institutional theory? What happens when our theoretical focus crosses over from micro to macro levels? How can we do this better?
This leads me back to the much-maligned public manager. From my view, research on organizational strategies, performance, value-creation, and policy choices all dance around a logic of information-processing without enough attention to how brain-level phenomena can affect these outcomes. For instance, here’s an experimental study which was just published in the Journal of Behavioral Public Administration on citizen assessments of local government performance in a federal, energy efficiency program (Deslatte 2019). One practical insight from this study is that managers could do a much better job of selling their policy successes to the public. But this kind of practical insight rests on two deeper bodies of research -- institutional insights into how authority is distributed in governments and capacity limits, as well as behavioral work on partisan motivated reasoning -- which help explain why managers fail to do so. Here, institutional context isn't just a control variable, context is critical. For behavioral research to be practically useful, it needs to account for this context. It needs to test for effects of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors under varying institutional contexts. Likewise, institutional work depends on shared meaning and experience.
As public administration develops the tools, training and methodological sophistication for broader, behavioral research, my own bias is that these efforts should remain tethered to the practical, problem-orientation from which our field originated. This will keep our pursuit of knowledge grounded in the applied. In other words, theory based on pragmatism or “transactional realism” means finding behavioral applications for our research regardless of whether we can fully elucidate the causal mechanisms. I’m not suggesting we stop trying to pursue general science; but, public administration researchers are not great in numbers, and our ability to develop scientific paradigms is limited. Here’s my belated toast to 2019 and to hoping we can successfully motivate our own pragmatism by bridging micro-and macro-approaches to the big questions of governance and management.
I work as an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. There, I direct the MGMT Lab.