Context matters: A Bayesian analysis of how organizational environments shape the strategic management of sustainable development

AuthorAaron Deslatte,William L. Swann
Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Context matters: A Bayesian analysis of how
organizational environments shape the strategic
management of sustainable development
Aaron Deslatte
| William L. Swann
Department of Public Administration,
Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, USA
School of Public Affairs, University of
Colorado Denver, Denver, CO, USA
Aaron Deslatte, Department of Public
Administration, IASBO Building (2nd Floor),
Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL
Public administration scholars have argued the need for a general
theorylinking strategic management to the context in which pub-
lic organizations operate. Understanding the interplay between
organizational contexts and strategic management responses to
urban sprawl and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions remains an
underexplored avenue for empirical advancement of this goal.
Using 2015 survey data, we employ a novel Bayesian item
response theory (IRT) approach to test how land use policy com-
prehensiveness, organizational capacities, leadership turnover, and
environmental complexities affect the strategic management of
smart growth policy in local governments. We find that public
organizations harness political, administrative, and community
capacities in varied combinations to better achieve their policy
objectives, but these influences may not be complementary. Also,
policy comprehensiveness generally relates to more strategic activ-
ity, while municipal executive turnover offers opportunities and
threats to some smart growth strategies. Implications of this
research are discussed.
Public organizations have often been conceptualized as a black boxwhere the outputs of policy processes interact
in mostly unobserved ways with the managerial activities of administrators tasked with translating policy ideas into
actions (Weible and Carter 2017). This is because policy process research often fails to extend the scope of its
enquiry to organizational activities, while management scholarship tends to overlook the role policy design or
changes play on organizational outputs and outcomes (Sowa and Lu 2017). Urban sustainability is one such arena
where the locus of attention has focused on the adoption of policy initiatives or tools(Portney 2013; Svara
et al. 2013). But policies are not self-enacting, and policy outputs in the form of tools can be symbolically adopted
and hortatory (Schneider and Ingram 1990; Krause 2011). This article focuses on managerial outputs in the nexus
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12330
Public Administration. 2017;95:807824. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 807
of policy and management to help elucidate the tactics local governments use to pursue policy commitments to
When linked with policy direction, public management activities can be defined as strategy, or a means by
which organizations can improve their performance and provide better services(Boyne and Walker 2010, p. s185).
Strategies for achieving policy goals have been traditionally bundled into monolithic constructs of capacity
(Honadle 1981; Andrews et al. 2015). However, strategies represent distinct patterns in a stream of decisions
(Hambrick 1982), which vary depending on the complexity, turbulence, and resource endowments of their external
task environments (Dess and Beard 1984). Strategies are thus a function of environmental scanning to identify
opportunities and buffer against threats, with the objective of aligning organizational mission, resources, and
Sustainable development is an ideal context in which to study the relation between policy and management.
With the accelerating expansion of urban boundaries in recent decades (Seto et al. 2011), the societal response to
urban sprawl, deforestation, natural resource depletion, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a pressing concern
for public administration and local governance. Normative concepts such as smart growthand new urbanism
detail the balancing of competing values and address conflicts between development, livability, environmental pro-
tection, and intergenerational equity goals from a policy-making and managerial perspective (Godschalk 2004).
Smart growth specifically aims to promote more compact, mixed use urban development; walkable communities;
preservation of open space and environmentally sensitive land; variety in housing and transportation options; and
tightly knit neighbourhoods (Knapp and Talen 2005). But these aims are often in conflict, resulting in redistributional
political marketexchanges between constituent policy demanders and governmental policy suppliers with direct
impacts on managers (Ramirez de la Cruz 2009; Hawkins 2011). Management theories have long suggested that
organizations have varying degrees of control and can shape environments more to their liking (Child 1972; Pfeffer
and Salancik 1978). Yet research studying the relationship between policy context and strategic management con-
tent is conspicuously lacking.
This article begins to fill this gap by asking: (1) What strategies are local governments using to achieve smart
growth? (2) How do determinants within the organizational task environment influence the willingness of local gov-
ernments to engage in different types of strategic activities for achieving smart growth? (3) How do land use policy
actions often taken at the collective-choice level influence these managerial strategies? Drawing data from a 2015
survey of Florida local governmentssustainable land use and smart growth experiences, we employ a novel Bayes-
ian item response theory (IRT) inferential approach to test how internal and external organizational capacities,
municipal leadership turnover, and regulatory and environmental complexity affect citiesstrategic activities for pur-
suing smart growth. We find evidence that political capacity and the organizational task environment influence stra-
tegies, but not in the monolithic fashion often depicted in the literature; land use policy comprehensiveness
influences some smart growth strategies; and leadership turnover presents both challenges and opportunities for
the strategic management of smart growth.
Policy and management theoretical traditions have evolved in parallel fashion, offering distinct vantage points on
how coalitions of actors and stakeholders influence governance goals, and how administrators translate these goals
into actions (Sowa and Lu 2017). Policy process research has tended to focus on policy design, structural influences,
and policy change over time through feedback. Public management tends to focus on efforts to calibrate organiza-
tional capacities and strategy to meet policy goals and measure performance. Weible and Carter (2017) articulate
how this necessary partition imposes limitations on analytic scope of enquiry and the omission of causal mechan-
isms linking policy processes to management implementation and strategic adaptation to feedback. Data limitations

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