To monitor or intervene? City managers and the implementation of strategic initiatives

Date01 March 2018
AuthorDavid Mitchell
Published date01 March 2018
To monitor or intervene? City managers
and the implementation of strategic initiatives
David Mitchell
Department of Public Administration,
University of Central Florida, Orlando,
Florida, USA
David Mitchell, Department of Public
Administration, PO Box 161395, University of
Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816-2368,
Strategic initiatives represent a government's response to constitu-
ent and organizational needs, but are only effective if properly
implemented. In local governments with a council-manager form
of government, city managers face a unique dilemma as com-
pounding challenges of implementation often require them to step
into leadership roles typically reserved for elected officials. For this
qualitative study, 16 city managers and project leaders from US
local governments were interviewed regarding the implementation
of nine varied strategic initiatives. The responses indicate that city
managers play an important dual role in implementationfirst,
monitoring the progress of the implementation team and the satis-
faction of the stakeholder coalition; and second, choosing to inter-
vene directly in implementation decision-making when they
observe missteps by the implementers or discontent from the
stakeholders. These conclusions contribute to the practice per-
spective of strategic management theory and a better understand-
ing of the institutional leadership role of city managers.
Government has lost the faith of many Americans to produce desired results, as they rank dissatisfaction with gov-
ernmentas the number one problem for the country (Saad 2016) and more than two out of three state that the
best way to make positive changes in society is through volunteer organizations and charities, not being active in
government(Page 2013). Politics aside, one potential source of frustration is the inability of government to follow
through on promised change. Voters and stakeholders increasingly demand accountability and efficiency from their
governments; however, they are often let down as public officials and organizations commit to change and fail to
Many governments embark upon strategic initiativeswhich represent the most vital of change efforts and are
typically identified through formal strategic planning, the budgetary process, the creation of an annual workplan, or
public statements of elected and appointed officials. However, a recent study of local governments found that one
out of every three strategic initiatives is never fully implemented, and those completed end up over budget and past
deadline more often than not (Mitchell 2014). In attempts to explain this ineffectiveness, strategic management
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12381
200 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2018;96:200217.
scholars have primarily examined how the strategy aligns with organizational traits, with less focus upon the individ-
ual actors and their roles (Miles and Snow 1978; Poister and Streib 1999, 2005; Bryson et al. 2010). The city
manager is one such actor at the local level.
As the chief administrator in a municipal government, the city manager plays a crucial role in the implementa-
tion of strategic initiatives. They are the hub of strategy within the organization, receiving policy and strategic direc-
tion from elected officials and translating this into assignments and directives for organizational managers and staff.
As they straddle the politicsadministration divide, they must be careful not to wade too far into the policy-making
domain of elected officials, or be too meddlesome in the work of their subordinates. This dynamic is important, for
in a majority of US municipalities it is the city manager who is charged with implementation efforts. Based on their
distinctive role and prevalence, it is important to ask: how does a city manager uniquely affect the process to
successfully implement municipal strategic initiatives?
This study explores this question by interviewing 16 US city managers and project leaders about the implemen-
tation of strategic initiatives within their organizations. A qualitative analysis based on the responsive interviewing
model is conducted to derive themes regarding strategic implementation from the interviews. The research finds
that city managers play an important dual role in implementationfirst, monitoring the progress of the implementa-
tion team and the satisfaction of the stakeholder coalition; and second, choosing to intervene directly in implemen-
tation decision-making when they observe missteps by the implementers or discontent from the stakeholders. Thus,
city managers find themselves in a precarious positionunjustified intervention can lead to micromanagement or
improper assertion into policy-making, and failure to intervene when necessary may lead to accusations of negli-
gence and non-responsiveness. In many ways, a city manager's decision to monitor or intervene in strategic imple-
mentation efforts is an art form that can be crucial not only to the success of a strategic initiative, but also to the
prospects of the city manager and the government organization. These conclusions contribute to the practice per-
spective of strategic and project management theory, as well as to the ongoing scholarly conversation regarding the
institutional role of city managers in the council-manager form of government.
A city manager's interaction with the policy process is central to the seminal dialogue regarding the politics
administration dichotomy. Early public administration thinkers saw city managers as leaders only in terms of organi-
zational stewardship and incremental change (Gabris et al. 2001). Regarding reform, the city manager was seen as
the chief implementer taking policy direction from elected officials (Golembiewski and Gabris 1995; Svara 1999a),
relying primarily on bureaucratic systems to effectuate change (Miller 1992). In contrast, modern portrayals of city
managers label them as agents of policy and organizational change. Instead of commanding through hierarchy, they
rely more on motivational and rhetorical skills to inspire employees and stakeholders toward change (Miller 1992).
As New Public Administration principles such as social equity became entrenched in the 1970s, leading advocates
declared that the city manager must become an advocate for and facilitator of change (Frederickson 1996). More
recently, city managers are increasingly seen as initiators of change (Svara 1999b), serving as advisers and counsel
to board members to combat constantly and rapidly changing environmental conditions for local governments
(Golembiewski and Gabris 1995; Svara 1999a; Gabris et al. 2001).
Still, the roles for the city manager and elected officials in policy and administration are more nuanced than
these accounts. Based on extensive research, Svara (2001) developed a complementaritymodel that treats the
politics-administration relationship as a continuum rather than a dichotomy(Demir and Reddick 2012, p. 526) by
categorizing activities into politics, policy, administration, and management. For Svara, politics is still largely the
domain of elected officials while management is that of the city managerforming the two poles of the continuum.
In between, policy functions are institutionally assigned to elected officials while administrative functions formally
belong to the city manager, but in reality the two groups share responsibilities for these functions. The

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