Author:Mitchell, David


Scholars spend their careers seeking to explain the relationships between observed phenomena. For those of us in applied fields, we attempt to figure out "what works" in our respective disciplines. But, how much time do we spend examining whether those who actually practice in these fields are employing what works? Without this critical link, the years spent developing theory and identifying solutions are nothing more than words on a page. This reality amplifies the need for public administration scholars to not only identify solutions to make government more effective, but to ensure that these solutions are promoted to and adopted by practitioners.

In public administration, the partnership between scholars and practitioners was critical to creating the discipline during the Progressive Era, as exemplified by the New York Bureau of Research (Bushouse et al., 2011). Today, public administration scholars continue to assert that a strong connection between scholars and practitioners is critical to theory development and improving government effectiveness--and ultimately to the field's survival (Raadschelders & Lee, 2009; Stivers, 2000). However, Posner (2009, p. 20) speaks for a growing consensus within the discipline: "Research [currently] undertaken by academics is focused on publication in academic journals, not on the potential relevance to the problems facing public and private sector managers." As a result, public managers rarely or never consult scholarly research for knowledge or to address public problems (Landry, Lamari, & Amara, 2003; Wang, Bunch, & Stream, 2013; Bushouse et al., 2011), and have decreased their participation in practitioner-friendly scholarly associations (Raadschelders & Lee, 2009). This disconnect between scholarly research and professional practice hinders government effectiveness as valuable prescriptions and solutions developed by the academy are not being considered as practical innovations to tangibly improve service delivery and reform.

One practice vital to promoting government effectiveness and prestige--the successful implementation of strategic initiatives (Boyne & Walker, 2010; Poister & Streib, 2005; Walker, 2013)--provides an opportunity to explore the connection between scholarly research and professional application. Scholarly research has largely endorsed contingent approaches to strategic implementation as most effective (Bryson, 2011; Walker, 2013); however, evidence exists to suggest that local government managers prefer to repeatedly use the same approach toward many implementation projects, frequently ending in failure (Mitchell, 2014). Is the oft-quoted and unattributed definition of insanity (1)--when one repeatedly performs the same act and expects a different result--the reality for strategic implementation? Do local government managers repeatedly apply the same implementation practices for each initiative without a recognition that they do not work in all cases? Can they learn from scholarly findings? Examining strategic implementation illustrates an example of disconnect between the academy and practice, along with demonstrating the impact this gulf has upon government effectiveness.

This examination begins with an introduction to strategic implementation, emphasizing its emerging importance to both scholars and practitioners. The debate between generic and contingent approaches in strategic implementation receives particular attention, labelling recent research by Mitchell (2014) as emblematic of the scholarly consensus endorsing contingency. The Mitchell study includes both correlational and descriptive data regarding the implementation of 218 strategic initiatives by US municipalities--creating the unique opportunity to compare the scholarly findings regarding successful implementation practices to those employed in practice, from the same dataset. Ultimately, the present study finds that US municipalities consistently employ the same implementation practices from one strategic initiative to the next, and fail to employ implementation tools in the right context when acting contingently--resulting in an over 20% reduction in implementation effectiveness. Consequently, this comparison presents a case study that exemplifies a disconnect between scholars and practitioners and quantifies its negative impact upon one important aspect of government effectiveness.


Public organizations are under intense pressure to perform. With constrained resources and heightened demand for more and better services, governments are consistently asked to do "more with less." This pressure forces these institutions to make wise investments of precious resources or wither in the heat imposed by its constituents. In other words, public organizations must--now more than ever--be strategic about expending resources in order to prosper in a highly scrutinized environment. Over time, governments have increasingly understood their new strategic role and borrowed tools from the already-established field of private-sector strategic management as a response. Public management scholars have also followed suit--attempting to develop a theory of public strategic management.

In general, strategic management in the public sector refers to the "all-encompassing process of developing and managing a strategic agenda" (Poister & Streib, 2005, p. 46). Strategic management is comprised of several components, all of which have bred their own subfields of study. The best known component--strategic planning--was also the first to be developed in both the private and public sectors (Poister & Streib, 1999). Strategic planning initiates the strategic management process by establishing organizational goals, objectives, and strategies to address threats and exploit opportunities (Bryson, 2011). However, it was recognized in both sectors that strategic planning was not enough; organizational structures and resources must also be tied to executing strategy (Mintzberg, 1994; Vinzant & Vinzant, 1996). Thus, the concept was broadened from planning to management--which incorporated the subsequent steps of resource acquisition, implementation, and evaluation (Poister & Streib, 1999). With this expansion, scholars have increasingly examined the role of strategic implementation, which is the process of incorporating adopted strategies into existing organizational systems, processes, and decision-making mechanisms (Mitchell 2014).

The use of strategic planning and management has increased dramatically in the United States. By 2003, strategic planning was being utilized by a majority of local and state governments, in most nonprofit organizations, and within the national government (Bryson, 2003; Poister & Streib, 2005); with a portion of these organizations tying budgeting and performance systems to organizational strategy (Poister & Streib, 2005). Much of the scholarship in public strategic management has centered on the alignment of strategy content to environmental conditions and desired outcomes, ignoring what may be the most critical portion of the strategic process: implementation. Indeed, Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) first brought great attention to the potential dysfunction of this process that scholars previously assumed just happened naturally as part of day-to-day operations. Mintzberg's (1994) classic critique of strategic planning extends Pressman and Wildavsky's claim from the policy realm to strategic management by exposing the disconnect between strategic planning and organizational processes. Walker (2013) goes further by stating that the alignment of strategic stance with the appropriate implementation approach is key to strategic success--even more so than strategy formulation. This is to say the strategic implementation matters and warrants specific exploration.

Generic vs. Contingent Approaches in Strategic Implementation

Since contingent approaches have long been endorsed over generic ones in strategic planning (Bryson, 2011) and more recently in strategic management through the Miles and Snow studies (Walker, 2013), a number of scholars have extended this line of research to strategic implementation. For clarity, a contingent approach calls for the development of a repertoire of tactics to be used according to the needs of a situation, while a generic approach prescribes one set of practices to be used in all situations (Lorange, 1978). Nutt published several studies (1989; 1995; 2001) on the subject, ultimately concluding that contingent approaches are appropriate for public strategic implementation (Nutt & Wilson, 2010). Andrews, Boyne, Law, and Walker (2011) also conclude that recommendations for one universal implementation approach are inappropriate; with Andrews, Benyon, and Genc (2017) finding that public organizations which combine implementation approaches over time are better performers. While Alford and Hughes (2008) surmise that contingent, project-based approaches may not be ideal for the public sector because of paramount public values that trump efficiency concerns, they still endorse a contingent approach as the best way to optimize public problem solving. Hickson, Miller, and Wilson (2003) find a dual planned/adaptive approach to strategic implementation in public and private organizations is more effective than when either is solely employed. As Walker (2013, p. 9) states, "The effectiveness of strategies is dependent on their combination and the context in which they are implemented. They are a road map to success, not a prescribed route."

Most notable to this study, Nutt (1989; 1995) finds that public managers are using implementation approaches contingently, but possess pre-existing managerial preferences that cloud their ability to select the "appropriate" approach for the situation, based on theoretical frameworks of strategic success. This body of scholarly research points to the need to...

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