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Public Performance & Management Review, Vol. 37, No. 3, March 2014, pp. 339–364. © 2014 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved. Permissions: www.copyright.com ISSN 1530–9576 (print), ISSN 1557–9271 (online) DOI: 10.2753/PMR1530-9576370301 339
SuStAINAbIlIty lEADERShIP IN A lOcAl GOVERNMENt cONtExt
the Administrator’s Role in the Process
xIAOhu WANG City University of Hong Kong
MONtGOMERy VAN WARt California State University, San Bernardino
NIck lEbREDO DeVry University
ABSTRACT: Sustainability in a local context involves not only environmental practices such as energy conservation, but also policy efforts to involve communities, develop organizational capacity, and encourage widespread adoption. Sustainability leadership is the promotion of an array of practices, over time, by a broad array of actors including council members, citizens, state legislators, and others—that is, the type of social change leadership defined by Van Wart in Dynamics of leadership. However, the key role of public administrators in local sustainability has largely been ignored in the literature. Using a national database from U.S. cities, this study provides an organizational-change explanation of the important subroles of administrators in local sustainability. It finds that administrators can have a substantial function in sustainability leadership by engaging citizens, enhancing technical expertise, mobilizing financial resources, and developing managerial execution capacity for sustainability. Effective administrators help overcome dispersed public perspectives, organizational constraints, and technical challenges in local sustainability, which can result in better organizational performance of sustainability policies.
KEYWORDS: administrative leadership, environmental sustainability, local leadership, local sustainability
Sustainability and its allied forms have become a worldwide concern (Adams, 2006; Fiksel, 2006; World commission on Environment and Development, 1987). While the need for sustainability has been most keenly felt in postindustrial so- cieties such as Europe and North America, it is rapidly becoming a key concern in the newly industrialized and developing world (cohen, 2006; Markandya &
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halsnaes, 2002). Government has long been considered to play a linchpin role by acting as a galvanizing forum for policy, providing educational support for a culture of sustainability, and organizing concrete actions to be taken by society (Fiorino, 2010; leuenberger & bartle, 2009). the role of local governments is critical because of their proximity to environmental issues; in fact, many experts believe that they have taken the lead in promoting and implementing sustainability in the united States (Jepson, 2004; Saha & Paterson, 2008).
As many local governments have moved into the implementation phase of sustainability, the central issue has become how to improve that implementa- tion (krause, 2010; Sharp, Daley, & lynch, 2011; Wang, hawkins, lebredo, & berman, 2012). In this regard, leadership is one of most important factors in implementation (Aristigueta & Zarook, 2011; de Waal, 2010; kaiser, hogan, & craig, 2008; Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973; trottier, Van Wart, & Wang, 2008). While local policy leaders, activist citizen groups, and other governments (e.g., state legislatures) are important in initiating and promoting sustainability, we hypothesize that administrators have as critical a role in local sustainability as any other group, and that it becomes even more robust in implementation. Ad- ministrators help craft the specific practices and supporting systems, which can be complex and may need extensive fine-tuning; they help overcome internal organizational resistance to change; and they work with the community in evolv- ing educative, facilitative, and regulatory ways to enhance policy effectiveness (borins, 2000).
Despite the obvious role of administrators in facilitating the success of sus- tainability, it is hardly discussed in the literature. this deficiency is especially salient as local governments move from developing sustainability initiatives to implementing them. While the literature generally does a good job in describing local sustainability practices (what sustainability is at the local level) and motives (why sustainability is important for local government), more research is needed to understand both the conditions and the management of successful implemen- tation. that is, more research is needed to explain the role of administrators in enhancing sustainability. to help fill this important lacuna in the literature, we examine the type of general leadership theory that is most applicable, and distill the patterned behaviors necessary to implement robust sustainability practices in local governments. this effort begins with the establishment of a framework that defines sustainability leadership at the local level of u.S. government and identifies the most appropriate general theoretical leadership theory, and, from this, details the patterned behaviors that affect implementation of sustainability practices. Applying the data from u.S. cities to the theory, the model is tested empirically to answer the following questions: Do administrators in local government make a difference in sustainability, as hypothesized? If so, how much can administrators
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influence local sustainability success? Again, if so, what is the behavioral profile of the administrators who are a part of the leadership process that successfully promotes sustainability?
the present study advances the public performance literature by focusing on a largely overlooked aspect of sustainability leadership: the role of administra- tors. As important, the results of this study should help local administrators to articulate the concrete patterns of behavior that an effective administrator in the sustainability leadership process must demonstrate or work to develop.
Sustainability Leadership and the Administrator
EmphASiS On impLEmEnTATiOn AnD pROCESS
Although sustainability can be defined in several different ways, there is wide- spread agreement that it consists of integrating and balancing environmental, economic, and social dimensions (Adams, 2006). Many local governments in the united States have implemented sustainability policies in the face of substantial socioeconomic, political, and environmental challenges (Jepson, 2004; Portney, 2003; Saha & Paterson, 2008). As the field turns to the successes and failures in implementation, the role of the administrator in sustainability leadership takes on heightened interest. In the present research, sustainability leadership is de- fined as the process of promoting an array of concrete environmental, economic, and social practices, over time, by a broad array of actors including council members, citizens, state legislators, and public administrators who ultimately have a variety of mutually supporting beneficial outcomes in communities. this process-focused definition of leadership is not new. Environmental leadership has been defined as an organizational process of promoting ideas and making change through interactions among different stakeholder forces (Portugal & yukl, 1994).
leadership can be a vague and ambiguous notion if not clearly conceptualized when studied (bass, 1990, 2008; Rost, 1991; Van Wart, 2011; yukl, 2002). this study identifies the leadership theories most applicable to introducing and expand- ing sustainability practices, noting that there are innumerable theories of leadership, and that there have been many efforts to conceptualize public sector leadership and examine its impact on key organizational variables (Fernandez, 2005, 2008; Greasley & John, 2010; hoontis & kim, 2012; McGuire & Silvia, 2009; Morse, 2010; Moynihan, Pandey, & Wright, 2011; yang & kassekert, 2010). Generally, these efforts feature the role of policymakers and the making of initial policies, and support strong usage of various types of facilitative and collaborative styles to reach wholesome compromises and technically appropriate policy decisions. these theories are relevant to identifying the broad context of the present study, but
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its purposes are more focused in terms of a particular policy area (sustainability), paying primary attention to implementation and results, and examining the nature of the administrative component to make pragmatic recommendations. Follow- ing the famous advice of Stogdill (1948), who changed the course of leadership studies, the situational parameters of this study are identified as meticulously as possible for better analysis and utility.
leadership is situation-specific (Stogdill, 1948). When leadership has a situ- ational descriptor, it generally focuses on the particular leadership profile that promotes successful results, no matter whether the results are primarily in the interest of individuals, an organization, or society. In the current case, the interest is focused broadly on the common good. the most critical element in sustainability leadership is change management, as suggested by Portugal and yukl (1994) when defining environmental leadership. A particularly useful set of theories are those focusing on transformation. Some prominent transformational theories, such as charismatic theory (conger, 1989) or bass’s (1985) full-range theory, focus on change as the agenda of an individual. Such theories have an individual rather than a process focus and also have heroic overtones.
Other theories view leadership as an organizational process of initiating and implementing change (burns, 1978). In Portugal’s and yukl’s two-dimensional model (i.e., individual and organizational), environmental leadership is viewed “both as an influence process between individuals and as an organizational process of mobilizing forces to change and reform social systems” (1994, p. 272). thus, an ideal perspec- tive to frame sustainability leadership is social change leadership, which is process focused and subordinates individual actions to collective action goals. According to Van Wart (2011), this school of leadership encompasses researchers such as John Gardner (creator of common cause), James MacGregor burns when he is talking about transforming leadership, Ron heifetz in focusing on collaboration, and John bryson and barbara crosby in focusing on social processes to accomplish the public good. “Social change leadership . . . focuses on accomplishing social change by working through collective action in order to contribute to the common good and resolution of public problems by paying attention to the strategies and competencies that contribute to shared policy decision making and implementation” (Van Wart, 2011, p. 187). the driver of social change leadership is an awareness of the need for adaptation of a multitude of minor societal practices to achieve a larger goal. No single actor can create a successful outcome for a complex policy problem; it requires collective action, although different actors may have distinctly different contributing roles. to be successful, then, a collaborative style must be used by those managing the process at the political and administrative levels. yet, apart from a collaborative spirit, also fundamentally important is political and administrative competence (Van Wart, 2011, p. 190). the particular competencies needed vary by the situation in terms of process management and content strategy selection.
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ThE ROLE Of ThE ADminiSTRATOR
Although there are many actors in sustainability leadership, the role of the ad- ministrator at various times and in various ways is significant but little studied. In sustainability, the recognition of a need for change is reflected in a sensitivity to environmental deterioration and natural resource depletion. Pressure for sustain- ability comes from recognition of a public need for a better living environment that lasts over generations. Despite the need for sustainability, organizations face chal- lenges of fiscal stress, competing organizational goals or priorities, and governing structures that encompass organizational constraints for sustainability. So the need for sustainability should also be understood in the constraints an organization faces. Administrators must recognize both the need and the constraints in responding to the change required for sustainability. this is a complex environment requiring administrators to enable diverse communities to come together, to provide solu- tions that adapt to local circumstances and opportunities, and to make it possible to sustain administrative practices over the long-term.
A process-oriented model of social change leadership emphasizes the admin- istrator’s knowledge of organizational capacity and constraints (what is done well and what is not) and the administrator’s roles and actions in developing a vision that helps an organization and its people to sharply focus and mobilize neces- sary financial and technical resources. Different strategies have been suggested to improve the implementation capacity of sustainability (Portney, 2005). One centers on assembling the support of stakeholders, especially citizens, and thus is a bottom-up approach. the stakeholder strategy emphasizes the importance of involving citizens in planning and implementing sustainability initiatives, based on the belief that their involvement will improve the success rate of implementation by convincing participants of the value of sustainability and that citizens’ support is needed to obtain support from elected and agency officials (conroy & berke, 2004; Freeman, 1996; Portney, 2005; Portney & berry, 2010). Moreover, citizens can offer valuable information about local communities and their needs in sustainable development. Gathering the information can ensure that sustainability plans are rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the interactive relationship between human behaviors and the natural environment (leuenberger & bartle. 2009).
Another implementation strategy is a top-down approach that emphasizes ac- quiring technical expertise from professionals. It is based on the idea that many sustainability issues are technical in nature, and thus that the acquisition of tech- nical support from experts and professionals is critical for pragmatic solutions. citizens and other interest groups are not unimportant, but technical experts and their solutions are the most effective way to solve or resolve sustainability issues (Portney, 2005). In reality, sustainability efforts rely on both approaches, and situ- ational contexts may be the most critical in ascertaining which one to emphasize at a given time. the skillful weaving together of bottom-up and top-down, then,
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becomes one of the more important characteristics of successful administrators, and is represented by two separate behavioral clusters in our leadership profile.
Administrators’ success also depends partly on their leadership ability to as- semble financial resources that support sustainability operations and missions (borins, 2001; boyne, 2003; laurent, 2003; Wang & berman, 2001). Sustain- ability, by definition, benefits future generations. Many sustainability initiatives (e.g., environmentally sensitive land purchases or renewable-energy applications) require large, consistent, long-term investments. While arbitrarily throwing more resources at any issue is not the solution, spending reductions destabilize imple- mentation efforts (Vig & kraft, 2006). It is critical to develop and institutionalize funding mechanisms (e.g., a separate budget-line item) and to explore financial sources like grants, vouchers, loan guarantees, trading permits, and taxes for sustainability (Salamon, 2002). It is also important to diversify funding sources so as to withstand the impact of economic downturns. Administrators propose budgets that protect the long-term interests of their communities and are critical for ensuring continued financial viability.
Finally, the success of social change requires that administrators develop insti- tutional arrangements and infrastructure that support community decision-making reached through collaboration over time (carnall, 1995; Denhardt & Denhardt, 1999; Greiner, 1967; kotter, 1995). In this sense, managerial execution reflects the ability to develop sustainability goals and principles, to incorporate the goals and principles into the strategic planning process and operations, and to monitor and assess the achievement of the goals (keene & Pullin, 2011; Poister, Edwards. Pasha, & Edwards, 2013). Implementation in sustainability can be greatly enhanced by having permanent institutional arrangements, such as designated individuals or offices in sustainability. best practices can be learned by establishing, monitoring, and evaluating performance in sustainability. collaboration among various units can be improved by having an organization-wide sustainability plan (O’leary, Durant, Fiorino, & Weiland, 1999).
the role of the administrator in sustainability leadership is reflected in Figure 1. the recognition of a need for sustainability is driven by pressures for sustainability and a variety of nonadministrative actors, as well as constraints for sustainability. the administrator’s role in sustainability can itself be defined as the activities or subroles of (1) involving citizens in visioning and planning, (2) enhancing technical expertise in implementation, (3) mobilizing financial resources, and (4) develop- ing managerial execution capacity. the need for sustainability as expressed by pressures and various nonadministrative participants and administrators acting as linchpins or change agents contributes to implementation of sustainability practices that eventually lead to better sustainability effects. It is assumed that leadership affects outcomes of sustainability by implementing sustainability practices (i.e., “changes made in sustainability”).
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this study draws on multiple data sources. Data for the variables measuring the pressure for sustainability were largely obtained from the u.S. census. A survey was developed to obtain data on leadership sustainability factors as well as sustain- ability practices (i.e., changes made) and impact (i.e., outcomes of sustainability). A questionnaire was mailed to the chief executive officer or chief administrative officer of every u.S. city with a population of more than 50,000 in 2011. Of the 601 cities in the sampling frame, 264 responded to the survey, resulting in a re- sponse rate of 44 percent. Of the respondents, 40 percent identified themselves as city managers, chief executive officers, or chief administrative officers; 28 percent were sustainability managers; and 7.2 percent were planning directors. Other respondents included environmental policy directors, energy and environmental directors, mayors, economic development directors, public works directors, and solid-waste directors.1
tests were conducted to determine whether the responding cities were signifi- cantly different from the nonresponding cities on key socioeconomic character- istics. the mean populations for the responding and nonresponding cities were 176,272 and 156,211, respectively. this difference is not significant (t = 0.602, p = 0.548) at the 0.05 level. the average median household incomes for respondents
figure 1. Sustainability and Transformational Change: Articulating the Role of Administrators
Note: Only leadership relationships represented by solid arrows are subject to statistical explanation in this study.
Need for Change a. Pressure for sustainability
Sociopolitical pressure Environmental pressure
b. Perceived importance for sustainability
City workers Legislators, other local stakeholders State influence
c. Constraints on sustainability Fiscal condition Financial slack Governing structure
Administrative Leaders as Change Agents in Sustainability Leadership a. Involving citizens in sustainability visioning and planning b. Enhancing technical expertise in sustainability implementation c. Mobilizing financial resources d. Developing managerial execution capacity
Changes Made in Sustainability a. Environmental sustainability practices b. Economic sustainability practices c. Social sustainability practices
Successful Outcomes of Sustainability a. More new businesses b. More green businesses c. Good image d. Cost savings e. Increased awareness of sustainability f. Improved quality of life g. Improved environment
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and nonrespondents were $45,241 and $42,396, respectively. the mean income difference is not significant (t = 1.961; p = 0.05) at the 0.05 level. the council- manager and mayor-council forms of government were, respectively, present in 66.0 percent and 31.0 percent of the responding cities, similar to the figures of 62.0 percent and 35.9 percent for all u.S. cities with populations over 50,000 (International city/county Management Association, 2010).
mEASuRing ThE nEED fOR ChAngE
the need for sustainability may result from a variety of direct and indirect sources. three broad sets of measures were identified with which to test their relative importance: sociopolitical and environmental pressures, the perceived importance of various stakeholders, and types of potential constraints and com- petition for resources. the measures and their data sources are listed in Appendix table A1. First, sociopolitical forces for sustainability—an assemblage of so- cietal groups favoring the notion of environmental protection—were measured by the city’s high school graduate percentage, median age, the percentage of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate (2008), and two survey items on political propensity (“politically liberal or progressive”) of city residents or elected officials. the variables measuring environmental pressures included census data for population size and growth, population density, percentage of urban population, land size, median income, and manufacturing industry size. Second, the perceived importance of sustainability was measured by survey items assessing the levels of support for sustainability from city stakeholders such as legislators, managers, employees, citizens, business, and nonprofits. State influence was measured by the availability of state financial incentives, programs, or procedural requirements in support of local sustainability. third, variables measuring financial condition consisted of multiple survey items on revenue shortage, revenue decline, financial reserve, and employment loss. For financial slack, measures included data regarding organizational priorities that competed for resources with sustainability in areas of public safety, economic development, and crime control. In addition, the form of government was in- cluded as a measure of governing structures.
mEASuRing ThE ADminiSTRATOR’S ROLE
the role of the administrator in sustainability is multifold, as indicated in Figure 1. Administrators play a significant role in channeling the change process of recogniz- ing needs or triggers, implementing change, and institutionalizing effective changes. the administrator’s overall role is defined in the model as reflected in four specific behavior clusters in this study. Involving citizens in sustainability visioning and plan- ning includes efforts to encourage citizens’ involvement in sustainability initiatives, such as providing sustainability information to the news media, citizen boards and
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commissions, local neighborhood organizations, community visioning workshops, consensus building workshops, and citizen surveys (8 items in table 1). Efforts to actively seek technical expertise in implementing sustainability include actions to include other governments, technical expertise for the city’s own staff, professional organizations (uSGbc and IclEI), consulting firms, and universities and research institutions (5 items). Sustainability efforts in mobilizing financial resources include applying for grants, funding capital projects, having a budget for sustainability, maintaining stable funding, issuing debt, offering financial incentives for green technology users, and offering financial incentives for green technology users or developers (7 items). Finally, measures related to developing managerial-execution capacity include incorporating sustainability principles in department operations, incorporating sustainability principles in comprehensive plans, incorporating sustainability in strategic plans, committing sustainability in goal or mission state- ments, convening citywide meetings for sustainability, monitoring the performance of sustainability, designing a sustainability office for coordination, developing a citywide sustainability plan, developing performance measures for sustainability, evaluating sustainability performance, and improving sustainability performance based on evaluation (11 items). composite measurement indices were developed, and the descriptive statistics of the indices are shown in table 1.
mEASuRing SuSTAinABiLiTY pRACTiCES AnD OuTCOmES
Measuring sustainability is challenging because of the evolving nature of the con- cept and the state of the art. this study develops a sustainability index that consists of environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability. the study relies on two measurement models to develop and categorize specific measures utilized in the index. First, a classification scheme developed by Florida Green building coalition (FGbc) was used to measure environmental sustainability. FGbc identified a comprehensive list of more than 300 sustainability practices from 19 city functions and weighted the impact of the practices.2 because of space limitations, the present survey includes only the 17 environmental sustainability items weighted highest on the FGbc list (FGbc, 2009). Specific items of envi- ronmental sustainability include renewable-energy use, green buildings, green technology use, and sustainability education (see Appendix table A2).
Second, the index of sustainability also considers the classification of local poli- cies used by Saha and Paterson (2008), who conducted a comprehensive review of previous studies on sustainability. In this classification, environmentally friendly economic-development initiatives in energy and resource efficiency are given an important role. the 23 economic-sustainability measures in the present study focus on the need to maintain economic competitiveness while using less energy and fewer resources. these measures reflect the general emphasis on local quality of life and on local government’s strategic investments in businesses and economic-
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Table 1. Leadership Actions in Local Sustainability
Leadership actions (“Our city has. . .”)a
Average adoption rate (%)
of average adoption rate (%)
Involved citizens in sustainability through— information provision in news media 62.5 48.5 — —
citizen boards and commissions 52.7 50 — —
local neighborhood organizations 40.5 49.1 — —
community visioning workshops 34.9 47.7 — —
citizen surveys 33 47.1 — —
consensus building workshops 19.7 39.8 — —
other citizen initiatives 9.5 29.3 — —
conflict resolution techniques 2.3 14.9 — —
Aggregate (alpha: 0.799) 32.6 24.8 0.625 0.569
Enhanced technical expertise in sustainability through actively seeking support and information from—
other governments 64.8 47.9 — —
technical expertise of own staff 55.7 49.8 — — professional organizations such as uSGbc 50.4 50.1 — —
consulting firms 50 50.1 — — universities and research institutions 37.5 48.5 — —
Aggregate (alpha: 0.792) 51.7 36.4 0.622 0.528
Mobilized financial resources in sustainability through—
applying for grants 71.2 45.4 — —
funding capital projects 50.4 50.1 — — having a budget for sustainability initiatives 43.6 49.7 — — maintaining a level of stable funding 25.8 43.8 — —
issuing debts 11.4 31.8 — — offering financial incentives for green technology users 8.3 27.7 — — offering financial incentives for green technology developers 6.4 24.6 — —
Aggregate (alpha: 0.672) 31 23.4 0.64 0.531
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development programs that focus on promoting technology and entrepreneurship, minimizing energy use, and helping accomplish goals of resource protection.
It is recognized in the literature that social sustainability is the least developed of the three dimensions (Partridge, 2005). the notion of social sustainability in this study centers on the equitable distribution and utilization of resources among social groups in sustainability development—an idea suggested by Mazmanian and kraft (2009) and Saha and Paterson (2008). Examples of sustainability ef- forts in social sustainability include factoring sustainability into the provision of affordable housing, developing sustainable yet affordable means of transportation, and enhancing sustainability with affordability in providing life necessities (e.g.,
Leadership actions (“Our city has. . .”)a
Average adoption rate (%)
of average adoption rate (%)
Developed managerial execution capacity— incorporating sustainability principles in department operations 56.1 49.7 — — incorporating sustainability principles in comprehensive plans 53.4 50 — — incorporating sustainability principles in strategic plans 45.5 49.9 — — committing sustainability in goal or mission statements 42.1 49.5 — — convening citywide for sustainability for the past year 41.3 49.3 — — monitoring performance of sustainability initiatives 38.3 48.7 — — designating a sustainability office in coordination 37.9 48.6 — — developing a citywide sustainability plan 35.6 48 — — developing performance measures of sustainability 34.5 47.6 — — evaluating sustainability performance 26.9 44.4 — — improving sustainability performance based on evaluation 16.7 37.3 — —
Aggregate (alpha: 856) 40.1 28.5 0.702 0.556
Grand aggregate 38.8 24.4 0.738 0.651
a Survey respondents were asked to choose all the items that applied to their cities. b Relationships were measured by the correlation coefficient. All relationships were statistically significant at the 0.01 level.
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water supply, food supply). A total of 51 survey items were eventually used to measure sustainability practices.3
Sustainability practices may or may not have an immediate, or any, impact on perceived sustainability outcomes. to test for the effects of sustainability practices, 10 items were included, among them perceived improved pollution control, enhanced sustainability awareness, financial gains for the city, new eco- nomic activities, and improved quality of life (see Appendix table A1 for specific survey items). the alphas for sustainability practices and perceived sustainability outcomes were 0.902 and 0.753, respectively.
LOCAL SuSTAinABiLiTY LEADERShip in u.S. CiTiES
table 1 describes sustainability actions taken in cities that reflect administrators’ key roles in four areas, as described above. An aggregate index was calculated to arrive at the average percentage of actions taken. For example, the table shows that, on average, cities have taken 32.6 percent of leadership actions in involv- ing citizens in sustainability. the most popular leadership actions are efforts to enhance technical expertise (51.7%). Many organizations seem to leave sustain- ability efforts in the hands of technical experts or staff. More than half the cities actively seek technical expertise in professional organizations, consulting firms, other governments, and their own staff. Although many cities provide citizens with sustainability information (62.5%), significantly fewer cities engage the public at a substantive level, such as visioning workshops (34.9%), citizen surveys of sustainability (33%), and consensus-building efforts (19.7%).
Many cities are able to incorporate sustainability principles into their com- prehensive plans (53.4%), departmental operations (56.1%), and strategic plans (45.5%). however, fewer conduct performance evaluation of sustainability practices (26.9%) and improve performance based on the evaluation (16.7%). It appears that leaders are more engaged in developing sustainability plans than in evaluating and improving the plans.
the least popular area is mobilizing financial resources (31.0%). Although cities are able to apply for grants (71.2%), less than half have a budget for sustainability— a significant deficiency in leadership. Only about a quarter of cities can maintain a funding level for sustainability. cities show a clear leadership gap in mobilizing financial resources. In sum, the results suggest a low to moderate overall level of sustainability practices (an overall average of 38.8% for all leadership actions). there are more leadership actions of obtaining technical expertise than of engaging citizens, mobilizing resources, and managing executions. leaders focus on very different strategies from city to city, as suggested by the large standard deviations of the adoption rates.
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ADminiSTRATORS’ ROLE in SuSTAinABiLiTY
leadership actions are associated with sustainability practices and effects, as demonstrated by the bivariate analysis statistics in table 1. to examine further the multivariate relationships depicted in Figure 1, this study utilized path analysis, a form of sequential regression that is useful for evaluating hypothesized variable relationships. this approach facilitates comparison of the relative strengths of direct and indirect relationships among variables in the model. Summative indices were developed to measure most of the variables in the study. It should be noted that path analysis with summative indices is widely utilized in social science research (Wolfle, 2003). Several studies have recommended the use of summative scales over individual items to measure latent constructs, because they improve stability, reliability, and parsimony (baumgartner & homburg, 1996; Grapentine, 1995; hair, Anderson, tatham, & black, 1998).
An initial model testing the most comprehensive set of factors possible revealed that most of the variables measuring pressures for sustainability and constraints on sustainability were not statistically significant. the observed weak relationships between nontheorized variables provided support for discriminant validity. Not surprisingly, the model as a whole exhibited weak fit (χ2(162) = 1424, p = 0.000, and RMSEA = 0.172). Other commonly referenced measures, such as the cMIN/ DF ratio (8.8) and cFI (0.399), similarly did not support a good fit for the initial model. the strongest relationships were from the perceived importance variables with legislative actors and others (i.e., citizens, local business leaders, other gov- ernment agencies, nonprofits). they had by far the greatest influence on leadership actions. the only other significant variables were the perceived importance of city workers and politically liberal propensity (PlP). A much improved model was developed by focusing on the variables that were most significant and removing the insignificant relationships.
the final model also included the covariances between the remaining statisti- cally significant “need for change” variables in order to improve the model’s fit. the added covariances between “legislators and others” and “city workers” sup- porting sustainability as well as “political liberal propensity” were well supported by the literature (conroy & berke, 2004; Portney & berry, 2010; Saha, 2009). the interrelationships between leadership actions, measured by covariances between their respective residuals, were also added in the model. the final model became significant with a good fit (χ2(14) = 19.1, p = 0.16, and RMSEA = 0.037), as de- picted in Figure 2. the insignificant χ2 statistic indicated no significant differences between the hypothesized model and the data at the 0.05 level. Other measures also showed good fit (cMIN/DF = 1.364; cFI = 0.996). All the relationships in Figure 2 are statistically significant at the 0.05 level. the model in Figure 2 explains between 24 and 35 percent of the variation in leadership actions, 61 percent of the variation in sustainability practices, and 45 percent of the variation in perceived
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sustainability outcomes. Importantly, it shows that cities with stronger adminis- trative roles in sustainability tend to implement more sustainability practices and perceive a greater sustainability impact. leadership actions are highly associated with sustainability practices and perceived outcomes, supporting the need for model building to further explore their relationships.
the study had three important results. First, it suggests that administrators have a very influential role in improving implementation of sustainability practices. their behaviors expressed in four roles explain about 61 percent variance of sustain- ability practices and 45 percent variance of perceived sustainability outcomes. Administrators focusing on sustainability may directly improve implementa- tion of practices and indirectly foster positive sustainability results. Indeed, the administrative component seems to constitute the most important set of factors, as compared to contextual pressures and institutional constraints. that is, much of the previous literature emphasizes the significant direct role of contextual and institutional factors as the cause of sustainability activities in government (betsill & bulkeley, 2006; Feiock, tavaras, & lubell, 2008; Gibbs & Jonas, 2000; krause, 2010; O’connell, 2008; Organization for Economic cooperation and Development, 1993; Portney, 2005; Sharp, Daley, & lynch, 2011). the present study indicates
figure 2. Leadership for Sustainability: A Change master Explanation
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that this may be largely mediated through administrators who act as advocates and implementers of change.
Second, the results show that community stakeholders play a significant role in influencing the likelihood of sustainability practices. communities must per- ceive the need and urgency for action in sustainability. While the community’s perceptions of need have a direct role in promoting sustainability practices through policy and independent actions, the study also suggests that the most important influence is on the administrators who are charged with designing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, and improving sustainability practices. Also indicated by the results is that sustainability leadership in general is not significantly limited by financial constraints, suggesting that both nonadministrative and administrative actors will seek to overcome the constraints if they perceive the urgency of the issue. Moreover, in u.S. cities, political ideologies and governing structures of cities have relatively less influence on sustainability practices than the urgency of the issue as perceived by stakeholders.
third, although all four administrative action variables are significantly associated with sustainability, the largest associations come from manage- rial execution (β = 0.30) and financial resources assembly (β = 0.27). Further analysis shows that a managerial-execution index (including all items of the managerial execution) is significantly associated with environmental, economic, and social sustainability indices (r = 0.668, 0.600, and 0.552 respectively) at the 0.01 level. cities with below-average managerial execution (i.e., having a managerial-execution index score below the mean 40.1%) implement an aver- age of 23.6 percent of the sustainability practices identified in this study. cities with an equal or above-average managerial execution implement an average of 42.4 percent. these findings demonstrate the highly substantial role of public administrators in managerial operation and execution of sustainability practices. For sustainability to be successful, administrators should be actively engaged in developing goals, facilitating operations, tracking results, assessing outcomes in sustainability, and, most important, institutionalizing the changes in sustain- ability by designated sustainability offices or individuals.
local administrators in many cities are involved in sustainability activities. to them, sustainability is not merely a spontaneous and tentative reaction to socio- political and environmental pressures. they are actively engaged in involving citizens and technical experts, mobilizing financial resources, and developing managerial-execution capacity. Nevertheless, this study finds, overall, a low to moderate level of overall sustainability leadership efforts at the local level on average, and the efforts vary largely from city to city. there is significant room to
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improve administrative involvement in sustainability through mobilizing financial resources, engaging citizens and other stakeholders, utilizing the insights and best practices of technical experts, and developing managerial-execution capability.
there are three key implications regarding leadership theories and practices on sustainability. First, administrative action matters in sustainability. because of the challenges in implementing sustainability change, sustainability leadership is introduced as a specific variety of transformational leadership. the social change leadership model used in this study is a process-oriented model. It proposes that recognition of the need for collaboration of many actors and constituents is neces- sary for success. the results of the study validate this leadership model, and also indicate that administrators’ action can be a highly important factor in improving implementation of sustainability practices in local government. Administrative action may influence implementation and perceived outcomes of sustainability practices. While environmental deterioration and sociopolitical pressures may be the initial motive for pursuing sustainability actions, effective administrative action has the potential to directly improve implementation of sustainability practices and indirectly lead to positive sustainability outcomes. because of the challenges in increasing sustainability, sustainability requires administrators to be a part of the social change leadership process that recognizes the need for a collaborative approach involving numerous stakeholders.
Second, administrative awareness matters. For administrators to take action, they must be aware of the urgency for action. the results of this study indicate that leaders will take actions to overcome organizational constraints if they perceive an urgent need for sustainability. leaders are the ones who can propose policies and implement them. And they are the ones who evaluate progress, identify and solve implementation problems, and ensure long-term program maintenance. Ad- ministrative success calls for administrators to become the critical-linchpin change masters who advocate and implement city practices and encourage perceptions of positive results. Of course, citizens express needs and provide a receptive environ- ment, and elected officials pass policies and allocate resources. Nevertheless, sus- tainability issues, like many others, will eventually enter a phase of “routinization” during policy implementation that is characterized by less media coverage and waning public attention (tranter, 2009). the role of senior municipal administra- tors is the critical nexus at this time for bringing existing need perceptions into pragmatic, coherent, synergistic administrative plans that the community wants to support in a complex, dynamic, and challenging environment.
third, leaders’ managerial execution matters. the variety of approaches used by leaders in different cities indicates that there is no single ideal path to sustainability. the relatively low levels of implementation indicate the difficulty presented by a complex and challenging environment, where strong managerial execution capacity is required for the specific sustainability initiatives facing public administrators. A
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highly salient finding is the emergence of managerial execution, which indicates the prominent role of leadership in furthering sustainability initiatives. to sustain sustainability, public administrators must often take the lead in developing goals to that end and incorporating those goals in management and operation. they can develop a supportive infrastructure for planning, staffing, monitoring, and evaluation, and be actively engaged in acquiring financial resources and technical expertise to support the implementation of sustainability initiatives.
this study has several limitations. First, the sample is from cities with popula- tions of more than 50,000. caution is needed to generalize the results to smaller cities, which may have less leadership capacity for implementing sustainability practices. Samples from other jurisdictions (e.g., counties, states) should also be included in future research. case studies of selected jurisdictions with strong sustainability programs can strengthen our understanding of the process of devel- oping sustainability leadership. case studies can complement our understanding of exactly how administrators advance sustainability most successfully (best practices) and identify moderating factors (e.g., a strong environmental advisory board). In addition, the study relies on public administrators’ knowledge (or judgment or perception) of sustainability practices and outcomes. While this is a useful perspective, it needs to be enhanced with studies of the perceptions of other stakeholders. While the findings are robust that managers perceive a pivotal role of administrators in sustainability leadership, and common sense supports this notion given the critical responsibility of administrators, it nonetheless needs to be complemented, and potentially moderated, by the perspectives of other stakeholders, such as elected officials, who are likely to give themselves a more prominent role than discussed here. yet despite these limitations, this study re- minds us of the importance and complexity of policy implementation (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973) and how the execution of policy is generally as important as the formulation of policy, and sometimes more so.
1. the survey instrument was pretested on a group of about 15 local public managers, and changes were made from their feedback. Survey items concerned policies, practices, and assessments of respondents about which they were likely to be familiar as a result of their job interactions. Virtually all of the respondents (97.3%) indicated that they were very familiar or familiar with their cities’ sustainability activities. A large majority of respondents (95%) held executive or managerial positions—an indication of good knowledge of the citywide sustain- ability practices measured in this study. Response bias was examined by comparing the responses of four different job categories. While there were a few differences, they were relatively minor and do not significantly affect our results.
2. FGbc identified municipal sustainability practices from a comprehensive range of 19 city functions (e.g., public safety, transportation, general government, public works, parks and recreation) in areas of energy, air, water, waste, health, land use, and sustainability awareness. based on these city functions, FGbc developed a comprehensive list of more than 300 items weighted on their relative significance to the sustainability measurement scheme.
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3. Many sustainability measures identified in previous studies are included in this study (conroy, 2006; Jepson, 2004; krause, 2011; Portney, 2003; Saha & Paterson, 2008), although measures in this study place a stronger focus on energy efficiency, pollution control, and green economic development measures. less emphasized are traditional smart-growth measures and recycling programs. Efforts were made to strengthen the measurement validity of the mea- sures. Despite the efforts, the survey items are by no means a comprehensive coverage of all sustainability practices in city government. however, we hope that they represent important dimensions of sustainability efforts.
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Appendix Table A1. measures and Data Sources
Measurement: Need for Changes and Outcomes of Sustainability
Sociopolitical pressure Percent Democratic presidential vote 2008 (u.S. census)
Percent high school graduates 2009 (census)
Median age of residents 2009 (census)
location on West coast (census) “the majority of city residents tend to politically liberal (progressive)”: yes or No “the majority of city elected officials tend to politically liberal (progressive)”: yes or No
Environmental pressure Percent employed in manufacturing 2009 (census)
Population 2009 (census)
Population density 2009 (census)
Size of land (census)
Median household income 2009 (census)
city workers perceiving need “Our sustainability efforts have support from” (yes or No)
city manager’s office
Most department heads in city
Most managers in city
Most supervisors in city
Most employees in city
legislators and other stakeholders perceiving need “Our sustainability efforts have support from” (yes or No)
Most legislators in city
local business leaders in city
Most citizens of city
Agencies in other governments
Nonprofits or other stakeholders
State influence “Does the following apply to your city?” (yes or No) Financial incentives from state government influence sustainability actions
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State procedural requirements facilitate sustainability initiatives (e.g., state review of local programs)
State’s organization of sustainability influences local actions (i.e., specialized programs)
Fiscal condition “Does the following apply to your city?” (yes or No) Financial resources are not available for new programs and initiatives total revenues of city have declined more than 10% for past 3 years city has experienced significant loss of employment for past 3 years
Financial slack “Does the following apply to your city?” (yes or No)
Economic development and growth are our top priority
crime is a major concern in our city
Public safety is our top priority
Governing structure council manager form = 1 and all others = 0
Mayor-council form = 1 and all others = 0
Outcomes of sustainability “the sustainability efforts in our city have resulted in . . .”
More business relocating to our city
Increased economic activities in the city A transformed local economy with significantly more green businesses
Improved image of our city among citizens and businesses
Monetary savings for city Increase in awareness of city officials and employees of need for sustainability
Increase in public awareness of need for sustainability
Improvement of quality of life for citizens
Reduction of pollution (water, air, etc.) Saving in natural resources such as water, forest, and open space
Note: Survey items are included in the parentheses.
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Appendix Table A2. Local Sustainability practices (“To practice environmental sustainability, our city has . . .”)
Environmental sustainability practices
Implemented a program that systematically conserves or plants trees
Purchased alternative-fuel vehicles for city business
became a member of a sustainability group (e.g., u.S. Green building council)
constructed new building based on lEED standards
Operated Website dedicated to green city programs
used renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal heat, etc.) in city departments’ operations
Purchased and protected environmentally sensitive lands
Adopted green cleaning and maintenance procedures
Offered energy audits to citizens, business, and community stakeholders
Adopted green standard as official minimum criterion for new government buildings
Offered green technology education classes or workshops to the community
Developed an environmentally preferable purchasing program
utilized lEED or commercial Interiors (cI) specifications to renovate existing buildings
Offered green technology education classes or workshops to employees
Posted air-quality index or/and water-quality testing results on city Website
Adopted green landscaping ordinance for local government buildings
Offered renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal heat, etc.) to citizens or customers
Economic sustainability practices
Implemented “buy local” campaigns
built partnerships with business community to achieve sustainability goals
linked environmental goals to publicly financed incentive packages
Established brownfields redevelopment fund
created demand for green products through public procurement policies
Enacted zoning or regulations that allow for onsite renewable energy systems for businesses
Issued residential green building checklist
Developed policies to create and strengthen markets for green goods and services
Provided low-interest loans for energy efficiency measures and building materials
built capacity to green existing business processes
Provided green-collar workforce training assistance
Prioritized permitting and fee waivers for installation of green technologies
Publicly committed to a green-collar jobs strategy
Designated locations for alternative energy generation, R&D, or manufacturing
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Promoted greening location decisions
created a Green Economic Development Plan document
Adopted incentives that lower financial barriers to energy efficiency gains by businesses
Adopted density bonus for buildings achieving lEED certification
Identified green-collar goals and assessed existing local opportunities
Reduced fees to cover cost of lEED certification
Expedited application and permit process for alternative energy facilities
created green-collar jobs taskforce
Gave property tax credit to any commercial building that achieves lEED certification
Social Sustainability Practices
Offered incentives for location efficient affordable housing
Offered orientation classes for residents of affordable housing
Offered incentives for construction of green affordable housing
Promoted and accommodated bicycle use (e.g., bike lanes)
Monitored water quality
Promoted and educated public on water conservation
Installed appropriate bicycle security at public amenities
Arranged carpool/vanpool assistance
Maintained on-call water-quality program
Maintained organic community gardens
Offered education on organic farming
Note: Survey respondents were asked to choose all the above that applied to their cities.
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XiaoHu Wang is a professor of public management at City University of Hong Kong. His research covers topics in environmental financing, sustainability management, public financial management, and performance management and evaluation. He has published widely on public administration and policy, serves on the editorial boards of several academic journals in the United States, and is the author of four books, including Financial Management in the Public Sector (3rd ed.) (M.E. Sharpe, 2014).
Montgomery Van Wart is a professor of public administration at California State University, San Bernardino, served as chair of his department and dean of the Col- lege of Business and Public Administration, and formerly was the department chair at the University of Central Florida. He is also a senior fellow at the KU Leuven Public Management Institute and visiting professor at Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration. He has authored eight books, including Dynamics of leadership, leadership in Public Organizations, the business of leadership (with Bowerman), changing Public Sector Values, and human Resource Management in Public Service (with others), and has done extensive training internationally on leadership and management.
Nick Lebredo is a certified public accountant and professor of accounting and business management at DeVry University and the Keller Graduate School of Management. His teaching areas include undergraduate and graduate courses in financial accounting, managerial accounting, governmental accounting, and business statistics. His area of research includes sustainability management in the public sector. He has published articles in Public Administration Review.
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