The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur: The Case of City Managers

Article excerpt

Unelected bureaucrats regularly influence the implementation of public policies. Some entrepreneurial bureaucrats play an even more important role in shaping policy agendas and in formulating new policy. Such bureaucratic entrepreneurship, however, generally has been treated by scholars as a chance occurrence rather than as a phenomenon that can be explained systematically (Wilson, 1989).

We conceive of bureaucratic entrepreneurs as actors who help propel dynamic policy change in their community.(1) Like other entrepreneurs, they engage in the act of "creative discovery" by creating or exploiting new opportunities to push forward their ideas (Schneider and Teske, 1992; Kirzner, 1973; Schumpeter, 1942). While some social scientists have started to develop more systematic theories of entrepreneurship, most studies still rely heavily on biographical studies of leaders whose actions produced innovative or unexpected policy changes (Caro, 1974; Lewis, 1980; Doig and Hargrove, 1987; Kirhheimer, 1989; Weissert, 1991). According to Wilson, such studies show that the personalities and actions of individual executives are critical to explaining innovative bureaucratic change. In turn, Wilson (1989, p. 227) argues: "It is not easy to build a useful social science theory out of |chance appearances'." However, we believe that the emergence of entrepreneurial city managers in the decentralized American system of local government can be related systematically to community characteristics (see Mohr [1969] who relates bureaucratic innovation to organizational characteristics).

Suburban governments have been buffeted by major changes in recent years, including reductions in intergovernmental aid, citizen demands for new services and lower taxes, questions about the value of growth, and the increasing costs of basic service delivery. Many of these factors require local governments to respond with innovative policies. As a result, some entrepreneurial leaders in government have begun to introduce and implement new policy ideas, improve the efficiency of existing programs, and redirect bureaucratic behavior to meet these challenges. Osborne and Gaebler (1992, p. 16) argue that of all levels of governments in the United States, local governments have been the most innovative, propelled by the combination of property tax revolts, cuts in intergovernmental aid during the early 1980s, and the 1982 recession. As we shall illustrate, sometimes city managers emerge to play this entrepreneurial role in local government.

Recently, scholars have analyzed the process of policy innovation in state and local governments, documenting a "bottom-up" process of political and managerial entrepreneurship in American government (Eisinger, 1988; Altshuler and Zegans, 1990; Golden, 1990; Sanger and Levin, 1992; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). These studies are concerned mostly with policy innovations. In contrast, our focus is on the actors who promote and implement such innovations.

In local government, entrepreneurial leadership is most likely to come from elected politicians in the community, such as mayors and council members. But high-level bureaucratic employees, such as city managers, also emerge as entrepreneurs. Because most of the entrepreneurial bureaucrats that we identified in our research were city managers, we focused specifically on them. City managers, as the chief operating officers of their communities, are a well-defined professional group, and they share similar training in public administration (Kammerer, 1964). The activities of city managers were fairly comparable in the suburban communities in our sample.

Explaining the Emergence of

Entrepreneurial Managers

City managers work in complex environments. Local economic and fiscal conditions are constantly changing, and the preferences and policy demands of politicians and citizens also change. Local bureaucrats and politicians may present roadblocks to city managers trying to change policy directions. …