Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Strategic Implementation: An Illustration of Theory/practice Disconnect in Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Strategic Implementation: An Illustration of Theory/practice Disconnect in Public Administration

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

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. …

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