Tuesday, 12 July 2016

City strategies and how they matter for configuring urban governance

Christof Brandtner, Markus Höllerer, Renate Meyer, Martin Kornberger


Strategic practices have entered and captured the town halls of the world over the past decade. You may have seen New York’s integrated PlaNYC, Copenhagen’s ambitious CPH Climate Plan 2025, or Vienna’s Smart City initiative. In our discipline – organizational studies – strategy is often associated with the business sector, even though it is actually a military tool. Keeping with its role models, cities’ strategy plans define a mission and vision for the city, outline some core activities that are meant to achieve these goals, and often propose how to implement and evaluate the activities. In other words, these plans can be quite authoritative; this is how Vienna’s strategy plan starts:
The Strategy Plan for Vienna is the result of an initiative involving the entire city govern­ment.Its objective is to create an attractive vision for the future development of the City of Vienna and provide concrete impulses through strategic projects. 

We expect that readers familiar with Rhodes’s notion of governance are now wary, as were we. Municipal governments are said to have been replaced by urban governance, a system of ruling cities not from the top down but in a network of various organizations and interest groups that include, among many others, the municipal government. Yet these top-down plans were published by city governments. How come that a player with limited direct influence would publish an authoritative document that simply claims to determine the future of the city?

Here’s our hypothesis: urban strategic plans are a concrete pathway through which governance regimes become enacted. Comparing Sydney and Vienna’s plans we identify significant differences between the documents, which leads to the conclusion that strategic documents give meaning, and ultimately power, to government’s challenged role in governance. Hence in order to understand urban governance one should study strategic plans as its enactment.

We provide an illustrative comparative case study of two strategic plans, namely the Vienna Strategy plan, a predecessor of the current Smart City Vienna initiative, and the Sydney 2030 Community Plan. We read and coded the plans and spoke with their authors. Both plans are meant to tackle the future of the city, but they do so in dramatically different ways. This is how the Sydney plan reads:
Sustainable Sydney 2030 is a set of goals we have set for our city to help make it as green, global and connected as possible by 2030. [It] came to life after we asked residents, visitors, workers and businesses what kind of city they wanted. […] Sydney 2030 is now the cornerstone of everything we do.

As our analysis shows, there are some fundamental differences in the nature of this plan (and many others that we took into account as well). What could be seen as an isomorphic response to the global political economy is in fact a reflection of the city’s governance system and the authors’ claim to define the primal “governance configurations” that underlie local governance: What are the issues at stake, what is the time scope, what is the space in which the city is placed, and who is meant by a city’s “public”.

It is not obvious, critical readers might say, that anyone listens to what the city has to say (and it will take many years and more sophisticated research designs to see whether such long-term strategies take foot). Indeed, we too question whether strategy plans have a powerful effect on redoing a city’s planning coalition. But, we argue in the paper, strategy documents are a way in which cities interact with more engrained, subtler forms of power, such as agenda setting and the taken-for-granted cognitive backdrop of planning.

Our analysis also shows that there is a pretty significant difference in how the plans are legitimated. The authors of strategy documents resort to various rhetorical mechanisms that are meant to define governance configurations, bridge competing values and goals, and establish the legitimacy of the plan. For instance, whereas Sydney’s plan speaks of the power vested in the city by citizens, the Vienna plan is mostly justified with the technical expertise of its authors.

As with organizations, the governance of cities does not take place in a vacuum, but in a world rich of idiosyncratic local rules, common global pressures, and a space that is shaped significantly by the state. Governance configurations are important because they provide an institutional context for the day-to-day negotiations and haggling between powerful participants in urban governance. And city administrations, despite (or because of) their challenged position in urban governance use the discursive device of strategy to lay out their understanding of the city’s governance configuration.

The collective creation, implementation, and consumption of these plans is an important data source for urban governance scholars. More generally, our paper is a first step toward understanding urban governance through the lens of organizational theory.

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