Municipalities are grappling with myriad complex challenges linked to the changing climate. Their responses to anticipated but uncertain disruptions exist on a continuum, from inaction to transformative change that fundamentally alters an urban system. We do not know enough about the factors leading cities to more or less transformative responses, inhibiting efforts to tackle such disturbances. To address this challenge, we propose the networked micro-decision context (NMDC), an arena where individuals involved in determining a policy response confer, negotiate, and act. This research assesses how two key dimensions of the NMDC—the composition of its actors and the flexibility of its structure—affect the transformative potential of governance. Via the administration and analysis of a nation-wide survey, qualitative cases studies, and social network analyses, this research yields insight into the potentially nuanced ways composition and structure affect the transformativeness of a city’s approach to disruptions linked to the climate crisis. Climate-induced disruptions share similarities with other mounting social challenges in that they are highly complex, affect multiple economic and governmental sectors, and are characterized by substantial resource interdependencies. As such, lessons this research produces can help understand and improve governance responses to other societal disruptions.

This research examines and predicts when and how local governments pursue decision processes theoretically linked to a greater likelihood of transformative policy outcomes. In so doing, the research establishes the networked micro-decision context, which constitutes the micro-level, relational underpinnings of aggregate government behavior. The diversity of NMDC participants, the flexibility of its structure, and the presence of policy entrepreneurs are hypothesized as determinants of transformative governance, which is characterized by learning-focused, proactive, and risk-accepting processes. The research team leverages a mixed-methods approach to develop theory and test its generalizability, proceeding in three phases: (1) a large-n quantitative analysis, involving a nationwide survey and collection of secondary-source data; (2) in-depth case studies of 16 cities, employing interviews and archival analysis; and (3) a detailed social network analysis of the interactions that comprise the NMDC within those 16 cities. The network analysis is be coupled with the survey and interview-based findings to evaluate how a city’s likelihood of pursuing transformative governance processes around climate-related disruptions is affected by the NMDC’s balance between diversity and social cohesion; the position of climate policy entrepreneurs in the NMDC; and the NMDC’s diversity (organizationally and individually) and flexibility (operationalized as trust and fungibility).

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Robert O'Connor
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University of Kansas
United States
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