Localising the Sustainable Development Goals podcast

In the fight to achieve the UN SDGs, it is clear that policy makers and city managers can have a great influence on progress. It is also clear that much more work remains to be done – and that much more investment needs to be made.

In today’s episode, our guests Enrico Guarini, Elisa Mori, and Elena Zuffada consequently seek to illustrate how the SDG framework might be deployed in order to achieve political goals, increase public value, and produce a healthier, more sustainable world for all. They discuss their paper 'Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals: a managerial perspective', which treats Italy as a particularly interesting example of local governments incorporating the goals into their strategic planning and management processes.

Tune in to learn about the paradigm of sustainability, the importance of cities and individual organisations in the global strategy, and the burden of accountability and measurement of SDG targets.

Speaker profile(s)

Enrico Guarini, PhD, is Associate Professor of Business Administration and Management at the Department of Business and Law at the University of Milano-Bicocca (Milan, Italy). His research interests focus on financial management and governance in the public sector. His works explore the interaction of accounting rules and performance systems with decisions and behaviours applied at the operational management level of government tiers, departments, and agencies, and how this facilitates or impedes policy outcomes. He serves as Co-Chair of the Special Interest Group on Local Governance at the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM).

Elisa Mori is Research Fellow at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy. She earned her PhD in Labor Relations and Employment Law from Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia in 2013. She worked as researcher and adjunct professor at the Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia. Her research interests include public management and sustainability, public sector accounting and performance measurement systems. She also collaborated with INVALSI (National Institute for Evaluation in Education), municipalities and other Italian public entities. Find out more on her Orcid profile.

Elena Zuffada is Full Professor of Business Management and Public Administration at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza (Italy). She has over 30 years of research experience in the public sector, and she has authored several publications on innovation and public management. Since 2004 she is the Chair of the Research Centre for Innovation in public administration. Her research interests are focused on public policies and strategies for sustainable development, performance management and public value, public-private partnerships, multi-level governance and public partnerships, management of services businesses, with special regard to the design and delivery of public services. Since 2011, she is Director of the Executive Master in Management and innovation in Public Administrations at ALTIS, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, and Director of the Master programme in Public management and governance jointly organised by the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and the Universidad Católica Sedes Sapientiae, Lima, Peru. She is a member of performance assessment bodies of Chambers of Commerce and Healthcare agencies. Find out more on her Orcid profile.

In this episode:

  • What role do local governments – and more specifically, cities – play in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
  • When local governments include sustainability goals and priorities in their strategy, how are these then implemented in individual organisations?
  • How do the organisations measure achievement and hold managers accountable?
  • When it comes to integrating the paradigm of the SDGs into strategic planning, what makes Italy a particularly interesting case study?
  • How can we encourage more cities to adopt the sustainability paradigm?

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Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals – transcript

Daniel Ridge: In setting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations issued a challenge to the world to fortify our institutions, protect the health of our planet and promote a fairer, more resilient society. The benefits of these actions are clear. However, goals as ambitious as these cannot be accomplished overnight. There remains great debate around how best to achieve them and who's responsible for their delivery.

In today's episode, I'm joined by authors Enrico Guarini, Alisa Mori and Elena Zuffada to discuss their paper “Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals: a managerial perspective,” which explores the role local governments can play in operationalising the SDGs. The work provides examples on how cities can enhance public value by incorporating SDGs into their strategic planning and management processes.

I began our conversation by asking Elena Zuffada about the importance of this project.

Elena Zuffada: Thank you, Daniel, for having invited us. It's a pleasure to have this conversation with you. So, we became interested to this issue since the paradigm of sustainability should be revolutionary in public management and public governance. Public administration plays indeed, a central role in achieving sustainable development goals. So, it is very interesting to analyse which strategies and which action are adopted by different tiers of government, and particularly by municipalities, for the more managerial studies on this topic are still fragmented. And for a long time, scholars pay the attention mainly to environmental sustainability, while the multi-dimensional perspective of sustainability suggests ensuring that that economic, social and environmental issues are equally considered. So, we wanted to contribute to force the implementation of this paradigm into local governments’ strategic planning.

DR: That's great. Well, why are local governments particularly situated to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?

EZ: Yes, so well, it's because of the central role of local governments in the implementation of SDGs. In a state model with strong administrative decentralisation of function as Italy, local governments are the front office of the government. They are the government level closest to citizens. Indeed, the public value is mainly created by the municipalities through public service delivery and the implementation of policies. So, the municipalities have institutional autonomy, and are responsible for a large variety of functions related to social economic development, such as, for example, urban planning, local public transport, road maintenance, water and waste management, social services, and so on. The title of our paper is localizing the SGS, and localizing means to put in place strategies defined at the central and regional level, and define the contribution of local government strategies to global concern on sustainable development. According to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda, cities are key players in achieving sustainability. Think about this, for example: more than 65% of the sustainable development objectives directly concern and involve local communities. About over half of the global population live in a city and are responsible for as much as two thirds of global energy consumption and 70% of global carbon emissions. Indeed, cities provide vast economic opportunities for people and businesses. So, the role of local governments for implement sustainable strategies is very important.

DR: Well, Elisa, why is Italy such a good example of the implementation of SDGs?

Elisa Mori: Thank you for your question, Daniel. Well, first of all, we have to say that similarly to many European countries, Italy is a unitary state, and is based on our multi-level governance system and has a high level of decentralisation. As we said before, cities are autonomous entities, and are in charge of a large variety of functions related to the socioeconomic development, and they are also providing several public services to local communities. Second, we have to say that since the publication of the 2030 agenda, Italy has started in 2016 developing its own National Sustainable Development Strategy and has part of the activities related to the implementation of these strategies, regional governments are involved and are accountable for the development of their own regional strategies. And they are required to involve municipalities and other local actors too. Third, and probably even more interesting is the fact that before this, our Central Institute of Statistics developed multi-dimensional approach to measure indicators of the so called equitable and sustainable wellbeing at national level. This project was launched in 2010, and in 2012 another similar project followed at local level. So, as you can understand this justifies that there's an ongoing and increasing awareness toward the issue of sustainability. And finally, I have to say that since 2016, the reform of the Italian budget legislation require the integration of sustainable development indicators into the government budgetary process. So, you can understand for all these reasons, we believe that Italy is an interesting case of study.

DR: Well, what methodology did you use in your research?

EM: We use an exploratory approach in order to understand if and how sustainability is integrated into city strategic plans. We identified some early adopters of Italian cities, the following the procedure that I'm going to summarise you. First of all, we analyse the most recent strategic plans, we refer to the planning cycle 2020/2022 of all the 110 Italian capital cities of provinces. For each of this plan, we carried out a textual search using some key words – for example, sustainable development, Sustainable Development Goals, equitable and sustainable wellbeing – and we identified 19 cities that potentially used the sustainable development concept in their plan in this way. The next phase was aimed at understand to what extent these 19 cities integrated the sustainability paradigm, and to do this we develop the conceptual framework, integrating the SDG perspective at all stages of the traditional planning and control cycle. And we identified some assessment criteria. These assessment criteria was aimed at observing the integration of the sustainability concept, for example, in the political vision, in the gap analysis and in the context analysis, in the integration of strategic objectives, and targets. And finally, in the definition of the of performance indicators. In the end, we investigated the eventual integration of the sustainability paradigm over time. And at the level of the operational planning. I would like to add one thing, because I think that is important to specify that this study is focused on the dimension of the former strategy that is explicitly accounted by documents, and it is not focused on the formulation process.

DR: Enrico, how did your background in management inform your research?

Enrico Guarini: Oh, thank you, Daniel. We all three of the authors are from management research background. And so, we are aware that the implementation of SDGs from the global to local levels needs private and public sector organisations either committed in the adoption concrete actions in this perspective. So, for governments have you seen these means moving from the central to the regional and local government levels. But the questions are: what happens within individual organisations. So, we can ask how local governments include specific goals and priorities in their strategy. And how is these implemented so, how they measure the achievement goals and how they make managers accountable on that. This is the typical subject to investigation of management studies. So, to improve the SDG implementation process at the local level, we just use it the well-known framework for planning and control process, developing the extend management control literature in order to develop an integrative framework for the inclusion of SDGs within local governments strategic planning and management process. The framework as we heard before is comprising five components. The first is the political vision, so SDGs must be recognised on the political agenda of the leading coalition—either national or local level. This seems to be a preliminary condition that influence the implementation process, and its effectiveness as well. City Managers in this perspective can play a critical role by developing and guiding the strategic planning process, even if their power must be shared with political leaders as well. The second component is the identification of SDGs goals and targets, which are important the for the city Coalition and the city manager since SDGs do not entail mandatory requirements for certain levels targets. And this means that local governments can align one or more SDGs to their local issues, and choose relevant content-specific targets as well to demonstrate their commitment/contribution to global goals. In the paper, we have suggested possible patterns of actions for this process. The third component is the gap analysis. So, once relevant SDGs and targets have been identified by city leaders and map it to existing policies, the local government should conduct analysis of the environment aimed at identifying local needs and current city performance. Of course, this should pay the staff should be supplemented by an internal assessment of strengths and weaknesses as well, in order to identify gaps and opportunity for improvement. After that, the fourth component of the model is to setting this the local SDG agenda in practice in this stage involve management processes aimed at defining strategies and plans in order to be to get between the current and desired performance in the local context. As a result, you can understand that current city strategy may be adapted, revised, in order to achieve improved outcomes. So local strategy should also be set by engaging citizens and other local stakeholders through the process of selection adaptation and also prioritisation of SDGs and targets. The last part of the model is performance measurement control, so that achieving SDGs at the strategic levels, of course, require effective measurement control system within the organisation. And here performance information is critical in order to track progress of SDG targets, and also to take corrective actions. It is also important to link sustainability targets with performance evaluation systems. So in the end, what we do is by explaining the relationship among these five components, we just aim it to provide an introductory foundational framework on which to build future knowledge on SDG implementation on the local level.

DR: That's really interesting. Was there anything in the course of your research that surprised you?

EG: Oh sure, of course. First, we expected a high number of cities engaged in the integration of SDGs in strategic planning. We found that only 19 out of 110 cities explicitly incorporated this concept, of course, to varying degrees. And we found that SDGs are currently used to broadly describe how the city's contributed to global sustainable development concerns. But none of these cities integrate SDGs at all stages of the planning and control cycles, which means across the five components we have talked before completing also setting the local SDG agenda and performance measure indicators as well. For example, none of the cities disclose specific SDGs related to targets or set specific operational objectives for managers of organisational units. We check for an explanation for that, and one of these could be that Local Government missions and institutional responsibilities might overlap in some way with the SDGs. So that city managers are more inclined to follow the existing objects and routines. Or rather, maybe that SDGs act as just as a cover up label. From that, however, we found a positive signal in that some cities have been engaged in such process across three planning cycles, so that the temporal continuity is good. And we can expect some improvement on that in the future.

DR: Your paper identifies possible patterns of actions that public managers will find useful. Oh, Elisa, can you highlight a few of those for our listeners?

EM: Yeah, sure. First of all, we have to say that the integration of the SDGs in the city strategic planning implies that the political agenda should be aligned with the sustainable development priorities. And this means that local governments can align SDGs with the local issue by using two different managerial approaches. The first one is that city leaders can use SDGs as a management framework for strategic planning and provide a sort of goal planning structure for driving goal formulation from the beginning of the planning process. I mean, they can mirror the structure of the 2030 agenda and derive local goals from this agenda. Alternatively, SDGs may be used as a reference framework during the planning process to map out the existing city goals and strategies align with the global or maybe national sustainability goals. Of course, the easiest way to start over is the second one, while the first one could, for sure, better improve accountability, because citizens and other stakeholders can be engaged and involved in translating the SDGs into local priorities and is also a sign of a stronger political commitment to sustainability and to the sustainability concept. Second, as we said before, with regard to patterns of actions in relation to the framework, and the cases that we analysed, the easiest way to start over is the second one. While on the contrary, the first one could be useful to better improve accountability because citizen and other stakeholders can be engaged and involved in translating the SDGs into local priorities. And it is also a sign of stronger political commitment to sustainability and to the sustainability concept. Finally, as we said before, I would like to say that with regard to patterns of actions in relation to the framework and cases that we analyse, it is important that cities start to commit to themselves in the integration of the SDG paradigm at all the stages of the planning cycle, and to translate strategic objectives into performance indicator, also at the operational level. These two actions, for sure, will facilitate continuity of the process over time.

DR: Well, but looking at the numbers it sounds like few cities have started to embed these sustainable development concerns into their strategic plans. Elena, maybe you could answer this: what would be your message to the cities that are not yet engaged?

EZ: Well, I – I simply will tell them hurry up, because citizens, companies, associations and nonprofit organisations are more and more sensitive to this issue, and sustainability awareness has grown in society over the last years. Therefore, politicians should pay more attention to strategic plans, embedding sustainability goals, and sustainability should be perceived as a priority in the political agenda of the city. Also, in terms of accountability reporting, in this way politicians would be able to reach a higher consensus level. Secondly, municipalities that have been more sensitive to sustainability issues, and have tried to answer with the appropriate strategies and policies have also acquired design skills and the capabilities that are helpful to collect the European funds. For example, as the record refund. So, this is another big opportunity for local government.

DR: Well, Enrico, I'd like to come back to you for cities which are incorporating the SDGs into their strategic plans, what factors enable success? And what setbacks do they seem to encounter?

EG: Well, Daniel, it's quite difficult for us to answer this question, because we analyse in our paper, only the strategic plan of cities. So I mean, the documents and also the limited number of relevant case we discovered did not allow us to identify the enabling or the interdicting factors. So, at least in the first approximation, it seems that political support is one of the enabling factors. For example, we observed the case of a city, in which the integration of sustainable development goals in the strategic plan was suspended after four years. We did not investigate why this is happening. But surprisingly, this was in conjunction with a mayoral change in a coalition to another. We also control it for this issue in the other cases, and we found that those cases with continuity of the SDG integration in strategic plans over time, were characterised by the same mayor and coalition. Thus, we might point out that political vision and will might be a necessary condition, although not sufficient for the continuity of sustainable management. But this is an issue, of course, that is worth exploring in future research and studies.

DR: Hmm, well, now that you've published this paper in the Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting and Financial Management, what comes next?

EG: Oh, yes, we have a lot of work to do. And then two main goals – first and the short term. First, we would like to explore further the sense making of sustainability and sustainable development strategy within the organisational context. Strategic sense making is the process in which political leaders, public managers deal with strategic issues to construct shared understanding of these issues at stake in the actions also taken by the organisation in response. So, this process involves both cognitive and discursive aspects and dynamics, as well as structured management systems and tools such as performance measure KPIs, incentives, and reward systems, also reporting. So that we want to deeply investigate these issues by making interviews with key actors, and also by comparing different case studies. So, we will continue more qualitative study, but investigating further cases, and insight within each context. Second, we are running a systematic literature review on the topic of sustainability in public management research in order to identify the specific traits of the sustainable management paradigm. Or this by the relevance of the topic, research on this subject remains sort of constellation of case studies, and empirical words, which provide insight, but at the moment we think it lacks a cohesive and integrative framework. But we think that now it's right time to do it.

DR: Before we head out. I'd like to ask if you have anything you'd like to add to our conversation?

EZ: Yes, thank you. I would say that sustainability strategies are very important for the future of the country, and for the future of the next generations. Therefore, it's necessary to engage the management in this direction to implement managerial tools and to develop and managerial studies towards that goal. Sustainability is a very important paradigm for improving the quality of life and the wellbeing of communities and for the challenges faced by public management. As Stephen Cohen wrote, it's time to switch from general management to sustainability management.

EM: Yeah, I would like to have that governance mechanism across government tiers are important, too. They may play an important role in localising SDGs because the higher levels of government may, for example, create policies and financial incentives for local governments to better embed sustainability into their management practices.

EG: Yes, staying on this perspective. Thank you. I think that in the current context, it is fundamental to nurture theoretical frameworks and practices for helping public managers to embed the concepts of sustainability into decision making and organisational routines and practices. I think that the education and training of future leaders is an important component of this process, and will act as a driver for behavioral change in the next future. If we succeed in this goal, it will be normal in the future to have the values and principles of sustainability embedded in the culture of public leaders, and within the management capabilities of public sector organisations. I think it will be possible for the Sustainable Development concept to survive in the next future beyond political coalitions.

DR: When I was reading the article, I was wondering how local government officials may not even be aware of the SDGs. Do you think that the central government has a role to play in disseminating information to the local governments?

EG: Sure, I think this is an important issue, because national strategies will act as a driver for implementing the SDGs at the local level, and especially in playing as facilitating the projects, the local level funding, also specific projects. And this is an opportunity also for Italy, because we are seeing that a lot of funds are moving down from the center to the regional and local level, in order to act with a specific project on SDG implementation. So, we are – we expect the next future to have more cities engaged in this process. And I think the central government acting as a driver will facilitate also the development of this kind of awareness at local level and within the organisation as well.

DR: Well, I know it wasn’t specific to your research, but looking beyond Italy, have any other countries or local governments around the world caught your attention?

EG: In the paper, of course, we have focused on Italy. But we are interested also to explore other countries in which this kind of awareness is more developed in order to find what are the drivers. I think, personally, that culture and political awareness is one of the drivers, and also pressure from citizen stakeholders as well. I think now, time is common in all countries, especially if we look at the pressure from citizen stakeholders to have common ground for developing this kind of awareness on the side of our politicians. So, we expect also that in those countries in which this awareness is not well developed at the moment, and we need more incentives or pressure from the central government, the pressure from the bottom level and stakeholder. And so we are seeing also more – more movements on the bottom and ground level pushing politician to take actions, and so in this sense, we will expect a growing results and performance in next future.

DR: So thank you very much. I thought I thought that was a really great conversation.

EG: Thank you, Daniel.

EM: Thank you.

DR: Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about our guests, a link to their article, as well as the transcript to the podcast on the homepage. I'd like to thank Melissa Close for help with today's episode and Alex Jungius of This is Distorted.