Policy Innovation Through A Wormhole Effect

When city managers move to different local governments, they circulate climate policy innovation among municipal governments in the United States.

This topic is discussed in a recent article titled Portable Innovation, Policy Wormholes and Innovation Diffusion, by Dr. Hongtao Li and Wenna Chen, which was published in a recent issue with journal Public Administration Review.

They call it the “policy wormhole effect,” where the career transitions of these managers allow city leaders to learn from distant jurisdictions. In their study, they found that city managers tend to carry along policy ideas and managerial experiences, in this case, climate policy innovation, along their career trajectory.

In astrophysics, the wormhole effect was a metaphor to describe the shortened distance between two locations as a result of space-time curvature. Imagine that two separated areas of an apple get closer to each other, as a worm chewing from one side, through the center and to the opposite side. A policy wormhole functions just like that.

When a manager moves from his or her old position to a new position, he or she creates a wormhole between the two geographically separated regions through his or her own career trajectory. In other words, two distant locations become closer to each other, as a result of the career trajectory of city managers.

The idea of the policy wormhole helps explain a commonly seen phenomenon in policy and managerial practice. Traditionally, the distribution of innovation is perceived through a geography-based perspective. But more often, distribution of innovation could be facilitated by introducing change agents that are further away.

This study has practical implications for organizations and managers. We often see football teams recruit head coaches from other teams with proven success; we see universities hire university presidents, deans, directors and faculty members from other universities; we see school districts hire superintendents from other successful districts; we see companies head-hunt successful managers from their peers or competitors.

Yi and Chen would argue that these practices could all facilitate the creation of “policy wormholes” that helps the hiring institution to learn from the targeted organization through bringing in the change agent.

The key takeaway is two-fold: First, hiring decisions are very important. Second, to stay competitive, an organization should target those successful managers who exceled in their work in a high-performance organization.

This project was funded by the Fisher Leadership Grant and an earlier version was presented in the inaugural Fisher Leadership Conference.

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