Creating a typology of city governments to measure their capabilities


Source: Alexis Tostado

By Ruth Puttick, Fernando Fernandez-Monge, and Rainer Kattel

No two cities are equal. Our aim is to create a globally relevant city government capabilities assessment toolbox, so we need to understand the similarities and differences between cities within countries, across continents, and worldwide. And we need to ensure that city governments can identify and effectively learn from their peers. This is where our city government typology comes in.

A tale of many cities

Often, when presented with a “best practice” or the successful example of another city, officials soundly respond “yes, but here is different”. And it is true, each city has its particular history, it is shaped by certain political dynamics, and has its own social, economic and geographical features. At the same time, cities can, and do, learn from each other. Often by looking at cities that share some similarities with them, such as a medium-sized post-industrial city analyzing the transformation of another similar-sized city that has gone through a similar restructuring. But they can also learn from how they differ, such as by looking at how particular investments or governance arrangements allowed the other city to steer the transformation successfully.

This is exactly what our typology seeks to do. The goal is not to “box” a city in a certain category, but rather help cities identify key variables that are relevant to their purposes, so they can find similar — but also different — cities in the categories that are important to them. This can be called an emergent typology: where a city ends up in the typology may change depending on from which vantage point we look at the particular city.

What are typologies anyway?

Typologies are classification schemes that “order the complexity of the living world” and help understand complex domains (Nickerson, et al., 2013, p. 336). We follow Bailey (1994, p. 1) and define classification as the process of “ordering entities into groups or classes based on similarity”. A common practice in biology, typologies are also used across the social sciences to structure knowledge and help study relationships between concepts.

For now, the typology of cities that we are developing will help us guide our engagement with city governments, so that we can incorporate diverse views and perspectives whilst being mindful that we have limited time to undertake this research. To develop this selection criteria, we have drawn upon existing city government typologies.

We found that different disciplines have developed different typologies. For example, public administration identified typologies related to executive power, political science explored formal/informal governance arrangements, and urban studies focused on modes of governance, such as managerial, corporatist, pro-growth, and welfare, whilst business scholars looked at the economic status of cities. Then there are other typologies that focus on a particular topic, such as procurement.

These existing typologies usefully characterize city governments and/or the wider city based on various governance, societal and economic factors. However, there are several limitations. None provide a comprehensive approach that combine governance, societal, and economic factors. Most are focused on advanced economies, either in Europe or USA, and there is little consideration of city governments in other geographies. Few provide indicators and publish the underlying data to enable the typology to be reapplied in the same or alternative cities. And beyond the typology’s use in the original study, the influence and wider application of each typology is unclear.

Developing a new typology

Drawing upon the existing city government typologies and expanding on what they contain, we have developed our own. This is summarised in the table below with details on our rationale for selecting each variable.

Beyond economic, societal, and environmental variables that influence a city government, we have also included in our selection criteria the willingness of city governments to engage in our research. This is something that we want to be transparent about. Desk research can only get us so far, and to understand the capabilities in a city government, we need officials to be willing to engage in our primary research through interviews or workshops and share insights into their work.

This typology is helping us to select a global and diverse range of city governments to engage in developing a globally relevant city government capabilities assessment toolbox. We are already researching a range of city governments and we will continue to do so over the next year through a mix of interviews and workshops. Refined by the results from this field work, we hope the resulting typology will also be a useful tool for cities to identify peer cities and even inform future academic research through a practice-informed analytical tool.

Get involved

If you work in a city government and you would like to help develop and prototype the Public Sector Capabilities Index, we would love to hear from you. Please contact Mia Tarp, for further details.



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato