AFI Membership and Adoption of Sustainability Actions

ARTICLE | Apr 21, 2011

The 2010 Local Government Sustainability Policies and Programs survey developed by the Alliance for Innovation (AFI) and the Center for Urban Innovation and Sustainable Cities Network at Arizona State University was conducted by the International City/County Management Association.  The survey had an overall response rate of 25%.  Among the respondents, there are over 100 AFI members (a response rate of 39%) and 38 former members of AFI (a response rate of 30%).  How do the responses compare based on current membership, former membership, or no membership in AFI?

The survey included 109 actions that local governments can take to promote sustainability.  The level of sustainability practices is measured by an overall adoption rating that assesses both the number and range of activities the government is using.  The rating varies from 0-100%.

The number of local governments in each category is as follows: 

Member status

Adoption rating


Current AFI






Not a member






This is a graphic display of the differences.

Adoption Survey Figure 1

These results are consistent with previous analysis of adoption of other local government innovations.   AFI members are above average compared to all local governments.  In addition, former members don’t perform as well as current members.  Dropping membership could mean a weaker commitment to innovation, but the drop in scores on this and other measures suggests that active and current communication with AFI makes a difference.  In comparison, governments that have not been members have a performance level that is slightly below average and well below that of AFI members.

Above average adoption for all AFI members does not mean that the performance of all member government is identical.  There is variation just as there is in local governments generally.  Some do more than others.  Still, when comparing the percent of AFI members and all responding governments that fall into four categories for the level of sustainability action, the differences in the distribution of governments are substantial.  Figure 2 shows the percent of AFI members and of governments that have never been affiliated with AFI that fall into four categories from low to high adoption of sustainability practices.

Adoption Survey Figure 2

AFI members are above average and most of them—over 45%—are in the category of high adopters compared to just 15% of the responding local governments generally.  

In addition, current AFI members are also more likely than other governments to have joined national sustainability campaigns.  In addition, the councils in these cities are much more likely to have adopted sustainability policy goals.

Member status

Signed Climate Protection Plan

Member of ICLEI

Adoption of Goals by Council

Current AFI








Not a member









As noted, these findings regarding the higher likelihood that AFI members are in the above average group carries over to a number of other new practices in local government that have been examined in surveys by ICMA.  When combining responses from surveys on reinventing government in 2003, e-Government in 2004, and the strategic planning practices in the State of the Profession survey in 2006, a 30-point index has been created in a study by Kim Nelson and me.[i]  Over half of the AFI members city governments are in the high adoption category compared to 16% of cities that have not been members. 

Adoption Survey Figure 3

What is different about these results compared to sustainability actions is that cities generally approximate a “normal” distribution in the adoption of innovations from a cluster of related activities.  One in six is out front, about two thirds are clustered above and below the mean level of adoption, and one is six has a low level of adoption or lags behind.  This is the distribution for the composite adoption measure in Figure 3.  When it comes to sustainability, on the other hand, most governments are still tilted toward the low end of the scale as indicated in Figure 2.[ii]  Consequently, the moderately high to high adoption rates of most AFI members stands out even more in comparison to other governments. 


[i]  Kimberly L. Nelson and James H. Svara, “Form of Government Still Matters: Fostering Innovation in U.S. Municipal Governments,” American Review of Public Administration, published online 15 March 2011 A total of 492 cities completed the three surveys or 15 percent of the 3257 cities over 10,000 in population.

[ii] James H. Svara, “The Early Stage of Local Government Action to Promote Sustainability,” Municipal Year Book 2011 (Washington, DC:  International City/County Management Association, 2011), pp. 43-60.

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