Beating the Clock: Strategic Management under the Threat of Direct Democracy


  • Todd L. Ely is assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, where he teaches courses on governmental budgeting and accounting, public fi nance, and local government management. His research addresses the fi nancing of state and local public services, education fi nance and policy, and public and nonprofi t fi nancial management. E-mail:

  • Benoy Jacob is assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver and director of the Center for Local Government Research and Training in the Buechner Institute for Governance. His research addresses issues in local political economy. E-mail:


This article explores public sector responsiveness to voter-led initiatives, specifically, the degree to which public managers attempt to lock in resources before they are constrained by a particular initiative. The authors posit that such behavior, which they term “beating the clock,” is a function of the potential impact of the proposed initiative, the degree to which managers can react to the initiative's central issues, and the perceived likelihood of passage. Although scholars have explored different responses to voter-led initiatives, this particular form of strategic behavior has yet to be studied. Using longitudinal data on public debt issuance, hypotheses are tested in the context of a reform proposed through the initiative process in Colorado in 2010. Results show that the number of debt issues increased by roughly 150 percent in advance of a potentially binding election, indicating the ability to preempt formal initiative efforts in certain policy areas.