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01 August 2017

40 mayors go back to school

“I LITERALLY went home every night for the first three months and said, “Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?’,” Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, recently told the Boston Globe. Jorge Elorza, Providence’s mayor, remembers sitting in his office after he was sworn in and wondering “how do we begin?”

Many mayors are skilled campaigners, but being in office requires a different set of qualities. Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s mayor and one of the attendees, was in post just 14 days when his city endured a terrorist attack. American companies spend around $15bn a year in leadership development, but there is little, if any, training for public-sector chief executives.

Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, hopes to change that. Thanks to a $32m gift his charity, Bloomberg Philanthropies, along with Harvard’s Business and Kennedy Schools, has created a year-long programme designed for serving mayors. The inaugural cohort began studying on July 17th. Forty mayors, 30 of them from American cities, including the mayors of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Phoenix and Mobile, spent three days back at school in New York.

This being Harvard, the mayors looked at case studies, on subjects from a sandwich-shop keeper in Amsterdam who was struggling to navigate his city’s bureaucracy, to the use of data in a blight-stricken city in Massachusetts. John Giles, mayor of Mesa, Arizona, took pages and pages of notes.

The school for mayors is not about promoting any particular policy, though some of Mr Bloomberg’s grander accomplishments, such as the new Cornell Tech’s applied sciences campus, and the High Line, an elevated park which helped spark development in a neglected part of the city, were presented as examples. Instead, the programme is more about how to think like a CEO. In Providence, says Mr Elorza, the pervading culture used to be that you had to know a guy to get things done.

He streamlined permitting, reducing the number of application forms from 44 to nine. He copied from other cities, installing a 311 system, a municipal customer-service line like the one in New York, and appointed an innovation officer, as Pittsburgh has, to try to change the government’s culture.

Government does not need to be run like a business, but the curriculum developers thought that mayors could benefit from expertise supplied by academics and by actual managers. Running a city is harder than running a company, says Mr Bloomberg: the media spotlight is glaring, pressure from unionised workforces can make it hard to cut even bad programmes and regulation can throttle innovation.

The sessions, staged in a Harvard classroom-like setting, with tiered desks in a u-shape, were closed to the press. But during breaks the mayors asked each other for their takes on issues like drug legalisation. Some Democratic mayors in Republican states admitted the battle to curb guns was lost. Others talked about growing inequality in their cities. Mayors from all over the world complained about the uselessness of the federal government.

Mr Bloomberg reckons there is a sense of urgency in cities over the lack of leadership coming from the federal and state governments. Meanwhile, mayors are finding that their responsibilities extend beyond policing and filling potholes. One mayor recalled a constituent coming to him for marital advice.

Mayors are also having to face national and international problems that go beyond their formal authority, such as immigration and climate change. There are three major political parties in the United States, says Mr Elorza: Republicans, Democrats and mayors. And mayors do not have time for ideological disputes.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “School for mayors”

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