In a series of weekly virtual meetings, attending mayors received inspiration from famous world leaders, vital health-care data, and support as they worked to streamline digital transformation in city hall.
Nearly every Thursday since the COVID-19 crisis erupted in March, hundreds of mayors have met online to discuss a series of governing challenges that are unprecedented in modern history, starting with the pandemic and extending to massive nationwide protests over racial injustice.
These meetings have been convened by Bloomberg Philanthropies, specifically by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Organizers describe the goals of this weekly network as twofold: to share valuable data and also to inspire local leaders as they rise to face serious and consequential leadership moments. In addition, the meetings have helped foster collaboration between cities, be it via a formal sharing of best practices or an informal commiserating about the gravity of the day.
These meetings typically began with a notable speaker, including three former presidents — Clinton, Bush, and Obama — national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and presumed Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden. Following remarks from these experienced leaders, the meetings then segway into sharing of data from the health experts at Johns Hopkins.
In a recent conversation with Government Technology, James Anderson, who leads government innovation programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies, described it as a “mesh network of mayors,” and noted that in the absence of clear federal government leadership, these mayors acting in tandem has been the closest thing to a nationwide crisis response.
Anderson also noted that the combination of networking among cities with a dire, tangible need to respond to the crisis has created a supercharged environment for digital transformation within city government. Essentially, as city offices closed to in-person workers as well as public visits, local government organizations had to do something that those in the tech and innovation space have been calling for for some time — take all their services online. And they had to do it in a way that included the entire population of cities.
“We’ve seen over these last four months a decade’s worth of transformation in work-from-home models, as well as in digital and tech-enabled approaches to meeting needs for vulnerable residents,” Anderson said. “So many breakthroughs have happened. Advocates have been pushing for digital transformation, and I think that door is now fully open.”
As the immediate devastation of the crisis begins to lessen, there will be a flashpoint for digital transformation in local government, a moment where leaders can preserve systems put in place during the crisis, or can instead essentially regress to the point at which things began.
“The challenge for those of us that are focused on public-sector transformation and for all of the leading mayors is how you mainstream those gains, lock them in and build on them,” Anderson said, “and don’t go back to some of these brick-and-mortar ways of working that are less resilient, less efficient and less impactful.”
Mayor Andre Sayegh of Paterson, N.J., said that he, for example, had learned invaluable approaches to modernized messaging through the convenings. Mayor Sayegh has taken to different uses of social media during the pandemic, recording messages to air directly to residents, and even going live online from where he was quarantining in his basement.
Sayegh described it all as “an effective tool in the way I communicate and the way I strategize,” and he noted that he planned to continue using what he’d learned after the crisis has ended. He also said he would stay in touch with other mayors.
“It’s an enlightening and an empowering experience,” Mayor Sayegh said. “There’s no pandemic playbook, but this comes close.”
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