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Gauging the State of Local Government at CityLab 2021

Mayors and others involved with local government from across the globe convened online this week for the preeminent local government conference, during which equity was perhaps the most omnipresent focus of attention.

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris speaking at DNC.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. (Shutterstock)
Bloomberg CityLab — perhaps the world’s preeminent annual gathering of local government experts and officials — wrapped up Wednesday online, with one of the most consistent topics of discussion being the importance of equitable recovery from the pandemic.

Indeed, nearly every online panel at CityLab touched in some way on the importance of recovering from COVID-19 in a way that included all members of the community, be it in terms of vaccine distribution, economic bounceback or bridging the digital divide. The latter point was especially prevalent as many panelists discussed a tale of two pandemics: one wherein office workers were largely able to weather the virus by working from home while less wealthy members of the community suffered job loss or faced inherently dangerous in-person work conditions. 

The keynote speaker for the event was Vice President Kamala Harris, making one of her most prominent public addresses since ascending to the job in January. Harris also addressed the importance of equity within the present moment, noting that within the nation’s ongoing pandemic, cities had been especially hard hit due to having so many people living so close together. She also stressed that inequity is part of our current crisis.

“Survival is not the end game,” Harris said. “We want our cities and our counties to thrive, not just survive. The crises we face have made clear the inequities and injustices that persist. The opportunity in front of us is to shape a better future.” 

The entire event — as well as the overall state of local government — was inherently quite different than the last time CityLab took place during an in-person event held in Washington, D.C., at the end of 2019. Equity was a topic of discussion then as well, but with the pandemic on no one’s radar as of yet, discussion was more varied and wide-spanning, with emphasis split among everything from the housing crisis to environmental responsibilities to cybersecurity. And these topics were frequently discussed this year as well, just always within the ever-present context of pandemic recovery. 

As it pertained to cybersecurity, for example, one of the panels featured Chris Krebs, the first director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a position from which Krebs was dismissed in part for his role in combating disinformation about the presidential election results being promoted and propagated by former President Donald Trump and his allies. 

Krebs pointed to three primary cybersecurity threats for cities: ransomware that disrupts services, growing distrust in government and a worsening digital divide. That last point, obviously, gets back once again to equity. 

And while no one downplayed the challenges local government continues to face for the foreseeable future — among them some residents leaving for less populous communities, reopening schools and dealing with pandemic-resultant budget shortfalls — a tone of optimism was often struck. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, speaking on a panel entitled How Cities Can Build More Inclusive Economies, talked about the importance of lessons learned during the crisis.

“One of the big headlines coming out of the pandemic is that the things that we thought were impossible before are actually possible,” Lightfoot said. “Really, [they’re] absolutely necessary ... one thing that the pandemic has definitely laid bare is a lot of underlying economic fault lines around race, class, gender.”

Lightfoot said that in Chicago they have learned that to ignore those fault lines is to do so at the city’s own peril. 

The impossible-to-possible transition is certainly one that has taken hold as it pertains to digital equity and broadband accessibility during the pandemic. For years, advocates and officials in that space have stressed the importance of action to ensure that communities have equitable access to the Internet, technology and the skills they need to use both in meaningful ways. When the pandemic pushed residents into their homes, they began to rely on tech for work, school and health care. As a result, unprecedented actions took place to bridge digital divide gaps, be it through governmental funding or public-private partnerships that involved sweeping acts of philanthropy. 

In addition to the programming at CityLab, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a series of new support and investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies to “help mayors and city leaders pursue big ideas and get big things done.” This included a $150 million commitment for a new center at Harvard University that aims entirely to strengthen mayors and their teams, a mission Bloomberg said makes it the first of its kind in the U.S. Within that center there will be a new fellowship program to guide Harvard graduates to go to work in cities across the country.

Finally, Bloomberg announced a $25 million partnership with New York University to fund a two-year leadership program to train “a talented and diverse group of students” for careers in student government. 
Check back to Government Technology tomorrow for more information about each of those gifts within the weekly What's New In Civic Tech feature.



Civic Tech
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.