Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative Convenes in NYC

For the third year, organizers welcomed mayors and their senior staff members to a three-day professional development program in New York City, during which participants examined famous case studies within local government.

NEW YORK CITY — Mayors and senior city hall staffers from 41 jurisdictions across the globe recently attended a professional development program for executive-level public servants, aimed at helping with the evolving challenge of running increasingly complex cities.

The program, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, was a joint collaboration between the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Now in its third year, organizers welcomed a third class of participants to start the program this summer at Bloomberg headquarters in New York City. First the mayors attended a multi-day event there — replete with lessons from Harvard faculty, staff and students — soon after, their senior city hall staffers did the same. 

Government Technology was invited to sit in on the latter event, and what emerged was a picture of an invaluable professional development experience for those who work within local government, one that used real-world case studies to disseminate, analyze and discuss a range of problems facing most — if not all — modern cities.  

The attendees were a diverse group, in terms of ethnicity and gender, as well as the sizes and locations of their cities. Three quarters were public officials from the U.S., while the others came from as far as Australia, Ghana or Poland. The case studies, too, were diverse in both nature and solution, with some involving the use of technology — an effort to map the bus routes in the megalopolis of Mexico City stood out — while others involved less concrete measures.

The overall feel was one of effective and specified expertise shared with a group in a niche field that holds sway over millions of people. Organizers stressed the importance of these types of events for giving those who run our cities the tools they need to overcome obstacles, noting that sizable sums are invested in C-suite professional development in the private sector while public-sector leaders are often just expected to know how to do everything the citizenry needs or asks.

"The private sector invests more than $42 billion each year in executive development but there is no equivalent in the public sector,” organizers wrote in their description of the event. “The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative aims to close this gap to help mayors excel.”    

One topic discussed at the senior city hall staffers event was in line with a prominent talking point within the gov tech arena: when it comes to innovation, how should cities discuss the results? Traditionally in local government, results are framed as clearly defined. Either a public undertaking wins or it losses, succeeds or fails. 

When it comes to tech and innovation — and also to generally trying to create heretofore unknown ways of solving difficult challenges — success and failure is a much fuzzier concept, with each stumbling block representing a learned lesson that can be used to guide future work. This was a lesson inherent to one of the use cases presented at the senior staffer’s event, with a Harvard professor guiding a conversation in which a strong majority of the room shared thoughts, theories and anecdotes from their own city halls.

The goal for the program is to ultimately work with as many as 240 cities across the country. In order to participate in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, cities must be invited by organizers to apply. Organizers typically aim to include mayoral administrations that are newly elected or recently re-elected, catching them at times when energy is the highest and the direction of their work is perhaps a bit more malleable than it would otherwise tend to be. 

Organizers also work with the cities to advise them on which senior staff members should attend, preferring those who have influence over a range of city governance, rather than the leaders of single departments. 

Cities that attended the recent event in New York are really just getting started with the learning process. In the year to come, they will participate in one of three tracks — data, innovation, or collaboration — continuing to receive guidance from experts in those spaces.

For reference, last year's full curriculum can be found online here.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine