Lessons from Our Best

Over the coming months, I will spotlight some of the best and brightest ideas generated by our nation's mayors, county executives and other government leaders. We will examine the critical qualities, including leadership, tenacity and creativity, that enabled these leaders to transform government services.
by | January 28, 2008

Each year, through the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School, we review more than a thousand federal, city and state applications demonstrating smart and innovative ways to do the public's business better. At the heart of many of these programs, I see a strong, inventive and persistent leader discovering effective new ways to use and stretch resources. These examples, championed by dedicated public servants, should encourage citizens that government can indeed be effective and agile.

Over the coming months, I will spotlight some of the best and brightest ideas generated by our nation's mayors, county executives and other government leaders. We will examine the critical qualities, including leadership, tenacity and creativity, that enabled these leaders to transform government services. When I was mayor of Indianapolis, I searched for successful programs that could be adapted to benefit the city; it is the intention of this series to identify creative solutions that are readily transferable to other jurisdictions.

In a recent Harvard conference for new mayors, for example, Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, recounted that one of his most important accomplishments began by learning about the award-winning CitiStat program in Baltimore. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (now governor of Maryland) championed CitiStat, and gave Curtatone a first-hand view of the program. Curtatone then created SomerStat -- a comprehensive system that builds upon CitiStat's best practices to improve city agency accountability and transparency. The core of the program is weekly performance reviews in which concrete, quantifiable goals are measured against real-time data.

Specifically, we will focus on programs in which a state or local leader championed a major new initiative, such as the environmental actions taken by Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels . Under Mayor Nickels' leadership, the citizens of Seattle agreed to tackle climate protection at the local level. Mayor Nickels articulated a goal that convinced his constituency to take on what is generally perceived as a national or global issue. Seattle's Climate Protection Initiative has reduced government carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels, and Mayor Nickels has led a nationwide movement by cities to take on the fight against global warming.

The success of an initiative sponsored by a mayor often depends upon persuasively articulating the case for change and getting the commitment of stakeholders. For example, despite research suggesting that preschool has the potential to reduce urban ills, Denver citizens twice voted down ballot initiatives offering early childhood education to urban residents. Mayor John Hickenlooper evaluated why the initiatives had failed and decided to take an alternative approach: the mayor invited the city's business community to take part in designing the program, crafting a strong economic rationale for improving childhood education. This strategy worked, and ultimately garnered Denver voter approval.

The growing complexity of public problems -- exacerbated by perennially tightening budgets -- demands that public officials look for new ways to solve these problems. Involving multiple city agencies, jurisdictions, and business and community partners has become increasingly essential. Early in 2003, when he first took office, Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor David Cicilline made after-school education programs a priority for the city. Pointing to a wealth of research citing the hours of 3 pm to 6 pm as the most dangerous for children, Cicilline argued that Providence must renew its dedication to serving the city's children. By bringing the city's school, police, recreation, parks, university, and hospital officers to the drawing table, Cicilline was able to launch a citywide after-school program that has already enrolled 2,000 children.

Government leaders across the nation can offer lessons on how to transform a great idea into a program that provides significant public value. All of these achievements depend on some mix of strength of vision, a superior management style, a commitment to accountable and transparent practices, and a unique approach to program development.

Yet, the definition of a bold new idea can no longer be how to extend government's reach. Already, service demand exceeds taxpayer ability in many American cities. Therefore, we will also focus on innovations where city and state leaders facilitate marketplace or collaborative solutions, or transform service delivery.

The purpose of the forthcoming interviews and features will be to create a spotlight that helps officials find programs and ideas that they might apply in their own communities.

I welcome your suggestions and feedback throughout the series. E-mail me at stephen_goldsmith@harvard.edu.

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