Introducing: How to Be a Better Mayor 101

Harvard and Bloomberg Philanthropies have teamed up to offer what they say is the first major effort to formally educate mayors about how to be more effective.
October 20, 2016
Jorrit de Jong will lead the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. (FlickrCC/Kennisland)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

How does a mayor learn to be effective? For many, it's on-the-job experience. After all, colleges don't offer courses called "How to Be a Mayor 101."

At least not until now.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Bloomberg Philanthropies have teamed up for a new educational program that will provide a select group of mayors with the resources necessary for the job.

Jorrit de Jong, a lecturer in public policy and management at Harvard University, is in charge of the program, which is called the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. We spoke to him to find out more about the program's curriculum, goals, process for selecting mayors and more.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell us a little about the elements that Bloomberg and Harvard bring to the game?

Bloomberg Philanthropies is one of the most active philanthropies in the world of city innovation. Harvard University has deep expertise in management, leadership and in educating CEOs both in the public and private sector. If you put that together, you have the advantages of the academic ecosystem and all the networks, expertise and resources the Bloomberg Philanthropies has. That brings something new to the world: the first comprehensive effort to help mayors become more effective and innovative.

How will the educational process be structured?

We see this as an ongoing program of support to mayors. There will be an all-expenses-paid, three-day convening in New York City. Then, we'll reconvene the mayors three times in the year after that through a virtual classroom, like an IMAX Theater, so they can participate without having to travel.

The second step is that they get to send one of their top aides to be part of a five-day program, also in New York, and that group will also reconvene three times.

Then we'll send a student from Harvard to the mayors’ offices, where they'll work for eight weeks helping the mayors implement the programs they’ve begun to develop.

We also have some ad hoc assistance. Let’s say a mayor says “I want to know the top five most successful approaches to using data analytics in the local transit system or education system.” We can put together a team of students who will figure that out for them. And they won’t just provide examples but discover under what conditions those practices might work in a city.

How are you forming the curriculum?

We’re not just drawing on the successes but also on the challenges people have confronted in the past. We’re drawing from the academic world and the world of practice and are putting something together that’s actionable. We’re creating a process where mayors and their senior staff learn from around the world, from theory and from each other.

How are the mayors selected?

We’re looking for mayors who are most eager to learn and most committed to change. The selection is by invitation. We’re focusing on cities of 100,000 or more because you have to cut it off somewhere. In the United States, that’s about 300 cities. We plan to invite 75 percent of the mayors in that group.

Where are you right now in the process?

We’re currently building up the operation, which will take a couple of months, and then we’ll select and invite mayors. Within the first six weeks, we’ve had over 1,500 requests from mayors, city staff, students and other interested people from all over the world who want to be part of this. We have no doubt that there’s a real demand and eagerness.

Obviously, you’re barely off the launching pad. But what have been your biggest challenges? 

I thought people would be more skeptical about universities working with the cities. But we’ve made it clear in our announcements that the program is not simply about academics teaching practitioners what they know. It takes seriously the problems that mayors and their staffs face and how others have overcome them. We want to bring together those mayors who have acknowledged they can’t solve all their problems alone.

What would be a definition of success in this effort?

The overall purpose is to strengthen leadership and management in cities by making them more innovative, which means more data-driven, performance-oriented and collaborative.

You can buy all the smart screens you want, but if nobody is effectively driving the programs and policies, things fall apart. Mayors need to learn how to self-assess and ask the right questions before they look for the answers.