Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who is now a fellow with the Open Society Foundation, met with a group of us at Governing a few months ago to discuss the project he is working on for the foundation, an effort to identify the characteristics of leadership that result in success for state and local government officials. Of course, before you can identify those traits, you have to define the goal itself. In local government, for example, what constitutes success for a mayor or a city manager?
To me, success means leaving the community in better shape than you found it. That may sound somewhat squishy and hard to measure, but it is possible to apply a fairly rigorous evidence-based, outcome-focused assessment of the extent to which public officials accomplish that goal by evaluating the community along five dimensions: finances, social capital, infrastructure, shared prosperity and involvement in a regional network.
So to my way of thinking, a successful local official is one who leaves behind a city or county government that is in a stronger financial position; whose residents have more trust and confidence in each other; whose infrastructure is better maintained and with increased capacity; whose generated wealth is spread more evenly among the population; and which is more closely connected with and collaborating with other local governments in its region. Each of these dimensions could be explored in greater depth, but each is amenable to fairly sophisticated measurement and analysis, whether through tools that sift through existing data, studies that compare jurisdictions or surveys that measure shared prosperity and the strength of social ties.
While not every project or initiative will encompass all of these five dimensions of success, the story Becker told us of his involvement in building a new performing arts center in Salt Lake City struck me as a good real-world example. Shortly after taking office in 2008, he learned that there was a strong movement to build such a facility in the region. Becker was convinced that building it downtown, rather than in the suburbs, would mean a more positive future not only for the city but also for its region. It would be a catalyst for more downtown activity and development. It would serve as a venue for more performing arts of a higher quality. And it would enhance sustainability: Having a theater with easy transit access in the heart of downtown would bring efficiencies in the use of space, energy and travel and also avoid reinforcing the suburbanization of the Salt Lake region.
The Eccles Theater opened, to great acclaim, in October 2016 in the heart of Salt Lake City. Becker had left office by the time it opened. But few would dispute that he and those who collaborated with him on the theater project had, in at least one way, left behind a better community.