Mayors Come and Go, But Good Ideas Should Stick

Upcoming elections will test the sustainability of mayors’ innovation initiatives.
August 11, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Due to term limits, the innovative mayors of Nashville and Philadelphia will soon be replaced.

It is a critical time for two of our Cohort One cities. Due to term limits, Nashville and Philadelphia are in the process of electing new mayors -- the former in September and the latter in November. In both cities, the change in leadership will test the sticking power of the innovative policies and practices currently underway.

While it is true that in most cities -- particularly in larger municipalities -- much of the day-to-day functioning of government is handled by rank-and-file employees, it remains no less true that in cities with a strong mayor form of government the direction of the community is often determined by the power and personality of the individual holding the top office.

Nashville and Philadelphia have benefitted greatly from the wise guidance of their mayors for the past eight years. I am a long-time admirer of Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville and Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. They will be tough acts to follow.

I recently spent some time in Nashville observing as the city prepares for its mayoral transition. Kristine LaLonde and Yiaway Yeh, co-leaders of Mayor Dean's Office of Innovation, are holding face-to-face meetings with employees of the various metro city departments who have undertaken the difficult work of innovation. The purpose of this is to more carefully define and document what the city has accomplished to help ensure it lives on in another administration.

As part of the process, employees offered insight into what they had learned during their tenure. One staffer described the eye-opening realization that there were significant duplications in service across the city government enterprise, with individuals in different departments doing the same or similar work. Often it became obvious multiple people were attempting to serve the same citizens through programs that went by different titles and sometimes obtaining funding from different sources. In realizing this, the city was able to identify and correct serious overlaps and gaps in service and employees were pleased to have gone through the process even though it added to their daily work.

It is easy to foresee this same process taking place in Philadelphia. Establishing a climate of innovation in local government is an important legacy that, if thoroughly embedded, will serve the citizens of these communities for decades. The investment of time, expense and general difficulty in overcoming inertia in the bureaucratic functioning of public enterprise must not go to waste. Speaking from experience, I know that public employees take great comfort in the past. Given any opportunity, they will revert to the way things were previously done. It’s human nature.

In a best-case situation, an incoming mayor will build on the existing foundation. Wise leadership will realize that it is important that the overall positive course of the community not be dramatically altered and that efforts to address the ongoing needs of the citizens not be casually ignored or abruptly abandoned midstream.

In my 40 years of public service, I have witnessed countless municipal transitions and, unfortunately, it is often the weakest new leaders who are dramatically disruptive - in a destructive way, not the helpfully subversive form of disruption that is much sought after today. Such individuals sometimes act hastily to shake things up and put their own brand on things. A more seasoned and self-confident individual will take time to evaluate programs and personnel.

A city is like a ship. It’s certainly fine to alter course, but it's best to not try and turn too quickly. Significant damage can be done and precious time and resources can be lost.  A progressive course has been mapped. A profitable venture is being thoroughly documented and defined. Hopefully, the new leaders in Nashville and Philadelphia will recognize the good work and innovative practices in place and support a continued spirit of innovation. 

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.