Louisville, home of bourbon and thoroughbreds, is steeped in tradition. But today the Kentucky town has emerged as one of the country’s “it” cities, with a thriving economy and a bold restaurant and arts scene. It’s an energy that has extended to city hall, where Mayor Greg Fischer has become known as an executive who’s focused on steering the city as it crafts a more modern identity.
After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 2008, Fischer was elected mayor in 2010. He had big shoes to fill: His predecessor, Jerry Abramson, had led Louisville for all but four years since 1986. But Fischer, a successful private-sector business leader, got to work quickly. His mandate to department directors was that their performance should, at a minimum, be in the top quartile of cities. “We’re in a major transition time for the world right now,” says Fischer. “I wanted to make sure our city was adapted as best we can to change with that.”
While Fischer says his reason for seeking office was an “old-fashioned” commitment to public service, his approach has been decidedly new school. For example, while Lexington has historically been viewed as a rival, he’s emphasized the need to collaborate. “We’re only 60 miles apart,” says Fischer. “We should be working together to make more pie, not stealing each other’s pie.”
The mayor’s goal is to grow the number of small and medium-sized companies in the region that are exporting internationally. “I think he is very passionate and committed to the agenda, but he’s also fixated on evidence-based results,” says Amy Liu, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which is working with Fischer on developing a business plan in concert with Lexington. “He’s been asking really hard questions.”
At the heart of his performance efforts is a focus on data. Fischer has implemented a version of the popular “stat” system used in other cities to help measure and improve Louisville’s day-to-day performance. One of LouieStat’s high-profile successes so far is the drastic reduction of fingerprinting errors made by employees at the city’s jail, which dropped from more than 300 per month to fewer than 10. The city was also a first-round winner of a $4.8 million Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, which is being used to fund “innovation delivery teams” working to improve the city’s approach to a host of issues, including recycling, animal control and abandoned properties.
Since Fischer took office, the city has launched a 311 mobile app and online applications to track crime, get permits and file taxes. Louisville has also sponsored hackathons and code-a-thons to help develop technology that engages citizens. As city council President Jim King says, “He tries to find ways to do things rather than ways not to do things.”
Though his reputation emphasizes data and efficiency, Fischer often touts the concept of compassion. A city-sponsored service week garners thousands of volunteers annually, and the mayor often discusses the value of community service. “We have a great soul as a country and a heart as a country,” Fischer says, “but if leaders aren’t talking about that, it’s easy to stray away from it.”
Still, it all comes back to information. In October, Fischer signed an open-data executive order for the city, meaning government in Louisville will be even more transparent and accessible to citizens. In announcing the new policy, Fischer casually summed up the future of his city and other municipalities across the globe:
“It’s data, man.”
By Ryan Holeywell