The former mayor of Washington, DC, weighs in on the importance of metro areas.

By Brian Adams
February 21, 2018

Cities are determining public policy and may soon start sending mayors to the Oval Office according to Anthony Williams MPP/JD 1987. “The economic force throughout the country is in metropolitan areas like Washington Metro,” Williams says. “Metro areas are very powerful, and they’re shaping and determining public policy. I think a mayor could be president in 10 years.”

For Williams, the former chief financial officer and two-term mayor for Washington, DC, the consolidation of people and power in major cities is a trend that will only continue. “The majority of our world is going to be in a city by 2050,” Williams says. “Many of the world’s problems are shaped in cities and so are their solutions.”

Sweeping change is something Williams has built his career on. As CFO of the District, he not only balanced the budget—he also achieved a surplus within two years of his appointment. During his two terms as mayor of the District, he attracted billions of dollars in investments and improved services to the city’s neighborhoods. He even brought Major League Baseball back to the District when the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005.

Anthony Williams MPP/JD 1987 speaks at the HKS Public Policy Leadership Conference on February 10, 2018.

Now retired from public office, Williams continues to take on large projects that create the biggest impact. He is currently the leader of Federal City Council, a nonprofit established in 1954 to improve the city he once presided over. “We try to take the strongest players in infrastructure, education, or economic policy and attack the issues facing those areas that are most difficult. If solutions are going to happen anyway, we’re not really interested. Where we can have a big impact—where we can really make a difference—is where we want to engage.”

The opportunities that cities offer for evidence-based policymaking is why Williams hopes Kennedy School alumni build their careers in these centers of power. “I believe that a lot of our students ought to go into local government,” he says. “If you work for an enlightened county manager, city manager, or mayor who really cares about good governance in a relatively small city, you would have enormous responsibility that you could then build on in your career.”

Williams suggests that alumni be able to wear multiple hats and be aggressive about networking with people in similar areas. “Alumni who want to advance in the world of public policy need to feel comfortable acting as an adviser, an analyst, a counselor, and a manager in the democratic process,” Williams says. “You advance your career by getting involved with people in politics.”

Once in the system, Williams says Kennedy School graduates are perfectly placed to take aim at higher office, but need to appreciate that the path may not always be direct. “Alumni should aspire to be the governor, they should aspire to be at the highest levels of government. They need to keep their eyes on the mountain, but it’s like orienteering. Sometimes you go in a straight line, sometimes you have to go in a zig zag, but always remember that even if you can’t see the mountain, you have a plan on how you’re gonna get there.”