Mayors and their staff are facing an unprecedented leadership challenge as they deal with the impacts of the virus, the economic recession, and civil unrest over police violence and systemic racism. In this Wiener Conference Call, Jorrit de Jong discusses the ongoing work of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative with cities, the way students are engaging with this work, and more.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day, everyone. I am Mari Megias in the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m very pleased to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. As we continue to navigate the new normal, we are providing more opportunities for you to connect with Harvard Kennedy School faculty, so watch your email for future invitations. Also, given that we are running these calls remotely, please accept our apologies for any technical issues we may experience.
Today we are joined by Jorrit de Jong, who is the faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, that is the world’s most comprehensive effort to advance effective problem solving and innovation in cities through executive education, research, curriculum development and fieldwork. He is also the academic director of The Innovations in Government Program at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
Before coming to Harvard, he co-founded the Kafka Brigade, a social enterprise in Europe that helps governments diagnose and remedy bureaucratic disfunction. Before that, he was the director of the Center for Government Studies at Leiden University, and founding co-director of a consulting firm for the public sector in Amsterdam. We are so fortunate that Jorrit de Jong has chosen to share his thoughts on cities and COVID-19 with Kennedy School alumni and friends. Jorrit.
Jorrit de Jong:
Thank you so much, Mari. I really appreciate this. I also want to thank Mr. And Mrs. Wiener for making this call possible. You were ahead of our time because now, everything is remote, and either on Zoom or in conference calls. But it’s great to join you again for this conversation. I would like to start by just giving a brief overview of what the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is and does, and then zoom in on how we’ve pivoted in response to the multiple crises that cities are facing today. Then I will share some thoughts on what we see emerge as a new form of bottom-up governance, mayors taking charge in the absence of strong coordinated federal leadership. It’s hard work that the mayors are facing and doing today, but there is also hope in the way they do it, and the way they reach out to each other, support each other, learn from one another in responding to the crisis effectively.
To start, as Mari said in her introduction, I specialize in innovation in the public sector. For me, innovation is all about making governance more effective, more efficient, more equitable, more responsive and more resilient. When I talk about effectiveness, I’m talking about tackling problems that communities face. Efficiency is doing it in a way that saves taxpayer money and that gets the biggest bang for the buck. Equitable means doing justice to people, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and reaching out to the more vulnerable members of society. Governments can be more innovative in being a guarantor of social justice as well, as we see in this moment very strongly. Then being more responsive means hearing people, engaging the community residents in problem solving from the diagnosis, to generating solutions, to implementing those.
Then finally, innovation as becoming more resilient means ensuring that there’s continuity of government. I think on all of those five ways to think about innovation, government has been challenged severely in cities. The problems have become bigger, and therefore, cities need to be even more effective in solving inequality, poverty, and doing so with less money. So they have to be more efficient because of the recession that’s coming that we’re already in. There are fewer resources, and municipal finance will take a gigantic hit. So they have to think about reallocating their budgets and making sure that they are extremely focused on spending money where they can, and making sure that they get the best results possible with limited resources.
They also have to be more equitable than ever. The examples of police brutality in recent weeks, but of course for decades and decades, have revealed to a much larger public than before just how bad systemic racism is working out in cities, and how unequal treatment, as well as social and economic circumstances are, particularly for communities of color. The challenge of being innovative here means to do even more in terms of police reform, even more in terms of making sure that there’s equal economic opportunity and so forth. Then of course, the public has been in lockdown for a long time. It became even more important for mayors to be responsive, to hear people, particularly when the normal venues and the normal channels were not functioning as before.
Of course, with the demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen a lot of people taking to the streets. For mayors, it has been an enormous challenge to respond in the right way, to acknowledge the loss, the grief, the hurt, but also to be standing for values that they believe in. To be there for their police department and make sure that there is a conversation about reform, but there is not a wholesale dismissal of the idea of law enforcement. So very hard to navigate. To be innovative in that dimension means to find new ways to engage with the community, and to find new ways to address the problems, and to hear people and engage them in not just appreciating the situation as it is, but also designing a new future.
Then finally, to be more resilient in this time of COVID-19 means to be always extremely cautious. For example, now that many states and cities are reopening, there may be a real challenge of getting people to comply with public health guidance if there are new outbreaks. And there are new outbreaks, and the numbers are increasing. In this time of great uncertainty with regards to public health, with regards to the economy, and with regards to how the public has responded to the police brutality events, mayors really face a triple crisis. They have to be more resilient than ever, and more focused on contingency scenarios. Those five dimensions also are at the heart of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.
I want to take you back to, it seems like ages ago, when we were still meeting in person, shaking hands and joining events in person. At the time, for about three years, we have a convened a cohort of 40 mayors every year, predominantly from the United States, but also from Europe and Latin America, and even from Africa and Asia. We convened them, we selected them carefully based on their willingness to drive change and to lead innovation. We offered them a yearlong program. It started with a three day in person meeting in New York City where we built a classroom. That was basically the kickoff event for the year. For those of you who have seen case teaching in action at the Kennedy School or the Business School, it was a very discussion based, participant centered pedagogy. Mayors would read the cases, they would discuss the dilemmas that were described in the cases, and they would explore action alternatives, and discuss strategy and explore the values that matter in public governance.
After those three days of intensive leadership development training, a year would follow where we would convene them in virtual sessions about every six or eight weeks. Then we would have deep dive conversations on topics like the use of data and evidence in government, taking risks responsibly, experimentation, innovation, cross sector collaboration, community engagement and so forth. In addition to that, we would engage the students at the Kennedy School and the Business School and other schools at Harvard, because it was a two edged sword, the students are interested in experiencing what city government is like, and learn from working for and with a mayor. And mayors could really use the pro bono capacity and analytic skills that the students brought. We facilitated similar fellowships, capstone projects and so forth. Then of course, we also did a lot of research in real time on the cities that we were working with, and that led to new cases about mayors in the cohort.
Our mission, as always, is not teaching, but facilitating learning. We facilitated learning for the mayors from research from reflecting on their own practice, but also, in particularly, from one another. We offered a learning environment in which they could learn at a deeper level from the way they approached the challenges in their cities that are very similar. Every city is unique, but the challenges are very similar all over. That was all before COVID-19 happened. Of course, we had to practice what we preach. If you preach that government should be agile, and innovative and responsive, we had to be responsive as Harvard. We tried our best to stand up a program in real-time that was not a yearly program, but a weekly program. In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies, we created a weekly session for mayors, but we also decided to open up beyond the current cohort. We opened it up to any mayor plus three, three of their senior year leaders could also join.
In a few week’s time, we had a group of 1000 city leaders zooming in every week with faculty facilitating these conversations from their homes. It all went quite well, in the sense that the group that came back also grew. We had about 125 mayors that came back every week for 11 weeks. They came for the latest information on the virus, and we had public health experts talk about that. But they also came for the crisis leadership training that we offered. How to communicate in times of a crisis, what metrics to use to know what’s going on in your city. And also, how to engage the private sector, how to engage the community in responding to this new challenge. Then very soon after that, it became clear that this is going to be an economic catastrophe. Of course, mayors were already worried about their budgets, and just had to think very quickly on their feet on how to secure basic services and continuity of government.
We did workshops on scenario planning, and on municipal finance and on crisis budgeting. We also did some sessions on how to feed and water yourself as a leader. I have such tremendous respect for these mayors that have to face these enormous challenges. And they’re human beings. They have families, they work from home. They’re being held accountable by their community, and very often the state and the federal government is nowhere to be seen. So they’re on the hook for these things. To sustain your own engagement with all of these issues, and with the community, for a prolonged period of time is a major challenge for anyone. The mayors are not exempt from that.
What we noticed is that, in these weekly calls, a sense of community started to emerge, and we saw mayors reaching out to one another. We had the chat box open in Zoom, so we saw that they were doing shout-outs, there were expressions of support. They shared information, they shared their practices. What became clearer, even more so than before COVID-19, is that mayors, they’re not waiting for the cavalry anymore, if they ever did. They know that they’re on their own and the best chance of getting through this crisis is to learn as fast as they can from one another. We’ve seen that, for example, in Oklahoma, Mayor G.T. Bynum and David Holt, respectively from Tulsa and Oklahoma City, they were coordinating their responses and working to give a unified message to two thirds of the state residents. That was long before Governor Stitt actually spoke out on the issues. I think 34 American cities declared a public health emergency before their state did. You see that mayors are really the frontline commanders in this crisis, and they do so with very little resources, and without much authority either.
Then in addition to what we do for mayors in the United States and the Western world, we are launching a new program for mayors in the global South, in emerging cities, particularly in Africa and Latin America, COVID-19 has hit Latin America significantly. Africa hasn’t been hit as hard, but will also soon face enormous unimaginable challenges because the healthcare infrastructure is weaker there. Our program for global cities and emerging cities will focus on, how do you lead a crisis response in densely populated areas with very few resources? I think it’s no secret that there are no robust answers. There are no clear-cut solutions to these gigantic problems. However, our best bet is for mayors to learn as fast as they can from one another and figure out new practices in real time. That’s what we’re facilitating. In that process, we’re learning a ton as well. We have brought together a lot of faculty from multiple disciplines, psychologists, leadership experts, democracy experts, management experts. They all work together to create content in real-time that facilitates that learning from city to city. But it also brings in important actionable leadership insights from research.
In a way, this crisis has also forced Harvard to be innovative. We’re now working together in a way that I’ve rarely seen before. The faculty are working more across boundaries. We also see that they are much more interested in being action oriented, and making sure that they use the little time that mayors have as effectively as possible, making their content and presentations as succinct, and concise and pithy as possible. They’re also more interested in local government because that’s where things seem to be happening right now. We also see that students at Harvard are more engaged than ever, and more helpful in reaching out, asking what they can do. One example, we did a workshop on public narrative with Marshall Ganz on how to address grief and mourning in communities, particularly when there is division along racial lines. We have mayors of color, we have white mayors. They all shared with one another what they found challenging in addressing police brutality and systemic racism in their cities. Students volunteered to do an analysis of footage on YouTube, and so created a compilation of mayoral speeches that highlighted the particular moments that were effective. That’s just one example how, within one week, we created new curriculum in close collaboration with mayors, students and faculty.
Then finally, about the mayors. I think mayors in the US and in the world at large are more confident, and more connected and more proactive. I don’t know if you’ve seen the town hall that CNN did on Monday with four African American female mayors of big cities. Mayor Bottoms in Atlanta, Mayor Breed in San Francisco, Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago, and ... I’m blanking on the fourth one, it’ll come back to me. But they spoke about the way they are supporting each other. They didn’t talk, or even complain, about federal government. It just doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. Of course, we are still hoping for a much better federal response, everybody is. But they’re not waiting for that. They know that they have to take action because nobody else will. Of course, mayors also work a lot with their governors. In many cases, you see that the governors are actually following the mayors. In Ohio, the cities of Akron, Cincinnati, Dayton and others, they upped the new shared standard for what reopening should look like. Then Governor DeWine was a willing and eager partner who wanted to work closely with these local leaders.
I think this is, you could call it bottom-up governance or horizontal governance. I think I find hope in that. I think it’s not the ... it’s not going to save us, or we need a lot more to get out of this crisis. But it’s at least very encouraging to see that there is this sense of collaboration, comradery, but also really focused learning in this time of many uncertainties. Let me just stop there and open it up for questions about anything. I have to say, I’m not an urban economist. My background is in public management primarily, but I’ll tell you honestly if I don’t know the answer to a particular question. But I’m open to any questions about the initiative, or about mayoral leadership or about anything I touched on in my remarks. Thank you.
Q: What demographic shifts might be expected in major cities in the aftermath of the pandemic in this economic fallout?
That’s a very good question. I wish I knew the answer to that one. It’s hard to tell from where I sit. Look, if the question comes from the concern that a lot more people who are older or more vulnerable are also more vulnerable to COVID-19, the big uncertainty is we don’t know, I mean, we’re at 115 thousand deaths today and we’re reopening. Depending on how well people comply with public health guidance and how quickly we get to a vaccine, we may actually control the number of people that are going to die from COVID-19. But there is also scenarios where, you’ve probably seen these in the newspapers, scenarios where millions and millions of people will die. Of course, people who are older are more likely to be exposed, but also people in communities of color and low income communities are more vulnerable for various reasons to COVID-19.
I don’t know if that all adds up to demographic shifts, I can’t speak to that. But I think there’s a big uncertainty. But I will also say we have agency in this. There is a way to prevent worse. It will really depend on how well mayors and governors, but also business leaders, and community leaders and religious leaders are able to keep people focused on the central importance of social distancing, on hand washing, on wearing masks, and on tracing, testing and supported isolation. Those things need to be in place. Then the local leaders need to use the right metrics to determine when to reopen, but also, most importantly, when to close again or how to deal with new outbreaks.
I think the uncertainties are there and it’s hard to predict the future, but we can influence the future. I think that that’ll be a test of leadership. It’ll also be a test of governance, and it’ll be a test of the community and how much solidarity people are willing to commit to. Because the public health guidance is not so much there to protect you, and some people may feel invincible and immune, but it’s really to protect others in the community that are more vulnerable. I think that’ll be the big question for the next few months. I think by September, we’ll know how this next phase turned out to be. That’ll be an important moment of reckoning because until there is a vaccine, and until that vaccine is widely available, we’re going to be looking at sever consequences of this pandemic.
Q: I’m working at the Metropolitan Planning Institute in the city of Guadalajara. While you touched on this a little bit, but it’s great to hear all the networking that you made with mayors in order to put an answer to the pandemic. But now, at least here in Mexico, things are looking towards what will the economic recovery look like? What can governments, both local, state and national, do in order to ensure that this pandemic, as much as it’s hit low income communities, is not responsible for completely abolishing or destroying the informal sector or small enterprises. I would like to ask you, on behalf of the mayor of Guadalajara that is very interested in these exchanges of ideas, how can one, or the mayor, get involved in all these resources that you have put forward in order to exchange these ideas and come up with solutions together? Thank you.
Thank you very much. There are a number of different ways in which mayors can access these resources. One of the things we did early on is create an FAQ service, basically the questions that mayors ask in those sessions and the responses that the public health and crisis leadership experts gave. We documented all of them, and we’ve been updating and expanding those entries. I think we’ve got close to 200 items on our website now, and they all start with a question that a mayor asked and responses that we got from the experts. That’s cityleadership.harvard.edu, cityleadership.harvard.edu. That’s where we have those answers and questions. They vary from what metrics to use, or how to deal with elderly homes or with the homeless population.
We also have a lot of questions about how to deal with conflict between the cities and the state. We’ve had questions about crisis communication a lot. How do you keep hope while also being brutally honest about the facts? There’s a lot of direct answers, direct responses, very practical, to mayor’s questions that maybe you have interest. Then in addition to that, as I alluded to earlier, is we’ve been creating content in a very different way than usual. Usually, faculty basically assign a case or just share an article that they’ve written that’s typically quite academic. At best, it is focused on practitioners, but it’s never fully customized for the particular purpose of that particular audience on that particular day. That’s what we did differently. We actually in real-time created what we call takeaway sheets.
For each of the sessions that we’ve done, we’ve created a takeaway sheet. That includes basically bullet points with actionable leadership insights with guidance on a variety of topics. Those two resources are available to anyone, free of charge, of course. Then in terms of programming and networks, Bloomberg Philanthropies has a number of different networks in public health. They’re going to start a new series that’s more focused on municipal finance. Then of course, we have the three new series that we’re launching, one monthly session open to any mayor from anywhere. So your mayor is more than welcome to join that, along with the top three senior leaders that he or she can bring, and that may include yourself. That’s definitely something that you would have access to. Then there’s maybe the emerging cities program that’s much more focused on the immediate local response to the crisis. That may actually be something that’s not as relevant for you because you’ve moved onto the recovery phase. But if you were interested, that could also be an option.
Q: I’m currently serving as a Select Board member out here at the end of Cape Cod in Provincetown, so it’s super ground floor governance. You may have seen some articles in the press about our unique circumstances here on the outer Cape. We’re facing a compounded economic hit due to the timing of the pandemic. We’re entering our tourism season and there’s an intense tussle going on between the forces focused on keeping the 3,000 residents out here in Provincetown and part time residents safe, and those business interests looking to stay afloat and make their money as they need to make a line share of their annual income from visitors and tourists during our very short 10 week tourism season.
I’m looking as an elected Select Board member, or selectman, as it used to be called, at how we can make this into an additive formula instead of a zero sum game, so we can both protect health and provide innovative economic stabilization solutions to our small businesses especially, and our workers who are going to be most hard hit by the economic slowdown here? Many of whom who’ve contacted me and my colleagues on the board, who are a board of five, saying, “If we don’t have a season, I’m going out of business. There goes my retirement,” et cetera. I’m looking for any suggestions that you may have on groups who are working to consolidate economic resources that are available, public-private partnerships, public-public partnerships, grants, other things. Just really innovative problem solving that might be going on around how we can provide economic stabilization to our communities. Thank you.
Thank you. Provincetown is one of our favorite spots for the holiday. I have two daughters, 8 and 12 years old. Every summer we take them to Provincetown for ice cream. I’ll make a commitment right now that we will do that again and buy extra ice cream. It’s, as I said, an economic catastrophe. There are no real great solutions out there yet. The hope is that there will be opportunities for business to pivot. Many small, medium sized businesses have been able to do so, but many of them haven’t been able to move online or to change their practice, particularly in the tourism season. If you’re depending on tourism, that’s very hard.
What we have been asking our mayors is what they are doing in terms of new practices. For example, Mayor Cantrell in New Orleans, early on in the pandemic, it was clear that New Orleans is very dependent on tourism obviously. They created a fund for performing artists, for example. Those funds were created in collaboration with the private sector, with community foundations. But that only lasts so long. As long as we live with the uncertainty of opening and closing and reopening and re-closing, there’s going to be an existential threat to these businesses. The question is, what other kind of forms of employment, what other forms of business models can you help stand up?
There are some examples of cities that have ... I think Lancaster, Pennsylvania is one. Mayor Sorace there was one of the first to create massive contact tracing. I know that in the New York area, there’s also an initiative in a way where people who have recently become unemployed because of COVID-19 are being hired as contact tracers, so at least they have an income. It’s one way to adapt to the crisis. But none of these things are sustainable, of course. I’m afraid that we don’t have an answer yet to how this works out. The federal stimulus package, the CARES Act. There’s going to be community block grants that provide an opportunity. But it’s highly uncertain on how these funds will be channeled to cities. And of course, even if you have the money, you need to figure out a way to invest in local businesses.
I do know there’s a lot of work going on in our next series that I hope you’re interested or your colleagues in City Hall in Provincetown are interested in participating. It’s going to be on what the most helpful strategies are to protect small and medium sized businesses in cities, and what kind of different levers city government has to work with. But there is no grand strategy. Local economies will continue to hurt for a long time. I think that’s the painful reality.
Q: I wondered if you have any insights in how to, I guess, switch the conversation, or how to make the need to comply with what needs to be done to help stop COVID-19 into less of a political ... to be seen less politically and more matter-of-factly, how to shift the conversation. Any suggestions?
That’s a great question, thank you. We spend a lot of time in our sessions on how to communicate during a crisis and how to take politics out of it. But the truth is politics always in there. Juliette Kayyem is one of our colleagues here, a crisis leadership expert, specializes in crisis communication. But what she has advised the mayors is to communicate with data. Just honest, reliable data, whether they’re good or bad ... I mean, whether they’re a reason for hope or despair. But always have that transparency. The second thing is to speak with empathy, and to really acknowledge the fact that this is an extremely hard time and that people, as the previous speaker said, are losing their retirement savings, they’re losing their jobs, they’re losing relatives, they’re losing mobility. Really address that without trying to sugarcoat anything.
Then the third thing is to speak with hope, and appeal to the values that we share, and to speak to the belief that as a community, as a society, we are resilient, and that we will get through this somehow. What she has consistently said to the mayors is data, empathy and hope. That has to be your drum beat. If you do that, you do more than just pushing or defending your decisions, or bickering with others, because you’re doing more than communicating. You’re actually building a relationship and investing in social cohesion and leveraging the resility of the community. The advice to mayors has been to stay away from politics as much as possible, but that was not a lesson that they necessarily needed to learn because they by and large are doing that. As a mayor, there’s very little room for politicking, so to speak, because you actually have to solve problems, you have to be pragmatic.
Now, of course, the recent weeks with protests have been an interesting display of politics for a variety of reasons. I just remembered the fourth mayor that was on the call on CNN on Monday, and it was Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington DC. Somebody I really admire, has been a really great city leader. Now, she had to navigate a very tricky situation because she is a leader of a city with the White House smack in the middle. When the protests broke out, it was her first role to communicate with the public, to acknowledge the pain, and the hurt and the loss, but then also to speak about what city governments would do about the police. She’s responsible for the police department and she couldn’t throw them under the bus. But she did want to use the moment to promote and advocate for further reform. That’s a really hard line to walk.
Then on top of that, there is the communication from the White House that, to say the least, has not calmed things down. The symbolic leadership that she displayed by painting in big yellow letters on 16th Street leading up to the White House, Black Lives Matter, was an interesting display of symbolic but very real leadership. Showing support for the movement, and at the same time, making sure that you toe the line. It was hard because activists the next day painted another sign in big yellow letters equating Black Lives Matter to defunding the police, which of course is not the message that she had wanted to send. But I think you can’t stay out of politics entirely because you’re a politician and people expect you to take positions.
With these crises, both the COVID-19 and the economic crisis and the protests around police brutality, it’s hard to take a position that everybody agrees with. It’s almost impossible. You’re going to have to take a lot of unpopular decisions and you have to take many of them. There’s always going to be people who think you’re doing too much and other people who think you’re not doing enough, and you’re really out there on your own. We have been focused on helping mayors navigate the politics in a crisis, and just spending enough time on politics to secure support and legitimacy. Because without that, you can’t lead anymore. You need the community to believe that you are a legitimate and competent leader, and therefore, you have to invest in that. At the same time, you can’t neglect politics either because you will have to negotiate for those relief funds. You will have to negotiate even within your own organization to make sure your public health department is working with your police and so forth.
Politics is never absent. But politicking can be avoided by really focusing on the things that matters most to everybody. That goes against being, again, to this point of being fully transparent with the data, what’s going on, so people can know that their government is honest and transparent. Practicing empathy. Even if you don’t agree with people, acknowledging their loss and their suffering is really important to build that legitimacy and support. Then speaking to hope, even if it’s unclear what that looks like and how we will get through the crisis. Inviting people to co-produce their future and co-design their future together. I have to say, I was already a big fan of mayors and deeply respectful. But I think in this crisis, I’ve seen some really significant examples of courageous and effective leadership, and really, mayors that transcended politics in the traditional sense, and became real public leaders and show us how to act and respond in a time where so much is uncertain and there is so much turmoil.
Q: I am a city planner and a member of the Denver, Colorado Planning Board. I’m interested if you’ve seen any good practical mayoral responses to the crisis that’s going to happen with public transportation financially, in the first place, because of severely declining public support and ridership and also because of fears of infection. It looks extraordinarily bleak for the future of public transit, and yet a lot rides on it. I’m interested if any of the mayors have had some great ideas about how to respond to that. Thank you.
That is a great question. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any particular practice yet. That doesn’t mean that they’re not there, but there’s of course a lot of cities that are facing the same problem that you’re facing in Denver. Now that reopening has ... I mean, the one way in which it has come up has been in budgeting and how to budget for uncertainties with regards to transportation. It’s different for different cities because some cities have more to say about their transit system than others. This will be a topic in our upcoming series, and we will be engaging some experts in public transportation, urban mobility, as well as municipal finance expert. Our colleague, Linda Bilmes, a professor of public finance, has been doing a lot of work on the crisis budgeting, but also specifically on transportation. I’m happy to connect you with her because she is closer to that particular field, and also quite experienced in particularly the financial aspects of transportation.
Q: What are the key features of cities’ recovery and growth plans after the pandemic?
Right. That’s actually the topic of our first session this coming Thursday. Professor Danielle Allen will be talking about pandemic resilience and navigating new challenges for the city. What her approach to this is, is that she says that this is the time in American history where we have to revisit the social contact. We can’t go back to normal because the way the economy is operated and the way our public services have been organized have set us up for being so vulnerable when the crisis actually hit. So her approach to this is, is to actually rethink different functions of public governance and a different approach to rebuilding the economy, similar to what one of the previous speakers asked from Provincetown about how are we going to help the local businesses? There are no good plans for that. Maybe we have to build in more structural resilience in terms of public health, in terms of economic sustainability, into our local economies.
That is a much more fundamental approach. It’s not putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. It’s actually thinking about how to avoid injuries in the first place. What that looks like is, of course, a topic for fierce ideological debate because you will have people that say economic freedom is the greatest good, and others who feel we have to build in more solidarity and a more egalitarian approach. I’m sure this will be a big topic in the upcoming election season as well. What is interesting about cities is that while they, of course, depend to a large extent on circumstances beyond their control, they do have opportunities to shape their local economies.
Mayor Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama had been working way before the COVID-19 crisis on a new model, the Birmingham Promise, where young people who have always lived in Birmingham get access to colleges and reduced tuition, but also job guarantees. That is one example of mayors who basically punch above their weight to structurally change economic opportunity. Another mayor, Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California, has run an experiment on the universal basic income, a very controversial idea. But the first results are interesting and promising. That’s another example of a new model. Then there is Jackson, Mississippi, where Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has continued the legacy of his father, who invested a lot in black wealth and community power. So it’s also experimenting with much more participatory community based approaches to reshaping the economy.
None of these models have actually made it to scalable model. But it just shows there’s a lot of appetite to rethink the social contract, and to rethink about what the role of government is in protecting the rights of people, but also protecting their well-being. Because in these moments of crisis, you see that the social inequality that was already grotesque has just been made a lot worse. That is socially, in the end, not a sustainable strategy. I think with all the terrible things that are going on right now, our hope should be in the effort to try out new things that people hadn’t been willing to try out before because the urgency was not high enough. Well, if there was ever any doubt about the need for new models, new practices, new policies, then that doubt has gone away. Everybody feels the only way we can get through this is if we come up with more viable practices, more social assurances that we’re not going to be hit as hard as we’ve already been hit over the past three months.
That’s not just a job for mayors. That’s a job for everyone and anyone. But mayors can be that convening power and that catalyzing factor for these new ideas to be tried out. So, we’ll be following that closely and learning in real-time, just like the mayors, what works and what doesn’t. I think that the Kennedy School will be focused like never before on innovation in public governance and in leadership.
Great. Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning, Jorrit. And thank you to everyone who called in to listen and ask questions.