Harvard offers lessons to big city mayors

Bill de Blasio Image copyright Reuters
Image caption How do you train for running a city? New York mayor Bill de Blasio heading for a news conference

How do you train to be a mayor?

Running a city is a big job. It can mean responsibility for thousands of staff and services for millions of people.

But what qualifications prepare you for taking those big decisions?

Major corporations spend millions each year on making sure their top staff have access to the best business schools and executive coaching.

But for politicians in charge of multi-billion budgets in major cities, it's a case of seeing who wins the election and then fingers-crossed that they know what they're doing.

There's a reliance on gifted amateurs rather than professionals trained in decision-making.

Knowledge gap

An innovative project in the United States is trying to fill this knowledge gap, in what's being claimed as the biggest such civic training project in the world.

They're setting up a school for mayors.

Image caption Leadership can be a lonely place, says former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter

The Bloomberg-Harvard Cities Leadership Initiative is a $32m (£24m) training scheme for serving mayors and their senior aides, with the aim of equipping them for tough decisions.

The funding has come from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity set up by one of the most high-profile of US mayors, Michael Bloomberg, who served three terms as mayor of New York City.

It will reach 300 mayors and 400 mayoral aides in the next four years, with the training delivered by Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, which specialises in research into public policy. There will be no charge for the mayoral students.

Tough decisions

Such training for mayors is badly needed, says Michael Nutter, who earlier this year ended two terms of office as mayor of Philadelphia, running a city with an annual budget of over $4bn (£3bn).

"Campaigning is one thing, governing is something else," he said.

Image copyright Kelvin Ma
Image caption Mayors will be taught lessons such as municipal finance and leadership at Harvard Business School

As soon as a mayor takes office, they face complex choices, often in areas in which they have no previous specialist knowledge.

"More often than not, there's no one right answer," says Mr Nutter. "It isn't obvious, they're not 'no-brainers'. So it's your judgement," he told the BBC.

Winning an election "doesn't make you a genius, doesn't make you all-knowing", he says.

In city politics, he says mayors have to live with the decisions on their own doorsteps and they soon hear about any problems.

"People in Philadelphia are not shy to tell you about it," he says.

'Leadership is lonely'

That can make it tough for mayors trying to decide between a politically expedient, easier option and something that might be a more difficult, less popular but better long-term decision.

"Leadership is a lonely position," he says.

The Harvard training project will provide individual mentoring and Mr Nutter says that could be a huge benefit to a mayor feeling vulnerable and in need of objective advice.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The scheme is open to mayors of big cities outside the US, such as London mayor Sadiq Khan

"You need a person who has no dog in the fight, no vested interest, no axe to grind."

A mayor might be feeling unsure and unable to reach a decision, but in an environment with as many rivals as allies, they might be unable to admit to their doubts.

"You can't sit in a meeting with all your folks and say 'I'm really scared'."

He believes professional training will improve the quality of decision-making and make elected officials think about the ethics of how they govern.

"How do you make the decisions? What was the process? Where was the integrity? Where's the accountability?"

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Mayors might enter office with a big vision they want to implement, but Mr Nutter says in practice they have to learn quickly how to respond to unforeseen events.

"Things will get in the way, severe weather or a shooting or a recession. How do you readjust?"

And as a mayor, you can't put off decisions.

"You've got a 20in snowstorm - should we put out all the trucks today or not?"

Rise of the city state

Mr Nutter says his most difficult times were during the recession when he had to make choices between cutting jobs, closing services and raising taxes, all of which would have big consequences.

The training for mayors will teach lessons in leadership, decision-making, performance management and strategy, as well as topics, such as municipal finance, measuring impact and open government.

It's a mix of online learning, residential sessions and events with groups of other mayors and senior officials, delivered over a year. The project is based in the US, but is available to mayors around the world.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Michael Bloomberg's charity is funding the project

Major cities have grown to become almost like independent city states, and Jim Anderson from Bloomberg Philanthropies says the focus on mayors reflects the growing importance of city-level government.

"Mayors have one of the most complicated jobs around, they get pulled in so many different directions," he says.

Citizens have become more demanding about what they expect - and at the same time local government is often increasingly financially stretched.

"We're looking to cities to solve massive challenges that other levels of government have failed to address," said Mr Anderson.

"But we're asking mayors to do more with less. And up to this point, there's been very little high quality resources to equip these local leaders with the tools and the knowledge they need."

"How do we identity the best ideas, the best practitioners, the best knowledge and make it available to other mayors?"

This classroom for mayors will try to offer some of the answers.

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