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LGC interview: the Harvard leadership guru coaching four metro mayors

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The Harvard academic overseeing a $32m programme to improve city leadership has spoken of how a professional development deficit holds back the world’s mayors – and of how officers could also benefit from the initiative’s work.

jorrit de jong

jorrit de jong

Jorrit de Jong, lecturer in public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, is leading the prestigious US institution’s city leadership initiative which counts four of the new combined authority mayors as participants.

An initial cohort of 40 city mayors from around the world including Tim Bowles (Con), of West of England CA; Andy Burnham (Lab), of Greater Manchester CA; Ben Houchen (Con), of Tees Valley CA and Steve Rotherham (Lab), of Liverpool City Region CA; enrolled on the programme, attending a three-day convening session in New York, and will receive education over the course of the year.

The programme - which also offers mayors support with research, student interns and executive coaching - is bankrolled by the philanthropy of former three-term New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Interviewed at the launch of St Mary’s University public leadership centre at London’s Lambeth Palace earlier this month, Dr de Jong said Mr Bloomberg observed that “ongoing professional development” was seen “almost as a rite of passage” in the private sector – but this was not the case for elected leaders.

“You observe that most mayors come to the job with absolutely no prior experience of running large organisations and no leadership development training. [Mr Bloomberg] felt that if there were any executives that could really use it, it’s mayors,” Dr de Jong said.

“Not only is it a complex and demanding job but it’s also a job that you have to do in the public spotlight; it’s not easy to go on a training [programme] because it would be very hard to tell the taxpayers first of all that you’ve used taxpayer money to go on expensive training.

“Sometimes there’s this perception that because you’re the mayor you should already know [how to govern]; why did you run [for office] if not?”

He said the programme focuses on mayors learning from one another to “advance the art and science of city leadership”. It is practice-orientated, rather than being academically or policy-focused.

After the mayors’ three days in New York, they will be supported over 12 months in a virtual “classroom experience”. Dr de Jong said the programme lasted for a year because if, after the three-day course, mayors “go back to fire-fighting, it wears off pretty quickly”.

Among the questions examined by mayors are redefining problems and how they can be succsessfully overcome. A city may for instance question whether it should focus on homicide reduction, the root causes of homicide or the consequences of homicide but all too often “legacy institutional perspectives” and silo mentality were limiting free-thinking approaches.

burnham and rotheram

burnham and rotheram

Andy Burnham (left) and Steve Rotheram are among the new metro mayors enrolled on the Harvard programme

Course participants are encouraged to consider innovation “not in terms of aggressive disruption” but in the form of risk management and “building a learning organisation” that uses data and evidence to devise new approaches.

Dr de Jong said they asked: “How would we know if we were successful. What kind of data would tell us that? How can we do low cost evaluations that allow us to quickly test out things?”

Participants picked a particular problem such as tackling obesity or homelessness to work on over the year, for instance by building teams that overcome silos, improving performance management or using a dashboard to measure progress.

Most mayors come to the job with absolutely no prior experience of running large organisations and no leadership development training

“Hopefully after a year we will see changes in practice and different approaches to these problems. That’s what makes this initiative very different to other executive education programmes,” said Dr de Jong.

“If nothing else we’ll learn what works and what doesn’t and which cities are able to make that change and which not. We really conceived this as one big change experiment.”

Practical barriers to innovation are considered. These included how mayors work with councillors, “making your staff feel safe when being less risk averse”, and public narrative.

On the latter issue, Dr de Jong said: “It’s not so much about how you craft your message, it’s more about to what extent can you engage and connect with people and appeal to their public spirit.

“As a mayor you have limited resources and limited authority and the only thing you can really do is to appeal to the public spirit that is there among citizens, the private sector and the non-profit sector to co-produce value for citizens.”

Over the next four years the programme aims to support not just 300 mayors but also 400 of their senior aides.

“The senior staff programme we focus a bit more on the nuts and bolts of making change in organisations,” said Dr de Jong. “These are the people who are on the hook for implementing them.”

As an example of this programme’s support, one session is on aides “optimising the mayor” so that their valuable time is used “efficiently and strategically”.

“Ultimately it really boils down to the question of what are you trying to accomplish and why and how do you know it’s working. Those are the easiest questions to ask and the hardest to answer.”

Applications for next year’s programme are likely to be sought from January. Although Dr de Jong said the first political intake from the UK had only been open to mayors, he said he was open-minded about whether council leaders could participate in future, noting “soft mayors” in the US are “basically council leaders and they work with a city manager”, not dissimilar to a chief executive.

However the programme is only open to “cities of 100,000 people or more”, not to non-urban areas. “We intend to work more with UK cities and we’ll see how we can best help them,” Dr de Jong said.

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