US lessons for UK metro mayors

13th Feb 2017

In May, Britain will hold elections for metro mayors in six metropolitan areas as part of a broader push toward devolution. Most of the focus has been on the formal powers the nation is devolving to this new position.

Yet, as current US mayor and advisor to mayors across the US, Greg Fischer and Bruce Katz know that the impact is greater than merely managing and guiding the administrative functions of local government.

The power of US mayors owes much to the fact that city governments have the ability to raise taxes and other local revenue and set their own budgets, argues Bruce Katz. They also have the responsibility to appoint the heads of multiple influential agencies and authorities and the freedom to innovate locally, while reaping the benefits of smart governance.

Cities are co-governed by networks of public, private and civic institutions and leaders. The under-appreciated power of mayors is the ability to convene these leadership networks and to design, finance, and deliver collective responses to difficult challenges.

See more from Bruce Katz's speech at JRF's conference How Can Cities Deliver Inclusive Growth:

Louisville, Kentucky, provides a case in point; the 27th largest city in the United States, with a population of more than 750,000. Mayor Fischer’s city resembles many of the areas holding elections in Britain, incorporating urban, suburban, and rural areas under one unified government. Like city-regions across the United Kingdom, Louisville has struggled to achieve inclusive economic growth — to build an economy that works for all citizens. But the city has made great strides by leveraging the power of the mayor’s office to convene stakeholders and set an agenda for inclusive growth.

Louisville has committed to preparing young adults for a rapidly-changing economy through lifelong learning. In 2014, the City of Louisville launched Cradle to Career, an integrated effort between disparate organisations focused on kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion, and workforce-oriented skills training.

It is obvious to any parent that these issues are inextricably linked; a smart intervention in a child’s early years pays off for decades. But, unfortunately, it’s just as obvious in cities around the country that the leaders of these programs have too few incentives to work together.

While the mayor’s office does not directly control any of these systems, it does offer the perspective and the constituency to consider the life trajectory of a child as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected, compartmentalised approaches. Impacts to date include material gains in kindergarten readiness, college degree attainment, and median wage compared to the national norm.

An inclusive economy requires both skilled workers and quality jobs that pay well. That’s why Louisville worked with business leaders, the state government and a traditional rival in the nearby city of Lexington to create the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (BEAM). The ambitious goal: bolster the region’s prowess in advanced manufacturing, exports, and foreign direct investment, building on the distinctive competitive assets and advantages of this broader region.

Through targeted company outreach programs, small export grants, and a region-wide export strategy, BEAM’s five-year goal of increasing export successes for small businesses by 50 percent was reached in only three years. 

The success of the Cradle to Career and BEAM initiatives require leadership traits that are qualitatively different from the more conventional ones used to run a hierarchical government. Soft power requires the ability to convene, cajole, and even shame private, civic, university and community leaders to come together and collaborate to compete and solve problems. This is community organising at the highest level, and it requires system-wide insights unique to mayors to lead disparate actors towards common visions, tangible actions, and sustained commitment.

In the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, US and UK cities face a democratic deficit — a loss of trust in institutions and lack of clarity about the future. The elections of metro mayors and other devolution efforts offer the potential to restore confidence in government and repair the frayed civic fabric of our societies.

Many of the challenges of the 21st century will not be solved in far-off bureaucracies of national governments; rather they will be tackled on the ground via cross-sector solutions.  Mayors can and should lead this, and as voters across Britain head to the polls this May, they should vote for those who will.

Greg Fischer is the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky.  Bruce Katz is the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution. The two participated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation event How Can Cities Deliver Inclusive Growth? on 23 January 2017. This blog was originally published on citymetric.com US lessons for UK metro mayors: the hard impact of soft power