While Washington seems paralyzed by partisan bickering, America’s mayors are busy putting ideas into action. City hall is increasingly a place for bold experimentation. Unlike Congress, there’s no fiddling over the fiscal cliff or divisions into angry, ideological, debating societies. As communities climb out of the great recession, pragmatism is forcing innovation. Success requires strong leadership and a vision of politics as the art of what works.
With the help of Stephen Goldsmith and Jayson White of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Newsweek has developed a list of five top city-hall innovators who are tackling tough issues including education reform, public safety, quality of life, and job creation.
The Obama administration and Congress could learn a lot from the bold pragmatism of these urban innovators.
Education: New Orleans
Decades of mismanagement. The indictment of education officials. And the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans’s schools have had a rocky recent history.
But now one of America’s worst-performing school districts has been transformed, and the pace of improvement is unprecedented. That’s because under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Crescent City has aggressively embraced education reform. Here, as in most major urban centers, city hall doesn’t control the school system. But Landrieu has unapologetically championed charter schools and other changes that would be considered politically difficult in most municipalities. He’s successfully campaigned for pro-education reform candidates for the school board. And he’s helped raise millions from national philanthropies and worked to secure a $1.8 billion lump sum from FEMA to rebuild schools destroyed by the 2005 storm. The result is a sea change in public education. Consider this: nationwide just 4 percent of students attend charter schools. In New Orleans, nearly 80 percent of parents choose charters. Seven years after Katrina, the dropout rate has been cut in half, while test scores have soared by double digits. The lessons are clear—increased competition, autonomy, and accountability along with public-private partnerships and parental choice can turn even the most troubled public school systems around.
Public Safety: New York
After 9/11 and Rudy Giuliani’s reign, many people believed that crime would rise in New York. But even during the Great Recession, Gotham’s crime rate has plummeted to the lowest levels on record. The secret is the unusually stable partnership between independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the longest-serving police commissioner in city history, Ray Kelly. Under their leadership, the NYPD has learned to do more with less: strategically fielding a smaller police force while putting 30 percent fewer people in prison. In addition, the city now devotes 1,000 police officers to counterterrorism and thwarted 14 serious terror plots. These successes have not come without critics: civil libertarians decry the increased use of surveillance cameras and controversial “stop and frisk” policies. But there’s no debate that New York’s crime decline over the past decade has outpaced the rest of the nation’s. In 2011 New York City had the lowest murder rate since the early 1960s, with 515 homicides—one quarter of what it was two decades ago. This year the city is on pace to register fewer than 400 murders for the first time in its recorded history. And on Nov. 26, New York experienced another first: not a single person was the victim of a violent crime in America’s largest city.
Digital Government: Chicago
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tackled the Windy City with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer during his 18 months in office. In an effort to jump-start Chicago’s digital-government initiative after the more bricks-and-mortar administration of Mayor Richard Daley, Emanuel lost no time in hiring three senior data officers to oversee different divisions of government. Together they have already put more than 200 data sets online, creating useful applications like WasMyCarTowed .com, ChicagoBudget.org, and an open-source city-information platform. The result is a more transparent government that encourages citizen participation while promising to reduce the costs of bureaucracy. Chicago is also pioneering the next frontier of digital government: “predictive analytics,” used to analyze public and private data to anticipate citizens’ needs and address them proactively. This will ultimately impact areas ranging from fighting crime to city planning. Chicago’s goal is to develop “an open-source analytics platform ... [that] will allow leaders to make smarter decisions faster, resulting in dramatic improvements in city services and neighborhood quality of life.”
Entrepreneurial Infrastructure: Kansas City
Mayor Sly James’s vision of building “Silicon Prairie” took a quantum leap forward when he successfully lobbied Google to partner with Kansas City in an exclusive test of its ultrahigh-speed fiber network, giving residents access to Internet service 100 times faster than average broadband speeds across the country. As a result, new businesses and entrepreneurs are already starting to come to this Midwestern tech mecca. James helped create the environment for this investment by embracing local tech startups and a business incubator that crowd-funds companies. James transitioned his City Hall office entirely to cloud computing and open-sourced the development of a new downtown streetcar project. These investments have already helped spur a resurgence in the downtown population, expanding the tax base while improving the quality of life. “Partnerships pay dividends,” James says. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Quality of Life: Oklahoma City
Republican Mayor Mick Cornett believes that government has a direct role in improving the quality of urban life, and he’s been willing to raise targeted taxes to invest in that vision. Two decades ago downtown Oklahoma City was suffering from sustained neglect as families moved to the suburbs. But now the city’s inner core has been transformed, with new sports and performance-art arenas as well as a canal that cuts through the entertainment district. All 75 inner-city schools have been renovated or rebuilt. What’s most impressive is that Cornett has been able to finance these quality-of-life improvements without incurring additional taxpayer debt by paying in cash, courtesy of a temporary penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax increase. Cornett also attracted a successful NBA team—the Oklahoma City Thunder—and championed a public-health initiative that inspired residents to lose a collective 1 million pounds as part of a citywide diet. His willingness to buck conservative orthodoxy has been rewarded with three consecutive election victories. Next on the agenda: the construction of a new 70-acre downtown park as part of the passage of a $777 million infrastructure plan approved by the voters. “We decided to invest in ourselves,” Cornett says simply. The era of ambitious public works isn’t over; it’s just being financed more sustainably, securing a civic infrastructure that everyone can enjoy.