One of the crucial lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that mayors matter — a lot. While COVID was a principal issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, it’s been mayors who have played the most crucial role within their communities in addressing the pandemic. Across the nation, mayors are making operational and policy decisions about how to keep their residents safe, based on data and science, persuading their residents to support those decisions, boosting public morale by creating new alternatives for local traditions and activities, and dealing with people’s inevitable frustrations and confusions.
Executives in the private sector have long had access to countless leadership training programs. But until Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard started a leadership program in 2017 for mayors in cities across the country and around the world, the most important public sector executives didn’t, even though they control how billions of dollars are spent each year and are directly responsible for so many of the essential services that communities rely on every day. Tuesday at CityLab, the world’s leading global summit for urban innovators, we announced a major expansion of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative that will make an unprecedented investment in the next generation of city leaders.
Our $150 million initiative will include a new Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, where mayors, city hall staff, and policy experts will come together to collaborate. There will also be expanded programming and resources for new mayors designed to help them hit the ground running, because so much is riding on their shoulders. The center will be a place where mayors will learn not only from each other, but also from a wide range of leaders offering their expertise in practice, governance, and research from across Harvard and across disciplines.
It’s not just the pandemic where mayors play a leading role in the shaping of America. They’re a driving force on issues ranging from affordable housing and justice reform to gun safety and climate action. Later this year, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, in Glasgow, cities will reprise the role they played in cementing the Paris Agreement. On a global stage, they’ll push for investments in clean energy that will not only address the climate crisis but also help economies everywhere bounce back from the pandemic.
Mayors are making progress on issues that have left Washington gridlocked because they tend to be removed from national partisan politics. Being on the ground and in their communities requires mayors to problem-solve, welcome ideas no matter where they come from, and have the courage to test those ideas. Municipal leaders are integral to building trust in government, keeping people safe, delivering critical services, and more. Cities can also speed up the timetable on ambitious ideas — and once cities demonstrate an idea can work, regional and national governments can adopt them and scale up.
We believe that this nimble, nonpartisan, innovation-driven, and bottom-up type of leadership is exactly what America urgently needs more of, no matter who occupies the White House — and through a new center at Harvard, we will help foster it.
One way we’ll do that is through a new fellowship program that will allow localities of diverse sizes and demographics to bring fellows onto their mayoral staffs, to help them advance their high-priority projects. Another way is by endowing new professorships to support scholars tackling global challenges through local action.
Over the past five years, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative has served 400 mayors and 1,300 city officials from about 500 cities across six continents and generated new research, curriculum, and teaching tools on effective city governance. Together, city leaders have learned both from scholars and from one another. They’ve sharpened both their management skills and the tools to tackle their most pressing policy challenges. And once the pandemic hit, this global network proved invaluable. The Bloomberg-Harvard band of mayors took swift action on local public health and economic emergencies — aided by timely briefings from government, business, and public health experts, as well as counsel from leaders with hard-earned experience in managing crises around the world.
Now, with this new center, we will do more to help mayors do more — together, the benefits of their actions will stretch far beyond their communities.
Michael R. Bloomberg served as mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013 and is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Lawrence S. Bacow is president of Harvard University.