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A Lot of Government Leaders Need to Listen to This Painfully Obvious Advice

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In their new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program make the case that real power in the U.S. is shifting from the federal government to cities and metropolitan areas. They do this by first noting, astutely, that federal gridlock amid economic stagnation has basically forced city, metro, and regional leaders to get really, really creative about how to solve their own, local problems. The bulk of the rest of the book is then spent laying out case study after case study, from New York to Houston to Portland to Northeast Ohio, based largely on their own first-hand experiences traveling around the country as de facto consultants through their think tank work. So by the time you reach the concluding chapters, which consist of a sort of how-to guide aimed at local civic leaders looking to apply some of these lessons, it's easy to believe that the advice therein is probably worth a great deal.

But after reading it, what struck me about Katz and Bradley's more practical advice is just how basic it seems, or really, stunningly obvious. They spend page after page promoting concepts like "building your network," "setting your vision," and even, in their worst moment of succumbing to consulting jargon, "finding your game changer." Combined, Bradley and Katz have arguably spent more time meeting with city and local governments, regional business leaders, and influential community groups than any other two humans on the planet. So I sat down with them recently to get to the bottom of whether their best advice is really as simple as it seems, or if the current state of affairs at the local leadership level is really just surprisingly bad.

In the last chapter in your book, you talk a lot about how the number one thing local leaders should be doing is "building a network." Which seems, well, really obvious. Except somehow it’s not?

Jennifer Bradley: When we go around the country, whether it was all the mayors in the Denver Metropolitan Area, or the philanthropies in Northeast Ohio, they would say, "We never got together." In the Denver chapter, we tell the story of how former Mayor Pena called the county commissioner in Adams County when he needed to do a land deal for the airport, and he went to Adams County to have dinner in a restaurant there. It’s the most simple thing, and you do feel like a dork the first few times you tell people "no really, just get everyone in a room," but over and over again we heard that that was a huge step. And I think it has to do with the fact that people are so busy doing what they think of as their day-to-day job, they forget to step back and look laterally and think about what somebody else might be doing. That simple process of just asking a question and not feeling like all the answers are in your own zone gets over looked. And it’s almost because it’s so easy that we start there and then we say it’s so important. Anybody really can do this.  

Bruce Katz: The United States, and a lot of mature economies, became obsessed with specialization in the late 20th century. And we began to think of problems as being compartmentalized, as separate, rather than requiring integrated thinking and solutions. So you have a whole bunch of people who have been trained, really as specialists, and have been expected to really stay in that lane. The transportation people hang out here. And then the educators hang out here. And then the housing folks hang out there. And in way what we’re basically saying is the tough challenge and the important opportunities require these sort of cross sectoral, cross disciplinary, cross jurisdictional engagements. And so we have to now rethink, not just how you think, but who you engage with. Even electeds, they’re elected to a boundary, a bounded place therefore they think within. They don’t really think across.

Read more at Atlantic Cities.

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