What City Leaders Know Best

This post is co-authored by Zack Brisson and Laura Freschi.


Reboot has long straddled several different worlds: Our user-centered design approach comes originally from the field of product design, developed in the private sector. And our public sector work comprises both multi-national partners, like the World Bank and UNICEF, as well as local leaders from Austin, Texas to Edo State, Nigeria, in cities and subnational government agencies all over the world. We work across multiple spheres of influence, because we recognize there’s more than one leverage point to drive public sector innovation and create more resilient and user-centered institutions.

Working with counterparts at national, state, city, and community levels, we’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on how external actors can best intervene in complex governance systems to help societies inch forward to be more democratic, participatory, and open. We’ve also reflected on the equally important question: At what level is it best to intervene?

Next week, Reboot will be exploring this question as part of the annual CityLab Summit, where mayors from more than 30 global cities will gather with other city-focused leaders and academics. The purpose of the CityLab Summit is to discuss city-level solutions to global challenges—like how to alleviate poverty, how to use the power of big data responsibly, or how to increase civic participation. As we pack our bags for Paris, we’ve been pulling together resources from our past work, at all levels, to share with local-level visionaries. In the spirit of cross-sector collaboration, we’ve put these resources together in a “Plane Reading List” in this post.

But first, we should explain why city-level work is so important.

Local intervention is often best

There’s a bit of a paradox at that heart of how public sector policies are made, versus how socio-economic change happens.

The development economist Bill Easterly has long criticized this paradox in the field of international development, which is one of Reboot’s areas of expertise. The development industry works and thinks largely at the level of the nation state, in part because the members of global institutions (the World Bank, the United Nations) are country governments. NGOs and development agencies most commonly have “country offices,” with “host governments” that are national governments. When we look for development data to set baselines and chart progress, we are most likely to find it at the country level.

And yet this national-level approach is mismatched for the actual work these institutions seek to do. Countries are primarily political units, not social or economic ones. And socio-economic development happens most tangibly at more local levels: the metropolitan area, the city, and even the neighborhood.

This insight—that the most palpable change happens at the city level and below—comes as no surprise to Reboot’s many partners working at the local level, like the New York City (USA) agencies we’re supporting to make city data more accessible, or the civil servants we supported in Elgeyo Marakwet (Kenya) to hear citizen feedback more clearly. The policies, vision, and managerial skills of leaders at the local level make palpable differences in the lives of residents.

In any city, a mayor’s decisions—from short-term emergency response to the long work of changing “business as usual”— create changes that residents see right away. And residents, in turn, are able to respond to those changes in ways that mayors and others can feasibly hear and (theoretically) incorporate into future policies—creating what’s called a “feedback loop.” The feasibility of feedback loops, combined with mayors’ relative autonomy and their discretion over city budgets, have meant that many cities are now global leaders in good governance and innovation.

Different Scale, Common Challenges

In recent years, Reboot has worked on many projects at the city level; we’ve seen first-hand how visionary city governments can bring together multiple stakeholders to develop both the solutions for urgent problems AND the trust needed to make those solutions happen. The City of Austin, Texas, for example, did this as part of its participation in the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pilot (a great example of national-level work experimenting with impact at the local level). We also supported Nigeria’s Edo State to do this as part of releasing Africa’s first subnational open data portal.

As we’ve worked with these and other local-level leaders, we’ve found that many are wrestling with the same challenges we’ve seen at the national level: If you’re a civil servant, how do you create new ways of working within entrenched bureaucracies? If you’re a member of civil society or other “outsider,” how do you influence the way government insiders work? And for both sides, how do you find constructive pathways for dialogue and collaboration? How do you leverage the power of data to solve real-world problems? How do you collaborate with the media to inform a robust and inspirational public dialogue? In other words: How do you achieve your mission?

Reading List for the Plane to CityLab 2017

We’re looking forward to discussing these questions in detail with city leaders and innovators in Paris this weekend. Here are the resources we’ve pulled together to bring with us; whether you’re heading to Paris or just planning to follow the conversation on Twitter, we hope you’ll find some of these resources useful!

We’re excited to gather many more resources from Paris! If you have another favorite, please share it with us on Twitter @theReboot—we’ll be updating this blog post with more as we go.

Futher reading.