Hundreds of mayors and municipal leaders from across the United States and the world are turning to experts from Harvard for help in managing their cities’ response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
In weekly sessions organized by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Coronavirus Local Response Initiative, nearly 400 mayors and hundreds more senior city officials and leaders are receiving real-time advice on everything from public health to crisis leadership.
“The world is facing an unprecedented crisis right now and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. We know that you, the mayors, are in it right now,” said Jorrit de Jong, faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and a senior lecturer in public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School.
The sessions are designed to provide critical public health information and actionable insights on crisis leadership to busy mayors and city leaders who have been forced to redirect their focus in the face of the pandemic. “It’s wonderful we can maintain our learning community, a community of action, while maintaining social distancing,” de Jong said.
So far, two virtual gatherings have taken place, with special guests including former President Bill Clinton and Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking at the second session. A third event in the series took place Thursday.
During the first session, 60 of the participating mayors were displayed on the screen wall of Harvard Business School’s live online classroom, where they posed questions directly to the faculty members. Other participants sent in questions through the video conferencing chat function. While the sessions themselves are limited to mayors and public leaders, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is providing session slides and takeaways on their website so that lessons from the series are available to all.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the virtually gathered mayors and expressed confidence in their ability to meet the challenge of the coronavirus crisis in their communities, underscoring their importance in moving beyond partisan politics. Josh Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, then outlined the basics of the coronavirus pandemic and public health guidance to help inform the mayors’ decisions. Sharfstein fielded questions from the city leaders about best practices for social distancing, misinformation about the coronavirus, and virus transmission.
The second half of the session featured Kennedy School faculty members Dutch Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management at HKS and Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration at HBS, and Juliette Kayyem, the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security. They focused on three areas: where we are in the crisis; how mayors can pivot and adapt; and what political challenges stand in the way.
Where do we stand right now?
Kayyem, who served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, spoke about the stages of crisis response and observed that we are now in the response phase where public leaders must take quick and decisive action.
Acknowledging the unprecedented nature of this pandemic, Kayyem said that “while the virus is new, crisis management is not. It is beginning to look familiar, and that should give you some hope.” She also noted that American states and cities have been ahead of the U.S. federal government in their response: “You saw these governors and a lot of mayors move forward because they knew time was of the essence.”
How can we pivot and adapt?
“A lot of this feels like it is coming to you on the local level, and in fact, I think that’s correct,” said Leonard, an expert on crisis management. “I think what is going to get us through this event as well as we possibly can, is local leadership.”
Leonard emphasized that local leaders will be at the forefront of the response. “This is going to be a matter of self-reliance, and that’s always true, actually, in large disasters,” he said. “Almost all of the work comes from inside the community.”
But dealing with the complexity and uncertainty, Leonard said, would require “an ongoing iterative problem-solving process.” He suggested city leaders create an incident management team representing people with a range of interests, subject matter experts, and people familiar with the city and community. This team should then develop a process and iterate on it, treating decisions as part of “an experiment that is ongoing.”
What are the hardest political choices?
After the mayors shared some of the toughest political challenges they faced — including remaining aligned with state and federal leaders — Kayyem and Leonard offered insights. Drawing on her own experience with the U.S. federal government’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Kayyem said that in crisis situations, leaders must handle the response as well as politics. “You can’t deny it; you can’t work your way around it,” she said. Kayyem suggested that mayors should figure out ways in which their incident command structures can absorb the politics, while offering data, information, and hope: “It’s just honest. That’s all you have got: numbers and hope.”
Leonard added that local leadership is fundamentally political and that the purpose of politics is to resolve decisions about values. “Most people, when they really understand that we’ve got a crisis, are at their very best,” he said. “Enlist their help.” Like Kayyem, Leonard emphasized the need for hope: “We will turn out to be more resilient than we currently think.”