Do a quick mental exercise:
Imagine for a moment that you can hire a staff of 17 full-time people, control a multi-million dollar budget, and a have wide range of influence over a variety of valuable resources.
Your mission: Affect positive change in your city.
What would you do?
Who would you hire?
What would they do?
How would you and your staff spend your time and money to achieve the best outcomes?
This is no theoretical scenario, but rather the exact questions that the Mayor of Portland faces on a daily basis.
Yet the Mayor likely never asks these questions in such an unboxed way, instead choosing to adhere to very traditional, uninspired, and ultimately ineffective methods when it comes to allocating resources, wielding influence, and affecting change.
My thesis is that the Mayor suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding and miscalculation of the assets, boundaries, and narratives that he controls.
Let’s start with the Mayor’s enviable list of assets:
- Human Capital: He has 17 full time staff.
- Hiring and Firing Authority: The Mayor can appoint, hire, and fire key positions throughout the local government, including the directors of all the bureaus (transportation, parks, sustainability, planning, etc.
- Bureau Control: The Mayor is the de facto director of multiple city bureaus and has a strong influence in how they allocate their time, attention, and resources.
- Agenda Setting: The Mayor has the ability to decide what will be on the city council agenda.
- Media Attention: The media will cover the Mayor’s announcements, ideas, social media accounts, etc.
- Policy Framing: He has the ability to frame debates and policy decisions by spending his other assets (agenda setting and media influence.
- Financial Framing: He also has the ability to frame and “anchor” budget discussion with his initial budget proposal.
- Brand Potential: He has the potential to build up a strong personal brand (in this Mayor’s case, this asset hardly exists, but it has the potential to).
- Vast Network: He has a network of powerful and influential friends and donors across sectors and neighborhoods.
Despite these vast resources, the Mayor is hostage in a prison of self-imposed boundaries:
- “I must hire the same positions as my predecessor (and his predecessor, and…).”
- “I must juggle multiple issues and priorities at the same time.”
- “I must act in a particular, dignified fashion.”
- “I can’t fire those people, because it will make me look bad.”
- “I can’t do that because my donors wouldn’t like that.”
- “I can’t do that, because then I probably wouldn’t get re-elected.”
And some other boundaries are structural or legal:
- “I’m not a monarch. The other councilmembers get just as many votes as I do.”
- “I only have X years to do this before I face re-election (which I might lose) or am termed out.”
- “I must spend 4 hours every Tuesday night in a city council meeting.”
These boundaries, along with his understanding of his assets, help inform the stories and narratives the Mayor tells himself about his position, his job, and his ability to change the city.
In this Mayor’s case, the resulting narratives (and their subtexts) include:
- “There is a process for the way things are done around here.” (“I borrowed this process from my predecessors, and have chosen not to do things any differently.”)
- “My office does not abuse public resources.” (“I will use my assets in a conservative fashion so as not to raise eyebrows or attract unwanted media attention.”)
- “As a representative of the people, I make time for lots of issues.” (“I make time for lots of issues because that’s what people want, but the opportunity cost is massive, as I never make time to truly affect change in the top priority areas.”)
- “We run a tight ship in my office” (“I am not comfortable re-assigning my human capital from traditional roles like sustainability policy advisor to less traditional roles like campaign manager or senior front end developer.”)
- “First and foremost, I will do what’s best for the city.” (“I think I’m pretty great, and since I want to be re-elected I will play it safe and never do anything groundbreaking or hard.”)
While this post is about the Mayor of Portland, my thesis applies to many elected officials, the vast majority of whom seem to suffer from the same misunderstanding and misappropriation of their assets, boundaries, and narratives.
What if instead…
- …The Mayor looked at his assets as raw inputs he could use in anyway he wanted, ignoring precedent?
- …He were to amplify one of his biggest assets – his staff of 17 – by turning them into nimble campaign staff working to pass affordable housing reform? Or into a team of engineers and product managers who spent a year developing civic tools to that better track, organize, and create actionable reports on the wealth of data about the city? What if he hired a world class video crew to highlight and promote key initiatives?
- …He took the flack for firing “established” and “respected” bureau directors and instead replaced them with innovative, fresh leaders?
- …He used his powerful pulpit to reach more people through engaging social media, writing, and other forms of communication?
- ….He said NO to 80% of his meeting requests and ceremonial duties so that he could spend time focusing on the 20% that would actually make a difference in people’s lives?
Could he change the narrative?
- “We run the most innovative and effective city government in the world.”
- “We only hire the best and brightest. We compete with Google for talent.”
- “We pride ourselves on asking ourselves everyday ‘Are we doing this because that’s how it was done before, or because it’s the best way?'”
- “We work to affect positive change every day, without worrying about the electoral repercussions. If we succeed, which we will if we go all in, then the repercussions will be positive, no matter the outcome of the election.”
- “My choices will make many people uncomfortable, and that’s OK. My job is to improve this city for most of the people, most of the time.”
The idea that elected officials should run the government like a business is cliched and usually wrongheaded (they’re very different).
But I think that running the Mayor’s office more like a startup could do a lot of good.
The Mayor should think of the position and the office as an asset-rich startup with a strong mission, and limited time to achieve it.
Mr. Mayor, your mission is to run the city efficiently and effectively and affect positive change.
Here are your assets and resources. No plan or strategy is off limits.
This post was originally published for altMBA.
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