Giving Compass' Take:
- James Anderson shares a problem-solving framework for cities to face the great challenges of our time, including climate change.
- What role can you play in supporting local efforts to address global problems?
- Read about lessons from cities' climate adaptation plans.
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Here’s a new axiom fit for the 21st century: The greater the global challenge, the more likely it is to fall to local governments to fix. But this modern reality comes with an inconvenient truth: Our public institutions are not equipped with the updated skills they need to effectively tackle the world’s ever-escalating challenges—not by a long shot.
Consider the climate crisis. Cities are home to more than half of the world’s population and, as the source of more than two thirds of the world’s carbon emissions, have the potential to solve a good percentage of those climate problems. But, even as local governments consistently take the lead in driving climate action, their ambitious, cross-sectoral efforts present distinct implementation challenges: Only a third of American cities were meeting their emissions targets in 2020 and, as of last fall, less than half of the world’s cities were tracking their progress.
Or take the ongoing global migration wave. As a record number of refugees head to North American and European cities, the resulting divisive discourse has done little to lead to solutions. Local governments are left bearing the brunt and have, understandably, so far struggled. Asylum seekers to New York City have, in the past year alone, more than doubled the city’s shelter population—from 50,000 to more than 100,000—which has both necessitated an extraordinary and expensive peacetime mobilization and raised questions about cities’ and regions’ capacities to effectively respond.
There are, of course, lessons to be learned from the global pandemic. It was city leaders—more than state or federal officials—who stepped up to communicate risk, implement behavioral-change interventions, and find new or improved ways to reach and engage vulnerable and skeptical communities. This required a sustained emergency posture and high degrees of creativity, agility, and collaboration. In fact, I’ve argued that local governments were one of the few things that worked well during the pandemic. Yet, one need only consider the lives lost, the school time squandered, and the continued mental-health toll to know that we will need to be much better equipped next time.
Today’s public officials are most often trained in areas of administration, policy development, fiscal analysis, and in stewarding public resources and promoting public accountability. There’s good reason for that, as these skills are foundational to the work of a well-run city. However, if public officials are to effectively address our biggest global concerns—while also managing local challenges and the interplay between the two—they’ll need to expand their skill set to include “problem-solving capabilities.”
There’s increasing discussion in the academic literature about this problem-solving orientation. In organization (large firm) theory, a “dynamic capability” positions a firm to adapt resources and efforts in the face of shocks or other change. Rainer Kattel has extended this into the public sector by introducing a synthesis of key routines: sense-making, which is about information gathering and pattern analysis; connecting, which is about boundary-spanning routines that bring new networks and coalitions to action; and shaping, which reinforces through practices and routines new directionality for an organization or policy. Quinton Mayne, Jorrit de Jong, and Fernando Fernandez-Monge have defined three categories for public problem-solving capabilities in government agencies: a reflective improvement capability (focused on defining and addressing problems), a collaboration capability, and a data-analytical capability. Tara McGuinness and Anne-Marie Slaughter position this as a new approach at problems that is distinct from traditional policy making and is people-centered, experiential, data-enabled, and designed to scale. And Demos Helsinki offers an inspiring set of values for the modern problem-solving civil servant, describing the need to equip them to infuse rules-based orientation with humility, to supplement short-term accountability with the wisdom to look to the future, to bring imagination to incrementalism, and to complement vertical responsibilities with a collaborative ethos.
For the past decade-plus, we at Bloomberg Philanthropies have, together with partners from Harvard University, the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Behavioral Insights Team, Results for America, the National League of Cities, and many other organizations, focused on strategically bolstering the problem-solving capacity of local governments, primarily through leadership development, skills-building programming, and applied learning through supported project work. This intensive work—with more than 280 mayors, data teams in nearly 300 cities, 60 innovation offices, and 600-plus other senior leaders—has provided us unique insight into what works, what’s possible, and how to build more demand when it comes to building skills at the local government level.
What has emerged from this work is something akin to a Civil Servants’ Toolkit for Public Problem Solving, which includes the skill sets, mindsets, and practices needed in four critical areas: 1) problem spotting and definition, 2) invention, 3) collaboration, and 4) agile delivery. This toolkit contains the capabilities that, our experience has found, cities need to develop if they’re to successfully toggle between day-to-day program-management concerns and the problem-solving approaches required to tackle global challenges at the local level.
Read the full article about problem-solving skills by James Anderson at Stanford Social Innovation Review.