- The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative recently released a guide for mayors, city managers, senior officials and other city leaders to help evaluate and "transform" their city government’s organizational culture.
- The guide, written by two professors in New York University's Graduate School of Public Service, is based on a survey of 40 U.S. public officials and field leaders; an assessment of three cities that experienced significant organizational culture change, Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; and Somerville, Massachusetts; and a review of related business and public policy literature.
- It includes a framework for implementing and assessing change in a city's organizational culture, defined as "the set of rules — formal or informal, written or not — that determine how work gets done."
Culture impacts how decisions are made, people are hired, wins are celebrated and more, according to the guide. Meanwhile, the role of city government is as important today as ever, given the need for public safety and health, according to guide author and New York University public service professor Alexander Shermansong. Therefore, the guide encourages city leaders to define their culture and understand how it impacts the many facets of city hall and life for local residents.
"All of us – whether we work for government or not – [need] to help make this a high functioning part of our society. So that we have the places that we want to live, the places we want to work in an economy that thrives and that is fair and equitable," he said.
Notably, the culture of local governments can also sometimes clash with the general culture of smart cities. Data, for example, is generally widely used in the private sector for decision-making. But in city government, it’s still a fairly new phenomenon, according to Shermansong.
"In fact, when it comes to how most cities operate, there isn’t a core reliance on data and metrics for making big-budget decisions and policy announcements or even to daily management," Shermansong said. "Instead, cities are relying on stakeholder engagement, multi-constituent concerns and a variety of other factors beyond core data."
Kansas City, Missouri, for example, has "developed a national reputation for embracing data and innovation, particularly through its longstanding resident surveys," according to the guide. However, the city government still faces issues in regard to its challenges to organizational transformation, and resistance to change, especially around the use of data.
The city still exhibits a culture that values tradition and relationships, according to the guide. "Given the routine nature of some of what we were doing, I didn’t want to unleash a wave of innovation at the lower levels of the organization, because that could be chaos," Kansas City City Manager Troy Schulte said in an interview cited in the document.
One employee also cited concerns around "data fatigue," while according to the guide authors, many administrators repeated the phrase: "Trust is the real currency." In other words, "employees’ networks and personal connections… are just as important, if not more so, than formal organizational structures and processes," the guide states.
The pace of change around smart city technology can also clash with the general culture of city government where the workforce systems are largely based on longevity and long tenure, according to Shermansong. "There's a mismatch between this continual upscaling and change in terms of the smart cities technology and a [city] culture that values stability and long tenure."
As city leaders look to define and understand their culture, they can begin by asking the following two questions, according to the guide authors:
- "In order to advance your top priorities, will the current way of working at city hall — 'business as usual' — be sufficient to succeed?"
- "In a typical interaction with city government, is a constituent usually satisfied or even delighted?"
If the answer is "no" to either question, the guide could likely help that local government align its culture with its current needs and goals, the authors write.
The guide then includes a series of nine steps for city leaders to create "lasting culture change" by assessing three categories: "leadership alignment, communications and decisions, and human resources and data systems."
Cities are working on great and innovative initiatives but culture continues to inhibit change, according to Shermansong. Most city workers also have a hard time describing the actual culture of a city, Shermansong said. The guide is designed to help cities understand their organizational culture, as a key first step, and then outlines how to change it if desired, he said.