An official website of the United States government

What Do You Need to Know to Run a City?
February 12, 2016

Police officer controlling city traffic (© AP Images)]
(© AP Images)

The campaign’s finished, the election’s over and, congratulations, you’re the new mayor. But how much do you know about creating a city budget or navigating the relationships among your governmental agencies? Running a city day to day — and running it smoothly — comes with a learning curve. Depending on their experience, newly elected leaders can find themselves gobsmacked by what it takes.

That’s why, since 1975, Harvard University has hosted its “Seminar on Transition and Leadership for Newly Elected Mayors.” The university’s Institute of Politics, in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, invites mayors-elect of large and small cities across the U.S. for the intensive three-day seminar. The 23 participants from December’s seminar came from cities in 18 states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California and Alaska.

“Some of them have been police chiefs and know everything about a police department,” said Christian Flynn, who directs the program, “and some were small-business owners who never thought about the police department.”

Flynn consults with Harvard faculty and the Conference of Mayors about what should be on the agenda each year. Additions to this year’s agenda included “Policing and Public Safety” and “Attracting the Millennial Generation to Your City.”

Finance experts and the sitting mayors of Baltimore and Miami, as well as journalists from the New York Times and CNN, spoke to the new mayors. Workshops covered setting priorities for the first 100 days in office, policing, communicating during a crisis and developing local economies.

Flynn is quick to point out that the program is nonpartisan and that Harvard — rather than any government or corporate or special interest — pays for it.

Alison Silberberg, the new mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, picked up some advice from the police commissioner of Boston, William Evans. “He told me to be careful about all the ‘toys’ for policing people want you to buy as a new mayor,” she said. He suggested that instead of spending money that could strain the city’s budget, Silberberg should get police officers out of their cars and away from the desks and into the community to build trust with citizens.

During the seminar, mayors-elect stay in the same hotel and eat their meals together. “There was a remarkable sharing of ideas, not just from the experts, but from all the mayors: ‘We have that problem in Nashville, let me tell you what we did,’” Silberberg said.

She has already acted on many recommendations from the seminar. “Mayor [Marty] Walsh of Boston recommended I have a public safety meeting on day one, which was a great idea, and I did it. Well, I did it on day two because the chief of police was out of town.”

Flynn dreams of a lengthier seminar, but said that “because of [the mayors’] schedules, it can be hard to get them for the three days. I wish I could get them for a month.”

What do your elected officials need to know to serve effectively, and how are they getting that important information? Take the YALI Network Online Course “Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility” to learn, among other things, about engaging with candidates and elected officials.