US lessons for UK metro mayors: the hard impact of soft power

Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, one of this column's authors, speaks at a memorial following the death of native son Muhammad Ali last year. Image: Getty.

In May, Britain will hold elections for metro mayors in six metropolitan areas as part of a broader push toward devolution. Most focus has been on the formal powers the nation is devolving to this new position.

That is appropriate: the power of US mayors owes much to the fact that city governments have the ability to raise taxes and other local revenue and to set their own budgets. They also have the responsibility to appoint the heads of multiple influential agencies and authorities and the freedom to innovate locally while reaping the benefits of smart governance.

Yet, as a current US mayor and an advisor to mayors across the United States, we both know that the impact of the office is greater than merely managing and guiding the administrative functions of local government. Unlike a nation-state, cities are not governments. Cities are co-governed by networks of public, private, and civic institutions and leaders. The under-appreciated power of mayors is the ability to convene these leadership networks and to design, finance, and deliver collective responses to difficult challenges.

Louisville, Kentucky, provides a case in point. The 27th largest city in the United States, with a population of more than 750,000, mayor Fischer’s city resembles many of the areas holding elections in Britain, incorporating urban, suburban, and rural areas under one unified government as a product of a city-county merger in 2003.

Like city-regions across the United Kingdom and the United States, Louisville has struggled to achieve inclusive economic growth — to build an economy that works for all citizens. But the city has made great strides, thanks not to any formal legislation, but by leveraging the power of the mayor’s office to convene stakeholders and set an agenda for inclusive growth.

Louisville has committed to preparing young adults for a rapidly changing economy through lifelong learning. In 2014, the City of Louisville launched Cradle to Career, an integrated effort between disparate organisations focused on kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion, and workforce-oriented skills training.

It is obvious to any parent that these issues are inextricably linked; a smart intervention in a child’s early years pays off for decades. But, unfortunately, it’s just as obvious in cities around the country that the leaders of these programs have too few incentives to work together.


While the mayor’s office does not directly control any of these systems, it does offer the perspective and the constituency to consider the life trajectory of a child as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected, compartmentalised approaches. Impacts to date include material gains in kindergarten readiness, college degree attainment, and median wage compared to the national norm.

An inclusive economy requires both skilled workers and quality jobs that pay well. That’s why in Louisville, we worked with business leaders, the state government, and a traditional rival in the nearby city of Lexington to create the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (“BEAM”). The ambitious goal: bolster the region’s prowess in advanced manufacturing, exports, and foreign direct investment, building on the distinctive competitive assets and advantages of this broader region.

Through targeted company outreach programs, small export grants, and a region-wide export strategy, BEAM’s five-year goal of increasing export successes for small businesses by 50 percent was reached in only three years. 

The success of the Cradle to Career and BEAM initiatives require leadership traits that are qualitatively different from the more conventional ones used to run a hierarchical government. Soft power requires the ability to convene, cajole, and even shame private, civic, university and community leaders to come together and collaborate to compete and solve problems. This is community organising at the highest level, and it requires system-wide insights unique to mayors to lead disparate actors towards common visions, tangible actions, and sustained commitment.

In the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, US and UK cities face a democratic deficit — a loss of trust in institutions and lack of clarity about the future. The elections of metro mayors and other devolution efforts offer the potential to restore confidence in government and repair the frayed civic fabric of our societies.

Many of the challenges of the 21st century will not be solved in far-off bureaucracies of national governments; rather they will be tackled on the ground via cross-sector solutions.  Mayors can and should lead this, and as voters across Britain head to the polls this May, they should vote for those who will.

Greg Fischer is the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky.  Bruce Katz is the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution. The two participated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Summit on Inclusive Growth on 23 January 2017 in London. 

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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