At the recent National League of Cities meeting in New Orleans, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded for all the world like a presidential candidate. He confessed one thing: You cannot run government entirely like a business. In the business world, he said, it is dog eat dog… in government it is the other way around.
Besides getting a laugh, his point was that many of the principles are the same but the differences are important too. Business puts money into what’s working to maintain a strong bottom line; government tends to put money into what’s not working to make it better. Sometimes that can be counterproductive, especially if government takes money away from what is working. Still, the goals are quite different.
He also traced the threads that run through the work of both business and government. You must have a vision. You must have a strategy for implementing the vision. And finally, you must have accountability, and that’s the hardest part. He repeated an oft-cited maxim: In God we trust; all others bring data. He observed that gridlock at the federal level was increasingly serious, leaving to local government the necessity of enforcing the broad expanse of law in areas like immigration.
Of course the elephant in the room at this meeting was New Orleans, the host city and a textbook case on the failure of many levels of government and of citizens to come together to provide the vision, strategy and accountability that could have saved an American city from disaster.
New Orleans is still struggling mightily two years after Hurricane Katrina. The French Quarter is back but the neighborhoods largely lie in ruin. It remains a place to visit but not one in which to live a full life.
The experience of New Orleans teaches us many things but chief among them is that we have not kept pace with the way the world is changing. This includes the changing roles of federal, state and local governments and partisanship that has perhaps gone too far.
Bloomberg promoted the idea that the work of community-building will increasingly be left to the locals – everything else is too big and unwieldy. Potholes are not Republican or Democrat, he reiterated.
Ending the conference was author Daniel Pink, who admonished us to think of community building in the 21st century under some very fluid and changing rules. He listed six qualities that are emerging as our world responds less to left-brain analytical thinking and more to right-brain creative thinking. Those qualities – design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning – manifest themselves when we turn from our cold, flickering computer screens to more human needs.
The best stories from New Orleans are about people helping other people. In fact, it appears that while government dysfunction was occurring all around them, people quietly stepped in to take back their city and their lives.
The message from Bloomberg, Pink and others is that we need real straight talk about where to go from here. What are the complementary roles of local, state and federal governments in building and even saving our communities? How do people reinvent government to better reflect who we are today? We’ll be held accountable by the success or failure of our local communities in the new world of the 21st century. Our duty as citizens is to demand accountability of ourselves and our governments.