Dear Mayor-Elect Kenney

Dear Mayor-Elect Kenney

Congrats. Now what? Some suggestions.

Dear Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney,

First, congratulations on a great victory.

Now you get to govern. And like all legislators who become chief executives, you have to make the move from critic to author, or from regulator to CEO. And you do so at a time when the city is filled with good news but still has significant challenges.

The good news: population growth, a downtown and near downtown neighborhood revival, and remarkable transformations around our university and medical centers. The Navy Yard business park has exceeded the expectations of even its biggest boosters and the potential for reclaiming our waterfront and park system in new ways is only getting underway.

The challenges: legacy costs including unfunded pension liabilities, a Republican state legislature that holds the purse strings, high poverty levels, and a shifting global economy that demands a more educated work force than ours.

Jim Kenney
Jim Kenney

It’s a daunting task. I would focus on three big goals: reducing poverty, ensuring long-term fiscal sustainability, and promoting an entrepreneurial economy. To succeed in these areas you will have to commit to some heavy lifts, from tax and pension policy to re-thinking education policy. And you will have to think about the intersection of private enterprise and public purpose in new ways.

The first steps, of course, are building a capable team. While you are recruiting those managers I thought I would offer a few constructive suggestions.

Expand your circle, because the people you need may not be those you know

Those who help get you elected are not always those you need to manage the city. We see many examples of mayors and governors who populate their administration with loyalists and campaign staff. Some of that is necessary, but the wrong people in the wrong roles can be deadly.

One of the hallmarks of great leaders is they surround themselves with bright people (who in a given field know much more than them) and have no fear of engaging with those who come from very different backgrounds and look at problems and solutions in different ways.

Pay particular attention to advice from those who do not need anything from you. In fact, build a network of relationships that will give it to you straight and not become part of the political or celebrity bubble.

Implementation is policy: value great management above policy chatter

We live in an era when everyone seems to have great policy ideas. There is a policy cult that makes frequent uses of words like “innovation” and “sustainable.” They are less familiar with words or practices that have to do with everyday management and results. But great management is pretty pedestrian stuff that begins with smart analysis, moves through smarter implementation, and requires accountability.

And since you come from a legislative background, you may be a little used to thinking in terms of legislative fiat: Pass a law, and then it changes. But great policy is only as good as the ability to implement it, and too often the best ideas are transformed into yesterday’s meal through deadening work rules, antiquated technology, and management systems that are ill-suited to change.

This is the problem with the city’s Licenses and Inspections Department, for example. We do not need more commissions of inquiry. We need very high quality managers with clear performance metrics, lines of accountability, and a mandate from their boss—you!— to demonstrate incremental and longer-term results.

There is a policy cult that makes frequent uses of words like “innovation” and “sustainable.” But great management is pretty pedestrian stuff that begins with smart analysis, moves through smarter implementation, and requires accountability.

You need a voice in Harrisburg; don’t completely outsource it

Philadelphia mayors often made the mistake of outsourcing their Harrisburg relationships to the city’s legislative delegation and paid lobbyists. They show up when they need something. The biggest mistake that Democratic mayors make is saying bombastic things about Republican legislators. Let your Philadelphia general assembly team and Governor Wolf take care of the theater. We hired you to win, not to score points in the daily political game.

Let the Republican leadership know you and learn what they need from Philadelphia’s Mayor. Communicate directly with them. You are now running the second largest public budget in the state after the state budget itself. And the Philadelphia School District budget is right behind in terms of relative size. It would be political malpractice to not have an understanding of Harrisburg and the bipartisan relationships required to succeed.

Build an action brand: take down some low hanging fruit

I remember that you were not always a fan of Mayor Street, although it sounds like that relationship has improved with time. During the first few months of his administration, Street directed the city to remove thousands of abandoned cars from the street. An army of tow trucks drove from City Hall and carted them away. It was great theatre and it also was good civic politics. He sent a message that he was going to be the neighborhood mayor.

I do not know what message you want to send, but you would be wise to elevate civic confidence by identifying your own abandoned car strategy. Maybe it’s your interest in providing citywide street cleaning. I can see it now, an army of street cleaning vehicles descending on the neighborhoods to do one big cleaning as a way to set a tone. This is a city with an incredible litter problem, so maybe you kick off a litter campaign with a big public-private action.

Whatever it is, do something tangible that sends a signal that you are an action-oriented leader.  Embed those early appointments, feel-good pronouncements, and position papers in a citywide action that serves the broadest possible number of Philadelphians.  

Under Mayor John Street, an army of tow trucks removed abandoned cars from our streets. You can similarly elevate civic confidence. I can see it now, a fleet of street cleaning vehicles descending on the neighborhoods to do one big cleaning as a way to set a tone.

Become the explainer in chief: solving tough issues requires salesmanship  

Great leaders educate, listen, and ultimately sell. They are problem-solvers but not know-it-alls. You are going to have tough issues to overcome over the next eight years including pension fund reform, tax policy changes, and education strategy. You’ll no doubt be better at counting Council votes than was your predecessor. But you also have to be better at selling ideas to a host of constituencies that all have conflicting interests.

Michael Nutter was a great policy mayor but not a very good policy educator. He did not spend enough time speaking directly to the citizens of the city about why he wanted to tackle a particular issue and how critical it was to the city’s long-term fortunes. He often sounded more like he was scolding us to get into line, rather than working with us to find solutions. There is a reset that has to happen.  

Good luck, Mr. Mayor.

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