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Follow the Data Podcast Episode 16: The Innovative Mayor, Michael Hancock

The 16th episode of Follow the Data presents a conversation with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and James Anderson, who leads Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Mayor Hancock is a native Denverite, serving his second term. He is known as a “mayor’s mayor,” surrounding himself with a talented team, and concentrating on efforts to make government more effective, to better serve its citizens.

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we’ve been fortunate to work with Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver in a variety of ways. Denver was an early member of What Works Cities, our initiative committed to helping cities better manage data to improve people’s lives. Mayor Hancock is one of the first 40 mayors to participate in our collaboration with Harvard University to give mayors high-quality executive coaching and training that rivals what is available to their CEO peers in the business world.

When President Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Denver joined America’s Pledge, an unprecedented commitment from U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities led by Mike Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown to help America reach its Paris climate goals despite what happens in Washington.

Now, our work with Denver continues as the city was just named one of 35 “Champion Cities” moving on to the next phase of our 2018 Mayors Challenge. The Mayors Challenge is a competition that encourages mayors and their teams to develop bold ideas that address urban problems: ideas that are adaptive and replicable for application in other cities. Denver has a potentially groundbreaking idea to engage public schools in the effort to improve air quality.

In this episode, Mayor Hancock and James discuss leadership philosophy, why the best public sector “consultants” are frontline employees, and why consistency is key to effectively engaging residents.

We hope you enjoy this episode of The Innovative Mayor.

You can listen to the podcast and past episodes in the following ways:

We hope you enjoy this episode. Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

This episode features a conversation between the Mayor of Denver, Colorado, Michael Hancock, and James Anderson who leads Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies, working with mayors to create innovative solutions and spread ideas that work.

Denver is tackling some of the greatest challenges facing cities – head-on.  By confronting the threats posed by climate change and investing in the infrastructure needed to keep a growing metropolis moving, Denver’s approach is one to watch.

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we’ve been fortunate to work with Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver in a variety of ways. Denver was an early member of What Works Cities, our initiative committed to helping cities better manage data to improve people’s lives. Mayor Hancock is one of the first 40 mayors to participate in our collaboration with Harvard University to give mayors high-quality executive coaching and training that rivals what is available to their CEO peers in the business world.

And when President Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Denver joined America’s Pledge, an unprecedented commitment from U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities led by Mike Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown to help America reach its Paris climate goals despite what happens in Washington.

As of February, our work with Denver continues as the city was just named one of 35 “Champion Cities” moving on to the next phase of our 2018 Mayors Challenge. The Mayors Challenge is a competition that encourages mayors and their teams to develop bold ideas that address urban problems: ideas that are adaptive and replicable for application in other cities. Denver has a potentially groundbreaking idea to engage public schools in the effort to improve air quality.

In this episode, Mayor Hancock and James Anderson discuss leadership philosophy, why the best public sector “consultants” are frontline employees, and why consistency is key to effectively engaging residents.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Follow the Data: The Innovative Mayor with James Anderson.

JAMES ANDERSON:  Michael Hancock is the 45th Mayor of Denver, and is now serving in his second term.  He’s a native Denverite, and a mayor that Bloomberg Philanthropies has come to know through a bunch of programs over the years, from our work on data, to our leadership program with Harvard.

He’s also known as a mayor’s mayor, and a leader who quietly, but steadily, has focused on the nuts and bolts of making government more innovative and more effective in meeting people’s needs.  I think we have so much to learn from him.  Denver Mayor Hancock, welcome to the Innovative Mayor.

MICHAEL HANCOCK:  Thank you, Jim.  Good to be with you.

ANDERSON: When I talk to people on your team, there are always a couple of things they say about you, and about your approach to talent and management – first among them is always that you hire very smart people and you delegate. Can you talk about that strategy?

HANCOCK: I think, first, it starts with a sense of self, and wanting to surround myself with people who really, strengthen my weaknesses, and compliment me in the areas that I need, just not areas of my focus. I know that I’m more of a visionary person, and so, I typically prefer to be surrounded by folks who are very detail-oriented, nuts and bolts.  They dot the I’s.  They cross the T’s.

And then, it’s just an eye for good talent.  You watch people.  You monitor them.  You try to be a little more introspective about them, when you interview them, and asking the right questions during interviews to hopefully bring the best out of them.  I think that I get better and stronger by having good, smart, certainly much smarter people than I am, around me.

ANDERSON: Has that always been your management and hiring approach? Did a mentor give you that piece of advice?  Where did that insight come from?

HANCOCK: You know what? I’ve always been a student of leadership concepts, as I’ve studied a lot of different practitioners and writers on leadership philosophy, one of the things that really came to me was good leaders surround themselves with people who strengthen their weaknesses, and supplement the areas that they’re not as strong in.

That, to me, is a phenomenal trait, and one that starts with having a good sense of awareness, but also, a comfort with regards to your weaknesses, that your weaknesses are not necessarily a weakness in you.  It’s just not an area that is your area of focus and people are built differently.  They think differently, and so I do better when I have people who have–and it started from a very young age, who think differently than I do because I think it completes the circle.

ANDERSON: That’s awesome. One of the big challenges that mayors in every city have is encouraging risk-taking within the public sector, within bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies, in many ways, exist to preserve the status quo.  When you applied to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Program, one of the things you said is that you had felt like you’d made a lot of progress in getting a lot of people in Denver municipal government to take more risks and to feel that risk-taking was a part of their job. And there were still a lot of folks that you were bringing along.  What are some of the concrete strategies you’ve used as mayor to encourage people to take risks, and to let them know that it’s okay to try things, even if they don’t always work out?

HANCOCK: Absolutely. I think, first and foremost, I think it’s important that people, in their jobs, know it’s okay to fail.  It’s okay to make mistakes.  It’s okay to not be perfect, and in fact, it’s important to stress, I’ve never met a perfect person. The reality is, is that I want you take risks, and if you fail while you’re taking risk, then we’re going to learn from this, and oftentimes, the best lessons you have is when you’ve had failure.

In this job, in my life, I’ve met some of the most phenomenally successful people in the world, ambassadors, presidents of countries, business executives who have been successful, young, youthful entrepreneurs, and every one of them talked to a moment where they took a risk and then failed, and that failure tended to be more rewarding than anything they’ve ever done because they learned from it.

As a mayor, I take risks.  I don’t worry about what might come out of the risk that we take, but I push, and I push all of us to think bigger, to take the risk, to go big or go home in many instances, and fortunately for us, in Denver, we’ve had some successes, but we’ve had some failures, as well that we’ve learned from.

ANDERSON: When you’ve had those failures, how have you worked to send the message through the ranks or to the public that this is okay. This is part of the game, and this is part of getting better?

HANCOCK: What I’ve learned about people is that they appreciate humility in failure, that it’s okay to say, you know what? We tried.  It didn’t work out, and we’re going to go back to the drawing board and do something differently.

I have learned that people appreciate that more than the cover up, than to try to smooth it over, try to put lipstick on a pig, if you will.  They appreciate because we’re humans, and we know that there are going to be times when people don’t meet the mark and going to fall short of the goal, and we’ve got to be okay with that, and we’ve got to be confident.

Sometimes, simply saying, you know what?  We tried.  We went that direction.  That idea didn’t work.  We’re going to go back to the drawing board, and I think people will turn the page and say, now, we’re excited to see what you’re going to come up with next.

ANDERSON: Devner is famous for engaging front line staff in innovation. We know you expect everyone in the organization to be a part of these efforts. Can you talk a little bit about the Peak Academy, a specific office and effort to unleash front line innovation, and explain the role it’s played in your administration?

HANCOCK: Absolutely. Peak Academy is really an employee engagement, employee empowerment effort in the City of Denver, to help us think through the challenges and opportunities of running a major city of 700,000 people, with a lot of different moving parts and complexities, and a deep-rooted bureaucracy.

Really, what Peak does is it turns to the experts, the folks who are on the front line every day, and simply says, how can we do our jobs better, faster and smarter?  Help us to do this on a continuous basis.  Instead of bringing in consultants, we turn to the people who do the work every day, the city employees, and we say, you are the experts.

The reality, Jim, is that most of them have been thinking about how we can do things better, stronger, faster, but no one ever asks them, or no one ever empowered them to step up and to share their thoughts.

We have seen some amazing ideas come from our city employees, some that are very simple.  You know, instead of sending things certified mail, send them first class.  Save the city lots of money and time, and then, some that are very, very complex, to where we’ve taken months to kind of understand the value stream and the process stream.

The reality is, is that we’ve turned–Peak Academy simply has a value of using the on-the-ground experts, the employees, empowering them and encouraging them to make innovations at their workspace.

ANDERSON: That’s great. So one of the things that I believe is that cities are an incredible distribution network for ideas that work, and solutions that can spread, and I know a lot of other cities have come to Denver to learn a little bit about the Peak Academy.  Have other cities adopted parts or aspects, or the whole part of the Peak Academy approach and brought it back home?

HANCOCK: Cities from as far as Europe have come to Denver, of course, and then, they’ve taken pieces of what we do, and implemented them back at home. But let me just say this.  I always have a little chuckle when I, or who I call The Professor, David Edinger, in Denver, who runs our Peak Program–

ANDERSON: He is The Professor.

HANCOCK: –yeah, gets invited to speak and we’ve been in–Dave and I have been as far as London to talk about Peak Academy. Our speech, my speech, I tell people can take ten seconds, turn to the employees, empower them to innovate. Thank you very much.  I enjoyed the trip.  See you later.

ANDERSON: So you had a big year in 2017, in your State of the City speech, you talked about that you would be coming forward with a general obligation bond to the voters and asking voters to put forward a billion dollars for transportation and infrastructure investments. You also launched the Mobility Action Plan, and the goal is bold.  You know, today, in Denver, 73% of commuters commute each day alone in their car.  In 12 years, you want to shift that down to 50%.  That’s a bold goal.  That’s a lot of accountability.  What purpose did that serve?  Were you trying to shock the system?  What were you trying to do there?

HANCOCK: I can tell you, that State of the City address was in July. That ballot passed in November.  Close to a billion dollars of general obligations bonds approved by an average of 69 to 70% of the people.  It had to be broken down into a series of questions, and so, the public overwhelmingly came out in support of that general obligation bond.

Over $431 million were committed to transportation infrastructure, to assist us in that $2 billion commitment around mobility and our Mobility Action Plan.  So it was part of that.  Part of what we do as mayors is to bring awareness and to, yes, shock the system.

We did it with housing, when I said we want to build 3,000 new units of housing, affordable housing, in five years.  We were able to do it in four, but the bigger part of that was to shock the system, and to really raise the level of awareness of the need for, the critical need, for affordable housing, the same thing with Mobility Action.

What we know about transportation and how people move about the city, their mobility choices is it’s very much built around culture.  Denver is an automobile culture.  That is not going to be changed overnight, Jim.  And what we know is that culture is the hardest thing in society to change.

You’ve got to peel back layers, and it takes time.  You’re changing behavior.  You’re changing the way people think.  You’re really changing their instinctive responses and attitudes toward things, and mobility is one of those areas, very deep culture, and we’re trying to peel that back.

I need to shock the system, but I also need to put resources behind the commitment and have a goal where people can manage, all of us, not just city, but the people in the City of Denver, can manage toward a goal.  We are a city, a very tenacious, resilient city, but we don’t like to lose, and maybe growing up where the Denver Broncos are, you know, keen, have taught us that.

We like to manage toward a goal, and so, we have a goal of 50% now, from 73%. It’s on everyone’s mind, and hopefully, we bring everyone, including our stakeholder partners, and our citizens along to help us reach that goal.

ANDERSON: At Bloomberg, we talk about five core competencies that we believe local governments need, in order to create a culture of ongoing innovation and high performance. One is around boldness in leadership, and raising the aspirations of civil servants and the public around what to expect and we should be shooting for, and that’s a great example of that.

Another of the competencies that we talk a lot about is citizen engagement.  I know that, in developing the Mobility Action Plan, there were thousands of inputs from residents, in creating that strategy.  Can you talk a little bit more about, you know, is citizen engagement an area where you feel you guys are a very strong government?  Is there room for improvement?  How are you focusing on taking that to the next level?

HANCOCK: I appreciate that, and great question, Jim. Let me simply say this with regards to citizen engagement.  One, you must understand the psyche of the community and how people engage, and I think once we have a foundation of recognizing that there are various levels of desired engagement by your citizenry, you don’t spend a lot of energy, you don’t waste a lot of time and focus trying to engage certain elements of the community that don’t necessarily want to be engaged.

I don’t mean they’re bad citizens, or they’re apathetic.  That just simply says they have other things in their lives that they’re focused on, and there may be certain levels of information that they prefer, as opposed to being fully engaged.  And let me also say that there is no perfect formula to citizen engagement, and you’ll never completely satisfy everyone, so, you’ve just got to continue to do your best and do what you can to engage people.

So we try to engage folks on various levels, electronically.  You can sit in the privacy of your office or your home, and lean in.  We had that with regards to that general obligation bond, where we received over 4,000 ideas, a lot of them electronically.  Some people like to show up in community town hall meetings or registered neighborhood evening meetings, and we show up for those meetings, where we take the feel–get a feel for where people are with regards to certain attitudes and thoughts.

We also hold, on a quarterly basis, what we call Cabinet in the Community, and that’s where I take my entire cabinet to a quadrant of the city and we’re there for that morning for a few hours to listen and to talk face-to-face with our citizens, and we do it in kind of a fair-like atmosphere, so you can go to the mayor’s table and you can talk with me for up to three minutes per person.  we have that limit it because some people will stand there for 20 minutes with a lot of great discussion, but we’ve got to get a lot of people in.  You can talk to your police chief, your city planner.  You can talk to your public works director, your parks and rec. director.  You can talk to, you know, your librarian, and I think people really like that kind of looseness, and so, we tend to be able to grab all sorts of citizens in a type of desired engagement at those type of events.  But the key is to stay consistent.  Stay out there, continue to ask.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

HANCOCK: Let me give you an example of something we did when I first became mayor. We had a very difficult situation.  We had a financial, structural problem in our budget.  we were tasked with a very difficult decision on how we turn it around, and really, I’m in the first term, first year mayor.  We had to do something smart to fix it.  We either were going to mask the symptoms and deal with it there, or we’re going to go deep and deal with the problem, and dealing with the problem, it meant we had to ask the public for what we call a de-Brucing in Denver, but basically, let us keep the revenue that we’re keeping and not return it back to the citizens, if we went over a certain limit.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

HANCOCK: We went out to the public, and we held community meetings all over the city in different quadrants, and we gave them little clickers, and the whole theory that I was raised in, in terms of civic engagement, is if you give people good information, they will make the right decision. And we gave them, through our chief financial officer, good financial information about the condition of the city.

And we said to them, if we were to do A, B, or C, what do you want us to do with this money?  And as a result, we came up with the de-Brucing of the city, and we just dedicated that money to fixing our roads, starting to hire police officers for the first time in five years, firefighters, and small business development, and moving the city forward.  73% of the public agreed with it, when most people didn’t believe that it would pass.

And so, that is a direct result of strong citizen engagement.

ANDERSON: That’s a great story. You mentioned earlier that Denverites don’t like to lose, and as you know, Denver was just announced as one of the champion cities in Bloomberg Philanthropy’s 2018 Mayor’s Challenge.

HANCOCK: Yay.

ANDERSON: Yay, congratulations. So the mayor’s challenge, for our audience, is a national competition where we are asking cities to put forward bold ideas that solve urgent, emerging problems, and that have potential to spread to other cities.  So first of all, congratulations.

HANCOCK: Thank you.

ANDERSON: I know that Denver takes very seriously air pollution and your idea tries to tackle it in a really creative hyper-local way. You want to talk a little bit about the Denver Mayor’s Challenge idea?

HANCOCK: Yeah, basically, what we propose is to take air monitoring devices and place them on top of schools, so that we can do a couple of things. One is we have multiple sites where we are measuring the particulates in the air, and we’re able to determine how well we’re doing with regards to our air quality.

And Jim, just for the record, with your listeners to understand, Denver’s had a history of real challenging air quality issues, dating back to the, you know, 1960s and 1970s.  Mayor Federico Pena, in ’83, had a goal of cleaning up and dealing effectively with the brown cloud, which we were all–we all grew up knowing very well.  I know you’re from Colorado.

ANDERSON: Yes.

HANCOCK: You might recall that a little bit.

ANDERSON: I remember the brown cloud.

HANCOCK: He was successful, and we–that started with doing away with wood-burning fireplaces, but now, we have to continue to continuously improve our air, and I’ll tell you that these air monitoring devices will help us, number one, measure, so that we can make better decisions about how we can go about continuing to clean up or improve the quality of air in the City of Denver.

And two, I really like the idea because it gives a chance for us to collaborate with schools, and to really engage our young people, particularly around science and the environment on how to measure, how to read these type of devices, and maybe, hopefully, develop some scientists to come out of it and some environmental scientists to come out of this experiment.

But it’s a great opportunity to collaborate with the community, collaborate with the school, while, at the same time, doing something very, very important for the citizens of Denver.

ANDERSON: Well, you’re one of 35 cities that are advancing in this next phase of the competition, and there’s just a tremendous amount of excitement about what you guys can do there.

HANCOCK: We are very excited.

ANDERSON: So speaking of particulates and brown clouds, Denver has signed onto America’s Pledge, which is an alliance of more than 2,500 leaders from city halls, state houses, boardrooms, college campuses, to ensure that the United States steps up and fulfills the Paris Climate Accords, regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.

HANCOCK: Right.

ANDERSON: How does that resonate back home?

HANCOCK: Oh, man. It’s a very popular and important step for the City of Denver.  It was important for us the moment President Obama signed onto the Paris Accord.  We have established clean air, clean energy, reduced CO2 emissions, goals around the climate accord.

We have built our whole strategy of sustainability around the Paris Accord, and we were all disappointed when this administration decided to pull out, but it doesn’t change who we are, and what we are committed to, and so, we are proud to join those leaders around the world remaining committed to those values.

In fact, very soon, we’ll be announcing — we’ve already announced our drive toward 100% renewable energy, and our goal is to announce very soon the date that we hope to accomplish 100% renewable energy in Denver.  So we’re going to stay committed to remaining very aggressive on those goals.

ANDERSON: Question, in a city like Denver, are citizens pushing government on climate, or is government pushing the city? Where is the energy coming from?

HANCOCK: I think it’s collaborative, to be quite honest with you. I don’t think there’s a push or pull situation here.  This is a mutual awareness that’s occurred.  Maybe the citizens got it first and said, you know what?  We all have to be aware that our environment is changing.  All you’ve got to do is be in Colorado to recognize that there is, indeed, climate change.

We hit 70 degrees one day here, in the month of January, and the reality is, we’ve got to do better to kind of reverse the warming of our planet.  So government is beginning to respond, and recognize that we have a lot of influence and a great – – pulpit to talk about responsible environmentalism in our city and throughout our state, and I know the governor of Colorado is doing it.  I’m doing it.  Our congressional delegation is committed to it, so we’re going to keep talking about it.

I was the first mayor in Denver’s history to start the Office of Sustainability in the mayor’s office, taking a very broad approach, so that we have equity and equality with regards to our environmental sustainability efforts.  I’m proud of that effort.  We’re going to get stronger with that unit because they’re now having it throughout various departments in the City of Denver, and we’re going to continue, hopefully, to embed these value streams of sustainability throughout the City of Denver in everything that we do.

ANDERSON: So now that I’ve come to appreciate that you are a junkie of leadership books and management studies, let’s end this discussion by talking a little bit about the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

HANCOCK: Yeah.

ANDERSON: You’re a member of the first cohort. Uh you have been a very active and engaged mayor, in our cohort of 40 cities.  Can you talk a little bit about why that program is working for you, what you’re getting out of it, and why is that opportunity to engage with other mayors important?

HANCOCK: You know, when I used to find free time in college to read, Jim, there was a leadership author by the name of Dr. Warren Bennis, who I would read a lot about. He’s the one who coined the phrase, managers do things right, where leaders do the right thing.  And what I learned during that process was that you may read a 300-page book, but the reality is you may walk away with only two or three ideas, and it’s the same thing with the Harvard Bloomberg Fellowship.  I really like being in that room with thoughtful people, and we may spend–you know, this summer, we spent, what, three days –a very deep, intensive dense just policy and philosophical discussion, but there was also some practicality to how we transfer that to the realities of what we do every day, and I really enjoyed that, walk away with three or four nuggets, and oftentimes, when we have our teleconferences, where I listen in and participate, I walk away with an idea.

And in fact, there are a couple of case studies that we’re going to use to hopefully create some transformative new leadership approaches on some things we’re dealing with in Denver, but I think that’s the power is to walk away with a few of those nuggets and say, you know what?  I think we may have found the secret to some opportunities and some challenges in Denver.

ANDERSON: Well, that’s certainly our goal for the program, so Mayor Hancock, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today.

HANCOCK: It was my pleasure. Always good to see you, Jim.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to the Mayor for joining us. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Christian Nwachukwu, Jr., and Ivy Li, with music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to David Sucherman.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.