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Follow the Data Podcast: Facilitating Learning: A Bloomberg-Harvard Education

Jorrit de Jong speaking to alumni of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Program at CityLab in October, 2019.
Jorrit de Jong speaking to alumni of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Program at CityLab in October, 2019.

The skills needed to be a mayor are many, and few have the time to pause and learn something new.

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative was developed in response to the need for leadership and management training specifically tailored to city leaders. Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University are uniquely qualified to develop such a program, combining resources to facilitate learning for city leaders currently holding office.

Josh Skolnick of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation team spoke to the program’s director and faculty co-chair for executive education, Jorrit de Jong. Jorrit is also a Senior Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School; he and Josh discuss the program’s nearly 99% recommendation rate, the use of data, experimentation and innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

Learn more about the program at

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

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we leverage data to identify unmet needs, develop and refine solutions and maximize impact on the toughest challenges cities face. Three years running, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative has helped 120 Mayors do that for their residents: nearly 99% of the mayors who have participated to-date say they would recommend the program to their peers.

Every year, this first-of-its-kind collaboration brings together 40 mayors from across the globe, giving them the kind of world-class leadership and management training that is so often afforded to private sector CEOs but is all too rare for public sector leaders.

Josh Skolnick of the Government Innovation team at Bloomberg Philanthropies spoke to the Initiative’s faculty director, Jorrit de Jong. In addition to serving as the Initiative’s director and faculty co-chair for executive education, Jorrit is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School and has experience working with cities around the world to make the public sector more effective, efficient, equitable and responsive to social needs.

Josh and Jorrit discuss how the Bloomberg-Harvard collaboration came to be, the unique learning opportunities provided to mayors and senior staff, and the common issues facing mayors around the world.

Listen now.

JOSH SKOLNICK:  All right, well, thank you so much for coming in today Jorrit.  Really great to talk to you.

JORRIT DE JONG: Thanks for having me.

SKOLNICK:  I’d like to start our conversation by asking you, when you teamed up with Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch this program in 2016, what was the gap that you saw out there that you were hoping to fill?  Why did you feel like Bloomberg was the right partner for Harvard to fill that gap?

DE JONG:  Well, the job of a mayor is one of the most important and one of the most difficult jobs, I think in the public sector.  And when you think about how that job works, people run for mayor, they win the election, and then they get to run the city.

But many of them don’t come in with a ton of executive experience, and so even, if they have managed a large organization, none of them have managed an organization that’s quite as complex as a city.  The skills and the knowledge required to do that well, you basically learn on the job, which is great.  But at the same time you have to create opportunities to organize that learning and that wasn’t there.

Bloomberg who, as a mayor, showed that you can actually learn on the job by organizing data, by creating learning, feedback mechanisms within your organization, by testing new stuff out, and then seeing if it works or not.  Set the tone and the stage for the curriculum that we’ve developed.  It was a very natural connection between the Bloomberg organization and Harvard University.

SKOLNICK:  So each year we try to bring in about 40 mayors from around the world.  What does it actually look like for those mayors?  They get the email that says you’re in the group.  Now what happens?  Do they come to New York?  Do they go to Harvard?  What’s the next step?

DE JONG:  Yeah. It all starts with that letter from Mike Bloomberg and Larry Bacow, the President of Harvard University, inviting them to the program.  We offer them a 3-day onsite program in a purpose-built classroom in Manhattan.  That’s where it all starts.

Once they’re really immersed in this learning environment we give them some visibility into the rest of the year.  We have virtual classes from our studio on campus.  Every six to eight weeks we have a class there.  So, we keep the conversation going for an entire year. In addition to that you have the senior leadership program that has a similar track.  And then they get to select into different sub-track —

SKOLNICK:  — Almost like a major

DE JONG: Like a major, yeah, and so some say, I would really want to get better at experimentation and innovation.  Others want to get better at collaboration within city hall.  Others want to learn more about data and evidence.  And so, we invite them to apply those skills to a practical issue, to a mayoral priority where they really want to get better at solving the issue. And then once they’ve selected that issue we provide in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies technical assistance.  So, there’s actually onsite support in those cities.  Sometimes it will be a workshop.  Sometimes it will be coaching.  Sometimes there will be additional classes.

Then at the end many mayors get a graduate student as a summer fellow.  A person that will work in the mayor’s office on that priority, rolling up their sleeves and creating a dashboard on equitable economic developments or develop a new approach to reducing crime with the staff and so forth. So it’s a whole year of supports and learning which makes this a very different program than just a one-off training.

SKOLNICK:  That classroom environment, the first piece of it where it’s in person for three days with the mayor, is that a real classroom? How is that set up?  Is there a real back and forth that they get to have with professors who are teaching cases?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  It’s very different from what most people think.  Yes, it is a classroom.  It’s a tiered horseshoe so everybody can see each other which is great, it’s a very intimate setting. Our methodology for teaching and it’s not really teaching, it’s facilitating learning so it’s very discussion based and participant centered.

So we start with cases and ask everybody the question: what would you do if you were the main character in this particular case?  And we have this case about the Confederate statues and the protests against those statutes.  And almost every mayor in a city where those statutes are has to deal with that, has to make up their mind, how do I deal with this.  Do I take them down?  Do I have a debate with the community about this?  What are the legal implications?  What are the intergovernmental complications?

And so that’s a good example of an issue that many can relate to even if they don’t have the monuments because you’ll have another hot button issue.  And then we ask them like what would you do if you were in the shoes of that protagonist.  And then we introduce some analytic frameworks about moral decision-making or engaging the community or leading change.  And those frameworks can then help them find their own contextualized answer for their city.

SKOLNICK:  Great.  What are the key skills that you try to focus on and provide?  And what would you say is similar or different to what maybe private sector leaders would need to learn in a similar kind of executive education program?

DE JONG:  Right.  So this is a really important question, when we talk about running a city —  it’s actually not the right phrase because it implies that a city can be run.  Like a business, like an organization. The skills that you need to run an organization are not necessarily the same that you need at a town hall meeting where you interact with the community.

SKOLNICK:  Do you get mayors who come in who are great at those kind of managerial and organizational skills and maybe need a little bit more experience interacting with the community or ones who are former community organizers who are great at the town hall meeting part but lack some of the organizational and management skills?

DE JONG: Well, that’s the beauty of the program.  I can’t imagine a more diverse group of people.  Some people come in with experience from the private sector.  Some have only been a council person and maybe run a small organization.  Others are really community advocates and activists.

Let me give you one example. The mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, she used to be a community activist. Right after Katrina happened in New Orleans, she was one of the leading forces in  organizing the community to build up New Orleans.  And now she’s the mayor.  And it’s just one example of the variety of skill sets that people bring to this job.

I think the most important thing that we put into the program is that we facilitate learning.  We’re not teaching.  And the learning happens from the cases that we bring to the classroom.  It happens through self-reflection.  So, we offer tools that help them self-assess the organization that they work in but also their own leadership behaviors.  But also, the learning happens among and across the cities and that’s the beauty because people who are very experienced in one particular skill set can share their approach to doing these things with mayors that have less experience and vice versa.

SKOLNICK:  That’s fantastic and something I’ve definitely witnessed is everyone coming in with their own skills and their own experiences and then sharing that with everyone.  And I think it’s something that the mayors have really told us is one of the most valuable aspects of the program.  Now being a Bloomberg program, we’re always very focused on gathering data and gathering feedback.

So far, out of the mayors who have joined the program, close to 99% have told us that they would recommend it to other mayors.  So that’s basically five stars on Yelp. Not too shabby.  So, what do you think makes the experience feel so different and so valuable?  What is the reason that they all would say, I would recommend this to someone else?  Because it’s a significant time commitment from mayors who are — when they’re in the program — currently running the city.  This isn’t for former mayors or for people who are about to become mayor.  This is for people who are currently sitting in the seat of mayor.  So, for them to recommend to other mayors that they take that amount of time  coming to the program and interacting with us, what is the magic behind it that makes those rating so high?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  You know mayors get invited to so many events and many of these events are informational and they’re interesting and you can network.  We don’t see our program as an event.  The mayors prepare.  They do their homework just like any other executive students at Harvard.  They put a lot into it and they get more out of it. They go deeper on any issue that we bring to the classroom.

There’s also something that happens in those classroom sessions and outside of the classroom where mayors talk to each other.

When you think of it there’s nobody in your city that has the exact same job.  And there’s a lot of people want stuff from you and you always have to project a sense of I got things under control.  And I think in the classroom, which is a very private setting, they are able to kind of share their, I would say, vulnerabilities — they’re human beings who struggle in their jobs as well.  And if you are doing your job in the public limelight every day, the media scrutinizes everything that you do, so that’s not necessarily an environment that’s conducive to reflecting on what your strength and areas of growth are. And I think we’ve created that environment for them, and they value that.

SKOLNICK:  It’s pretty clear what the mayors get in terms of learning what another city is doing, learning from the great Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.  Professors that you bring in to teach these cases.

Have you seen impact in the real world?  What’s your take on what’s actually going on in the cities when the mayors leave that classroom, go back to the city?  A lot of these programs, even the best of them, can dissipate when people leave the classroom.  It doesn’t necessarily get embedded back home whether it’s in a Fortune 500 company or in a city.  So, what have you seen over the last three years of mayors bringing this back and actually making an impact on residents?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  You mentioned,just a minute ago, that the satisfaction rate is quite high.  Of course, it’s good to hear but what is much more important is if that then translates into changes in practice in the cities.  So, we’ve been recording those and we keep track of everything and anything that mayors do that they attribute to the program.

And let me give you just a couple of examples. The mayor of Fortaleza, it’s one of the largest cities in our program, 2.5 million people in Brazil. Mayor Claudio was a former doctor ran on this platform of creating access to medicine for all people in the city.  The problem was that the distribution network was underperforming.  They just couldn’t handle it.  And so, in the program we have these cases about performance leadership, continuous improvement, as well as experimentation and innovation.  And that got him thinking and he’s been applying these principles to a whole new way of distributing medicine.  And so, he’s been using the subway stops where millions of people pass every day so they could just pick up their medication when they commute to work. And so that’s just one example of how a different way of looking at things can actually lead to changes in practice.

Another example is mayors do a lot of speeches and whatever you think of those speeches they’re really important opportunities to connect with your constituents, with the community.  Now if your speechwriter just hands you the written remarks and you start talking about policy.  That doesn’t necessarily mean connecting to people.  So, one of our professors, Marshall Ganz is an expert in what he calls “public narrative” which has its roots in the Civil Rights Movement where the challenge was how do you mobilize people for the right cause without paying them without them being a part of your organization.  Well, mayors face the same thing.

Most mayors have not enough resources or authority to get other people to do what they think is important.  And we’ve seen, we’ve tracked how the speeches of mayors have changed because, guess what, these are public.  So, we can actually see how  the way mayors are speaking has changed.  And some of them, they write us back, they say well I’ve been giving speeches for about a decade and this week for the first time in my life I got three standing ovations

SKOLNICK:  Are they bringing more of their own personal stories into their speaking?  Is that the big change that they’ve gotten from Professor Ganz and from the Harvard training?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  There’s a lot to the art of rhetoric, how do you improve public speaking.  But this is not a technical skill. As you say, the personal connection, authenticity, you can’t fake authenticity.  Right?  you’ll have to go back to why do you want to run for office?  Why do you care about public service?  What do you feel we have in common?  What do you as a mayor have in common with your audience?  And why is it important to act together, to work these principles into a speech really changes the nature of that speech.  It’s not just communicating to someone but it’s connecting with someone.  And that is a very different approach.  And it’s been one of our most popular topics in the program and mayors really, really run with it.

SKOLNICK:  They come out kind of buzzing about it and those feedback that they give us is tremendous.

In addition to the public narrative skills are there any other skills or knowledge bases that you think mayors have like particularly glommed onto or find to be a particular gap that they are excited that the program can fill for them?  Or are there any specific issues that have come up?  I mean we’ve now worked with over 120 mayors.  Are there themes of the tough issues that you see city after city grappling with?  And how have they applied some of our leadership lessons to those issues that they’re grappling with?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  So because we’re here on the podcast, Follow the Data, let me just mention I think one of the core subjects that has really resonated is the use of data and evidence in government.  we all know that not all policies have been informed by data or actually evaluated using data.  The big eye-opener for many mayors is that that won’t happen just by itself.  It actually requires leadership from the top.  And so it’s not about the technology. But it’s about the culture that you create where people are happy to be held accountable, where there is a culture of learning, so if things didn’t work out that’s okay as long as we learn from it.  What’s been most encouraging to see is Mayor Sheehan of Albany has really changed almost every meeting that she has with her staff and made it a standards practice to say, okay, what data will tell us that we’re doing good or that we  are not doing good and then we have to adjust.

Other mayors including the mayor of Birmingham, Mayor Woodfin, has had a gigantic problem with blight in his city and he really wanted to reduce that.  So he’s been working together with the former mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, who has coached his team on the use of data and now they have a much more granular framework to see where blight is and how it can be reduced and what makes most sense in terms of cost allocation and so forth.  Many other mayors have adopted data-driven practices in their organizations.

So what is really interesting to see is how they’re applying these capabilities that we offer them: the use of data, experimentation and innovation, cross-sector collaboration, but also the public narrative approach to these particular topics.

So, they start talking about this issue differently.  They start engaging other communities and other organizations and sectors in a different way.  They start using different data to disaggregate what it really means for their particular city to have social inequality.  And they start building new practices.  Sometimes they steal from each other — and we encourage that.  But the most important thing is for them to be better able to diagnose what’s right for them.  Every city is different. Our program really helps them think critically about what their problems are and what kind of solutions might be right for them and then help them implement those solutions.

SKOLNICK:  It’s interesting, even that Fortaleza example, which is a great example of taking a new innovative approach so it’s an innovation skill but it’s also a data skill to know who’s getting the vital medicines that they need and when they’re getting them and which suppliers are giving them to individuals in the city.  So, I think when you start to see those different discreet skills layer on top of each other, that seems to be when mayors and their cities really start running at top speed.

I’ve been really impressed with the way that the Harvard team manages to meet every city where they are.  I mean these cities that are coming from dozens of countries around the globe, are you finding that there are really a set of common skills no matter where you are a mayor across the globe that can apply to your city?

DE JONG:  Yeah.  It’s a great question, what would be the right set of mayors to put together in a room, do they all have to be from cities where there’s a strong mayor system or does it not matter?  Can it be from big cities and small cities or does it not matter?  And then can we invite international cities out of the U.S.?  And so we decided to mix it up.  And even from the first cohort onwards, we’ve included international cities.  It turns out people really like that because the main problems are similar everywhere.

You’re dealing with poverty.  You’re dealing with crime.  You’re dealing with a crumbling infrastructure that you need to fix.  And you’re dealing with other governments and other sectors that you want to engage and rally around building coalitions.  It’s remarkable how many similarities there are.  And the more diverse your cohort, the more learning can occur.  And and therefore we make a big point out of helping them to adopt a shared language in which they can articulate those problems more specifically so that they can give each other better advice and that they can go back to their cities and actually have that conversation with their staff.

In addition to the mayor’s program, there’s also a senior leaders program so they get to nominate their top two people who are exposed to the same ideas and the same practices. We actually build a critical mass in the mayor’s office of people who share the commitment and share the language to attack these problems.

SKOLNICK:  Who are those senior leaders generally?  Who are the kinds of people who they tend to pick for that role?

DE JONG:  Yeah, it varies. Originally we thought of specifying a particular role like chief of staff or kind of chief administrative officer.  But then we thought the most important thing is what they mean to the mayor.  So we said nominate those two people that you rely on most to make organizational change happen.  Sometimes they send their budget director, sometimes their community development director, sometimes the senior strategists, sometimes the chief of staff.

The mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, sent her chief equity officer because that’s a new role and she wanted for that person to be involved in many of those change initiatives.  So it varies.

SKOLNICK:  And would you say that you’ve also heard similar feedback from those individuals, those senior leaders that the gap exists for them as well in terms of what they need from a leadership capabilities perspective?

DE JONG:  The interesting thing is that mayors, of course, do a lot of external-facing work. They work with the city council.  And they have an inward-facing role to the organization.  But the senior leaders obviously are really on the hook for the implementation and translating mayoral initiatives into actual work in the organization.  And so their jobs are different, their roles are different, but unless they’re connected none of them will be successful.  We explicitly address how you can create a team at the top.  This is again something that Mike Bloomberg invested in a lot.  We have faculty from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School that are specialized in teaming and creating a collaborative leadership team.  I think that’s probably 30% of our curriculum is how to create conditions for the top leaders in your organization to work together and to speak one language when it comes to performance and innovation.

SKOLNICK:  It’s wonderful.  Well it has been a true pleasure to work with you and your team over the last few years. We’ll see all of the great stuff that happens in cities as a result.  So, thank you.

DE JONG:  Well thank you so much.  It’s been a great collaboration and I look forward to the future.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

Many thanks to Josh Skolnick and Jorrit de Jong for joining us. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast.

This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Ivy Li, Christian Nwachukwu Jr., music by Mark Piro.

Special thanks to Eric Sheppard and Tim Herro.

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.