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A profile in bold leadership: Stephanie Miner

Stephanie Miner is serious about finding inventive ways to tackle the challenges her city faces. In her two terms as mayor of Syracuse, New York, her bold leadership has helped the city gain the upper hand on its 500 miles of centuries-old water infrastructure. Through a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams (i-teams) program, Syracuse has analyzed data from as far back as the 1800s to predict water-main failures and, with that insight, preemptively – and more efficiently – fix rapidly failing pipes. By using a new approach, Syracuse has experienced an 18 percent decline in water-main breaks and is saving more than $430,000 in annual repairs.

Mayor Miner is also looking beyond city limits, sharing Syracuse i-team insights with city leaders in Flint, Michigan, and demanding that the U.S. Congress take a closer look at the effects climate change has on infrastructure. “We are long overdue for an honest national dialogue on the impacts of climate change,” the mayor explained in written testimony.

We caught up with Mayor Miner, whose success in Syracuse was recently featured in Politico Magazine.

Water pipes aren’t something people usually think about – until the water stops running. What made you realize this issue was a priority for your constituents?

As a mayor, you see and hear about your city’s problems firsthand. We realized we needed to do more to upgrade our infrastructure, especially water. But the more we delved into the matter, the more complicated and expensive the solutions became.

Syracuse has a good track record – we promise water will be restored within 24 hours; often it’s much sooner – but even short outages have an impact on people’s lives and our city’s economy. A few years ago, a local brewery was in the middle of the water-intensive brewing process for a batch of beer when their water was affected by a break. Our crews worked to give them a second supply of water – saving their batch. But it’s this kind of uncertainty that comes with an aging system that breeds anxiety. Everyone in Syracuse has a story about how their lives have been impacted by water main breaks.

When did you realize that data-driven management could help solve Syracuse’s infrastructure challenges?

We’ve seen the example set by other cities, where they have successfully used data to address other challenges, from education and public health to crime and poverty. I really admire Mike Bloomberg, who was a real leader in this area. One of our biggest challenges – often the root of other challenges – is infrastructure. With big challenges also comes a big price tag: the cost of replacing our entire water system is estimated at around $1 billion. Without a massive infusion of funding from the state or federal government, we must use our limited resources efficiently and make the biggest impact. By using data to drive our decision making, we are putting our resources to better use, stretching dollars to target the most in-need infrastructure first and coordinating across departments and with private utility providers to implement our “Dig Once” philosophy to minimize the continued need for cutting into roads.

There’s been a lot of attention, on the federal level, about the need to rebuild our infrastructure. What role do city leaders – and bold leadership – play?

It’s very clear that advocacy works. Mayors are pretty fearless when it comes to standing up for their residents because these are the people we see every weekend in the grocery store or at restaurants or sporting events, and we are never immune from being reminded about what matters to our neighbors. When mayors stand up – and importantly, when mayors stand up together – they are able to present a voice for a real urban agenda. I’ve worked with federal officials, including Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY) – an engineer by training and great voice for these issues – to raise awareness and advocate for our infrastructure. Recently, I submitted testimony to a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing he led on water infrastructure. In the past, he and I have held conference calls with the press, written letters, and taken meetings together to discuss these issues.

We’ve seen the value of advocacy right here in New York: When I first began banging the drum for infrastructure, I was rebuffed. This year, our state included $2.5 billion in funding for water infrastructure projects. It works, and mayors across the country need to keep standing up and sharing their stories.

How have partnerships and collaboration shaped Syracuse’s approach? 

The exciting thing about being a mayor is that cities are great incubators where the best policy experiments can take place. What our i-team has done is identify low-cost solutions that can be implemented in cities across the country. We’ve worked with Argo Labs, who piloted their Street Quality Identification Device (SQUID) prototype here in Syracuse. Not only did this provide a training ground for Argo Labs, it also provided our Department of Public Works real, objective data about the quality of our city’s roads.

How is Syracuse sharing lessons learned with other cities?

We are eager to share our success stories with anyone who will listen. Our challenges – and successes – have been profiled in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and most recently Politico. I’ve been pleased to speak at conferences across the nation, even appearing with Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver at CityLab last year. Out of that conversation came a relationship and the opportunity to send our i-team members to her city, where they shared our experiences working with water infrastructure with Mayor Weaver’s team. Next month, we’re hosting the Mayor’s Innovation Project, which is completing a study – funded by the CS Mott Foundation – about the infrastructure needs of cities in the Great Lakes Basin.

What is the “secret sauce” for success?

We worked very hard to put together a team that really understands data science, public administration, policy, and innovation delivery. Beyond that, we strived to assemble a team that understands our community and its unique needs. I’ve always told them to keep the people of the city of Syracuse at the core of their work and keep that perspective at the center of everything they do. Government isn’t a balance sheet; it’s the sum of the humanity of the people we serve. It’s diverse, dynamic, interconnected needs that we serve. This is exciting and important work and when we bring together smart people willing to make a collective difference using the right tools, we can find incredible solutions to the challenges our community faces.