CEO for Cities: “Stop Waiting for Washington”

This guest post is by Lee Fisher, President and CEO of CEOs for Cities. Lee is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Economic Development at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs and has served as Ohio Lt. Governor, Director of the Ohio Department of Development, Chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, Ohio Attorney General, State Senator, State Representative, and President/CEO of the Center for Families and Children, one of the largest human service nonprofits in the Midwest.

Stop Waiting for Washington. Why City Dividends will determine our Nation’s Future.

A few years ago I moderated a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative and the President of Iceland, Olafur Grimson, said something that resonated with the audience. He noted that we Americans spend too much time waiting for Washington. He’s right. While most of us hope that some measure of short-term sanity and compromise will return to Washington in the New Year, the long term prospects remain bleak.

In an era where federal and state governments are increasingly hyper-partisan and dysfunctional, budgets are tight, and the world is evolving at lightning speed, it is critical for cities and metropolitan regions to take control not only of their futures but the nation’s future.

While Washington postures and argues, change is happening across America from the bottom up. The laboratories of most of this change are cities and surrounding metro regions. The innovation is nothing short of remarkable and inspiring. But as I travel to a different city each week, one thing has become evident. Most cities lack a coherent, easily understandable framework and strategy for connecting local innovation and revitalization in a way that is measurable and sustainable.

Many theories of economic invigoration have flooded our pipelines in recent years—some claim the key to city revitalization is drawing a larger portion of the highly mobile creatives by leveraging their preferred urban amenities, others emphasize the importance of incentive packages in remaining competitive in business attraction. With so many messages flying about, it is difficult to muddle through and define a course of action that is effective and meaningful—so where should cities and regions look?

First, given the complex, interconnected problems that cities and regions face, it is critical to first research, frame, and organize work that puts a focusing lens on the city and region, and helps to see and understand the critical levers for city and regional success. Framing is critically important, because, as Wayne Dyer has noted, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” It is important to benchmark city/regional performance in the four areas most vital to CITY success: Connections, Innovation, Talent, and Your distinctiveness. These are a city’s vital signs.

Second, it’s equally important to motivate, mobilize, focus, and accelerate action. The Power of Progress is is based on what Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile calls the “progress principle”—the single most important motivator and catalyst of positive action is making progress and showing forward momentum in meaningful work. Small but regular “wins” have a cumulative increase, and can trigger much bigger reactions.

The progress principle informs what we call our City Dividends, premised on research and experience that show measurable progress, or “moving the needle,” on targeted work reaps huge economic growth dividends for cities, and accelerates movement on important goals. City Dividends focus this idea down to the power of one: showing that the difference in one percentage point, one mile, one measurement (a small step) has the potential to yield a large economic dividend (a big idea)—which helps demonstrate measurable progress.

CEOs for Cities has already developed three City Dividends—the Talent, Green, and Opportunity Dividends. Each dividend reflects one small change that leads to a big difference:

  • The Talent Dividend: A one percentage-point increase in the four-year college attainment rate for the population aged 25 and older in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas is associated with an $856 increase in annual per capita income for the metropolitan area, totaling an increase $143 billion for the entire nation.
  • The Green Dividend: If we can reduce the number of miles traveled per person per day in the 51 largest U.S. metro areas by one mile, the nation would save $31 billion on fuel and the expense of purchasing and maintaining vehicles.
  • The Opportunity Dividend: A one percentage-point reduction in poverty in the nation’s 51 largest metro areas is associated with government savings of $31 billion per year—as each additional person in poverty is associated with $19,000 in anti-poverty expenditures in a metropolitan area.

While the idea of a dividend is far from revolutionary, it has incredible potential in the face of approaching revitalization and growth, for three important reasons.

Focus is a powerful change agent.

We’ve all heard the expression that it’s better to do a few things well than a multitude of things with mediocrity. Focusing on a particular goal allows us to approach a problem with the kind of intensity needed to formulate an action plan that works. By focusing on a small set of dividends, meaningful change can be realized with bigger returns.

With stricter budgets comes the need for bigger ROI

The need to maximize the power of the dollar is absolutely vital in today’s economy. Focusing our efforts more narrowly on what works has been explored, but even more important is determining what gives us the biggest gain. How we measure a certain dividend will come to inform policy and action, so it is vital that the measurements reflect solutions with the highest return. As an example, for a long time education has focused on getting children into college. While this is an important and noble mission, college attendance as a metric for success has led to a greater focus on enrollment, while degree-attainment has a more direct relation to actual success in the workplace, and value to the market. The Talent Dividend embraces this notion, and works to drive more effective change by focusing on what works and gives us the biggest gain. The key to maximizing the potential of the dividend lies in exploring a wide range of focus areas and narrowing in on what’s most important for a particular city.

City Dividends don’t stop with the numbers.
In addition to the power of progress, three other factors inform a theory of action and change through City Dividends—the power of collective impact, the power of networks, and the power of the prize.

Collective Impact focuses on the commitment of a group of leaders from different sectors to a common agenda and set of metrics for solving a complex social problem, and it is the blueprint for success in any meaningful initiative.

According to a report funded by the Knight Foundation, the Power of Networks recognizes that “harnessing the power of networks and enabling individual-to-individual connections can result in impact at a scale and speed unthinkable until recent years.” As a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report noted, “Be connected. Rather than seeing each other city as competition, building strong connections to other cities can become a collective strength…There are potentially large benefits from being able to tap into the experience of other cities.” The cities and regions that will win in the new networked economy are those that make their boundaries porous to new ideas and talent and demonstrate the humility to understand that there is always something more to learn from someone else, somewhere else.

The Power of the Prize (a concept championed by McKinsey and a number of foundations) recognizes philanthropic prizes and contests as unique and powerful tools to drive innovation and engagement to produce societal benefit. The $1 million Talent Dividend Prize, funded by the Kresge and Lumina Foundations, helps to catalyze, motivate, and accelerate work on the goal of college completion in 57 American cities competing to achieve the greatest increase in college degree completion over a three-year period.

Cities should assess their City Vitals and adopt City Dividends because they can’t afford to drive into the future without collective energy, intense focus, and a well-informed, accelerated path to success.

The future belongs to those cities and regions who can frame their opportunities and challenges, act in ways that demonstrate measurable progress, and connect and engage with the smartest people and the smartest ideas in the most places and in the most ways. In the words of Steve Jobs, the cities and regions that “tear down walls, build bridges, and light fires” will be the ones that change their future and our nation’s future.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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