Pandemic insights for local government leaders

This article was originally written by our Co-Managing Director, Katya Spear, for Apolitical.

As public servants face the challenges brought by Covid-19, it’s easy to yearn for the normalcy of a time that seemed simpler, safer, and easier. But for many people, “normal” was not working — low-wage workers, low-income communities, and communities of colour, among others.

The pandemic highlights and exacerbates existing disparities: vulnerable communities and individuals without jobs, without a safety net, and without safe homes to shelter in place bear the brunt of this pandemic.

At the Mayors Innovation Project and our parent organization, COWS, we support local leaders in pursuing high road policies, or those that treat fairness and equal opportunity, environmental sustainability, and strong and resilient democratic institutions as necessary and achievable complements in human development, not tragic tradeoffs.

As we navigate this crisis and the new reality it has thrust upon us, we need more leaders on the high road, working for an equitable economic recovery that centres workers and the environment. High-road policies are more important than ever in addressing workers’ rights, fair pay, and paid leave policies; access to safe and affordable food, housing, and healthcare; and production of local and renewable energy.

Preparing for a new normal

High-road policies are not unrealistic or unattainable. The pace and scale of policies adopted this past month remind us of this and demonstrates its feasibility.

In just weeks, leaders in the US have prevented utility shutoffs to residential customers, placed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, and established what is essentially national (emergency) paid leave policy. Some of these solutions have come from state and federal leaders; yet cities, who face this challenge most acutely, are the driving force behind many of these changes. In cities, we’ve seen curbside votingrepurposing of streets to provide more safe and equitable access to outdoor spaces, and fare-free transit. Local governments have long faced under-investment in critical infrastructure; facing this lack of resources, they are nonetheless responding to the challenge with nimbleness and compassion.

Local governments have long faced under-investment in critical infrastructure; facing this lack of resources, they are nonetheless responding to the challenge with nimbleness and compassion

I am the Co-Managing Director for the Mayors Innovation Project, a national peer learning network for US mayors and their senior staff, and we provide clear, useful information on these high-road policies and programs for local governments and local leaders. We curate the most effective policies and actions on our website and provide technical assistance to member cities to translate good ideas into practice. And through our new live feed tracker tool, we are gathering and promoting the policy innovations in cities during this crisis.

As we prepare ourselves and our cities for a “new normal,” this is the time for local leaders to scale up their commitment to policies and practices that will create long-term environmental and economic resilience. The Mayors Innovation Project encourages local leaders to:

  • Lead by example: Start with what you can control – ensure that municipal staff have strong paid sick and family leave policies; adopt city procurement policies that prioritize environmental impacts, local business support, and strong worker protections; power municipal buildings and fleets with local, renewable energy.
  • Consider public health and health disparities in all areas of policy: The Covid-19 crisis has underlined the need for all local government departments — not just health departments — to consider the health and health equity impacts of their policies related to food, housing, transportation, and environmental stewardship, among others. A growing number of local governments are taking a Health in All Policies approach, and using tools like Health Impact Assessment and Health Lens Analysis to assess the long term impacts of their policy decisions.
  • Get serious about racial equity: A critical first step is using data to better understand the extent of inequality in your community. Boston (MA) has committed to understanding and reducing racial wealth disparities through targeted investment in minority-owned businesses. Tacoma (WA) has developed an Equity Index and map to inform infrastructure investments in historically underserved and underinvested neighbourhoods.
  • Change the rules: Local leaders have an incredible opportunity to make small policy changes with great impacts now and into the future. Examples include zoning policy changes that promote equity and complete neighbourhoods; hiring and contracting policies that take into account more than just cost; and using data to make more equitable decisions about where and how to prioritise investments.
  • Align incentives with values: Cities use incentives to encourage the kind of development they want to see. The city of Grand Rapids (MI) under the leadership of Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, has been investing time and resources into better understanding and aligning their development incentives with their vision for a more equitable city.
  • Strengthen democracy: Meaningful public engagement, government transparency, and expanding access to voting are even more critical in light of the Covid-19 crisis. Engagement tools like participatory budgeting, deliberative engagement strategies, and community benefit agreements help hold local governments accountable.

The types of high road policy above are ambitious, but they are also representative of the kinds of policy tools cities will need to pursue an equitable economic recovery in the wake of this pandemic. And they are necessary and complementary to the pursuit of more equitable and sustainable cities that are better for humans and the environment, and which make our communities more resilient to future crises.

Click here to see our tracker of local government responses to Covid-19. To learn more about us and access more best practices for local leaders and cities, please visit our website. – Katya Spear

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