October 28, 2014

As gridlock in Washington slows potential innovation, a group of elected officials are taking charge. But they’re not part of the federal government; instead, they’re answerable to a smaller group of voters.  
 
“Mayors and governors can’t afford for things to get stuck,” says Jennifer Bradley, a Brookings Institution fellow and co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution. “They have to improve the conditions on the ground, using all of the tools at their disposal.”
 
A growing number of mayors are creating civic experiments – and collaborating with each other – to determine what works and what’s cost-effective. “As people see the gridlock continue in Washington, as they see that continue at the state level, I think they are going to be turning to the local governments more and more,” says Dave Cieslewicz, co-founder of the Mayors Innovation Project and the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.
 
There are many ways that cities can take action, even when the federal government doesn’t. Take climate change, for example. Although the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched an initiative among U.S. cities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the same levels that Kyoto required. “The federal government is simply incapable of dealing with this huge issue and, as a result, local governments came together,” says Cieslewicz.
 
Another example comes from Cleveland, Ohio, home of The Evergreen Cooperatives, which focus on generating local economic solutions. Cieslewicz explains that they take the biggest industries, universities and hospitals, “with their great needs for products, and produce those products locally.” This local production saves money, but more importantly, institutions’ dollars are reinvested in the community.
 
Despite mayors’ active roles, voter turnout continues to drop in local elections. Los Angles mayor Eric Garcetti won his office with only 222,300 votes – that’s just 12.4 percent of the city’s registered voters.
 
“People do get involved in all kinds of civic activities,” says Cieslewicz, but “they don’t necessarily translate that to actually voting, and I think that’s something we’re going to have to look at.”
 
New technological tools may also increase civic engagement. And unlike abstract changes at the federal level, you’ll know when that pothole you hit everyday gets fixed.
 
See, Click, Fix, an app where people can identify local problems that need to be fixed and follow the progress of how things are getting fixed” provides a lot of opportunities “for real, tangible engagement that’s more intellectually compelling than walking into a voting booth and making a check mark,” says Bradley.

cities, Jennifer Bradley, mayors, Dave Cieslewicz, Culture, politics

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