The Importance of Telling Your City's Story

By Stephen Goldsmith • November 30, 2016

No pain no gain applies to more than exercise. The more meaningful the change emanating out of city hall, the more likely there will be accompanying pain. The very approach of using evidence to disclose what works in itself can trigger very intense opposition from those adversely affected.

In this sense, the mayor’s framing of his or her goals and the communication strategy around them must be a core part of the projects themselves. When built into project goals and execution, effective storytelling is key to successfully making progress in a city. During my time as mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York, it became clear that projects often fail not due to problems with technical or financial execution, but when the city is unable to craft a compelling narrative that energizes supporters who would otherwise be indifferent if not opposed.

I recently had a conversation with data leaders from What Works Cities about how to tell compelling stories about city projects. We covered considerations that cities should address in the project design stage to make their stories more engaging and their projects more successful.

The goal of any communications strategy is twofold: to mitigate opposition to a project and to energize potential supporters. Accomplishing these objectives starts with articulating the goals of the project in terms of the value it will produce for citizens. For example, a city education initiative should emphasize the outcome of better education for children, rather than just better public schools. Framing goals in terms of public value may convince opponents that a project they would not normally support will have favorable consequences while also reinforcing support from a city government’s coalition.

During my tenure as mayor of Indianapolis, the city faced the challenge of a billion dollar infrastructure debt, which we sought to reduce through privatization and managed competition. However, framing these strategies in terms of the true public value was critical, as the prospect of privatizing management of a wastewater treatment plant would never have rallied support.

As a solution, we created the Building Better Neighborhoods initiative, which dedicated the savings from privatizations to rebuilding struggling neighborhoods. We made the potential benefits of the program apparent to local communities, taking steps like installing signs in each park that we could rebuild if the program succeeded. Thanks to this narrative, even those normally opposed to privatization could see the value of the project and supporters became increasingly energized. Inspired by the prospect of rebuilding their neighborhoods, local communities mobilized to support the initiative and we succeeded in competing out 80 public services.

A city government manages a number of stakeholders on any given project, often with many different ideas of public value. An effective narrative must therefore be nimble, appealing to stakeholders with different priorities, some of whom view themselves narrowly as consumers of the service, others who define value in terms of social justice, and still others who think about tax dollars expended.

Managing citizens with different perspectives on how to even define value is a particularly challenging proposition for city leaders. This is especially true in cities already strapped for cash, like the city of Syracuse, which has pursued innovation in infrastructure at a time when many citizens are concerned about receiving the basic services the city has long offered. In order to appeal to those concerned with stretching tax dollars, the city has stressed the economic value of the innovation it has pursued: better targeted infrastructure repairs means fewer unnecessary fixes and fewer catastrophic breakdowns, which translates to savings for the city government. The way city leaders in Syracuse frame the project, it is not a question of whether they can afford to pursue innovation, but whether they can afford not to. At the same time, the city can publicize better maintained roads and water mains to those who have long wanted innovation in those areas.

By emphasizing different benefits for different stakeholders — innovation for residents concerned with city development and thrift for those who value saving tax dollars — cities are able to attract broader support for projects.

In order to achieve many of these communications goals, mayors must take ownership of projects and leverage their executive assets, which include rhetoric, authority, convening power, and money. Access to private sector and nonprofit resources may prove particularly important, as these assets can furnish greater operational capacity and better reach for a communications strategy. Using any combination of these tools, executives may bolster demand for a project, communicate their vision for the future, clarify next steps, and reinforce belief that a reform can succeed, mitigating resistance.

An effective communications strategy requires constant focus on the stakeholders: keeping their values in mind, communicating in a way they can easily digest, and shaping projects based on their feedback. Using these strategies to best articulate benefits, cities may create compelling narratives for their projects that energize city employees and citizens, generate momentum, and produce results.


About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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