Why the Toughest Local Challenges Demand Governing by Nuance

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH • March 15, 2022

This article originally appeared in Governing Magazine.

Leading a local government requires plenty of skills, but two crucial ones, nuance and finesse, must be front and center for fairly guiding a city or county. A polarized society pushes for a singular, unequivocal, “right” answer. Attention to issues needlessly degenerates to binary choices — defund or support the police, mask or no mask, school open or closed. Approaching important policy decisions in such a blunt manner inevitably produces not only a larger number of angry constituents but also higher negative tradeoffs than necessary. Leadership demands using finesse to avoid imposing unnecessary costs on the public, whether in terms of health, finance, education or liberty.

A year ago, we brought together experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management and the Harvard School of Public Health with city education officials as localities were wrestling with whether schools should open amid the pandemic. The education experts answered the question not with a yes or no but with a series of new questions. They suggested that calibrated decision-making would consider the quality of the school’s or classrooms’ air handlers, the COVID-19 test results for students and parents, and (where possible) the amount of COVID-19 detected in localized wastewater samples to determine the risk profile prior to making the decision.

Similar nuance can be applied to situations around public safety. I recently asked Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson what approach he used in determining which position to take on the question of defunding or supporting police. Johnson, an African American who grew up in a tough Dallas neighborhood, hasn’t shied away from criminal justice reform, and as a state legislator he had pushed for more police accountability. He hoped that the movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd would serve as a catalyst for badly needed changes.

Yet his unwillingness to join the defund-the-police campaign made him the enemy of many advocates. He sounded disappointed that the loudest voices eschewed common ground. As the mayor wrote in a RealClearPolicy op-ed, “Many positive changes, including better use-of-force policies, came out of the movement, but many other opportunities have been squandered.” Johnson resisted police budget cuts but called for reforms that would enhance accountability, such as an increase in the size of the Office of Community Police Oversight.

Johnson explained his interest in avoiding a “kneejerk or reflex reaction influenced by slogans or hashtags,” choosing instead “to address the underlying issues with respect to policing without leaving the city less safe.” In 2019, the mayor had brought together a task force to address violent crime through interventions that did not involve law enforcement; he committed to this course and pushed the City Council to fund the task force through 2021.

The task force recommended funding “violence interrupters,” trusted community members who have credibility and can, in the mayor’s words, “help defuse interactions before they become violent because they have their ear on the ground, and they know the people involved.” Some of the other recommended non-law-enforcement actions include programming to help young adults in trouble and funding for blight removal.

Throughout Dallas’ multiyear debate on violent crime, Johnson eschewed picking a side. (He adds, in part in jest, that “it is far easier to sort of pick a side, so to speak, in these types of disagreements and become the champion of one side or the other — at least then only half of the people are mad at you.”) Instead, his efforts supported policing with accountability while also injecting more funding for the services and interventions that would reduce the conditions that too often cause violence in the first place.

As Johnson’s approach demonstrates, governing with nuance and finesse relies heavily on data and evidence. It requires combining listening (and not just to the loudest constituents) in order to bring the community together. Voters have greater confidence in local elected leaders in part because they provide pragmatic solutions to tough problems. Individuals, even at the extremes of a debate, often are reacting to a set of conditions that only they have experienced and understand. A mayor’s job is to understand their grievances and the root causes, and then to craft a solution that, albeit not perfectly, provides the best chance of progress.

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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