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Bringing City Government to the Classroom

by Dan Lindheim

Too often, policy analysis is at high levels of abstraction. At the local level, there is little abstraction—everything is excruciatingly real. Policies affect individuals with names and addresses who raise their concerns and struggles directly to your face. As President Obama once told visiting mayors, “being president is tough, but thank goodness I’m not a mayor.”

Using my experiences as a former Oakland city manager, I introduce Goldman students to the world of local government and the complexities of the issues facing top officials in running a city: inadequate and inflexible budgets, crime and violence, police reform, jobs and affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, conflicts over land use, unmet labor demands, under-funded pensions, departing sports franchises, dysfunctional politics and press, and much more.

To what extent can cities meaningfully address these issues and provide the services that people expect, demand and deserve? These are not just interesting conceptual issues, but issues one deals with every day, and too frequently, all at the same time. 

At the local level, issues of power and governance, and the lack of clarity in respective roles, directly impact city actions. Similarly, equity and distributional issues cannot be ignored, as too often in broader policy discussions. The key democracy question is ever present—how to involve the “community” in policy-making; and who are the relevant communities—current residents or also future residents; those who sleep there or also those who just work or invest; and what issues require regional or national involvement; and of course, issues of race, class, ethnicity, and more.

How these questions are addressed determines the good, bad, and ugly of policies. For example, Jerry Brown wanted to bring “quality people” with “disposable income” to Oakland. His “10k” policy (as with the current housing boom) was geared to importing higher income non-residents. Proponents argue that the consequent displacement and gentrification is welcome. His successor Ron Dellums tried to prioritize the needs of existing residents regarding jobs and housing and public safety. Both are defensible policies, but with very different distributional impacts; and we discuss the merits of each.

These issues and debates are enriched with classroom presentations from city managers, police chiefs, department directors, elected officials, and activists. Similarly, students are required to involve themselves in real-world local government projects.

Maybe best of all, students with no interest in local government prior to the course are now working in cities across the country.  

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Policy Notes.