city hall overhaul

Bloomberg Philanthropies looks to make Israeli local government more innovative

The former NYC mayor’s charity seeks to give city employees the know-how and tools to provide better services for residents, the head of its government innovation programs says

Dozens of mayors and municipal employees from cities across Israel gathered in Jaffa on Tuesday to share challenges, swap tips and brainstorm solutions to shared problems as part of an initiative backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The conference, known as Hazira, or “the scene,” was held at the Peres Center for Peace, a partner in the project, with support from Israel’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for municipal affairs.

The program looks to give Israeli municipalities the tools they need to “deal with the complex strategic challenges of the [city] authority and to develop and implement initiatives to improve residents’ lives,” the conference organizers said in a statement. The conference included workshops, lectures and discussions about the common problems facing cities in Israel and ways to address them.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, began working with Israeli cities in 2015, first with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and then a year later with Beersheva. In 2019, it expanded further, working with smaller municipalities. All of the municipalities have a socio-economic rating from the Interior Ministry below six, on a 1-10 scale. The program has worked with 16 municipalities so far, some predominantly Jewish, some predominantly Arab and some mixed cities, like Lod and Acre.

Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies also opened a program through Tel Aviv University to train mayors, under the belief that while they may have the skills and ideas necessary to get elected, they may not have the executive and administrative know-how to actually run a city.

In a video address to the conference, Michael Bloomberg stressed his and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ belief in the significance and power of local governments. “At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we are big believers in helping innovative local leaders develop and implement bold new ideas, whether it’s early childhood education, infrastructure, climate change, gender equality, or other critical issues,” he said. “Everyone at this event has a chance to make a big difference in the lives of so many people, and in the future of Israel.”

James Anderson, the head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy to discuss the Hazira program and how Bloomberg Philanthropies sees the role of philanthropy in the development of cities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: How did you get involved with Bloomberg Philanthropies and this initiative specifically?

James Anderson: After spending eight years in the Bloomberg administration — four years at the [New York City] Department of Homeless Services and then four years as Mike’s communications director at City Hall — I joined the foundation in 2010. It was very early days, and I started the government innovation program. At the time, coming out of City Hall, I think Mike [Bloomberg] recognized that — number one — the unique opportunity and power of local leaders not only to address global problems but to restore trust and to improve the lives of everyday people. Number two — that the job is really hard and mayors often don’t have the support and resources and connections they need to be as successful as we need them to be. And number three — that philanthropy could play a catalytic role in showing what’s possible and building demand and supporting the work in different kinds of ways. And that’s really what our programs are focused on.

So for the last 12 years, we’ve built a series of programs. We focus on four key things: one, creating great leaders in local government; two, strengthening the engines of local government by increasing their innovation and their data capabilities by helping them adopt and use 21st-century problem-solving tools; three, spreading ideas. If you sit around a group of mayors for long enough, you’ll hear that they all have slightly different versions of the same problem. And Mike believes very strongly that if one mayor figures something out, they should share it. And then four, we do large-scale global innovation competitions for local governments to encourage radical policy, ambitious policy innovation.

Now you see this program in Israel over the last number of years, I think has built up to 16 communities across the State of Israel. And it’s a thriving, incredibly sort of energizing community of local public sector innovation leaders that are using the tools and techniques of innovation to develop much more robust and responsive services in the lives of their residents.

JAG: What are your metrics for success for this program, for these innovations?

JA: We measure a lot of things. We measure the number of staff that are trained on these tools and techniques. We measure the innovations that they develop. We measure their sticking power: Do they continue to do this work after our support and our technical assistance have ended? And then ultimately, we look at whether or not they’re actually improving people’s lives. Are they generating new solutions and new ideas that are actually creating concrete value in the lives of residents? 

A good example of that is in the [Bedouin communities in the] Western Negev, we have had an innovation program there. The Western Negev, it’s a cluster of a bunch of different communities. They have big problems with mobility and getting low-income workers to their jobs. There’s not much public transportation. The innovation team went in, did a lot of human-centered design, understood where people were falling through the cracks, how this was jeopardizing their employment and ultimately their upward mobility, and developed a set of transportation innovations that have now been scaled up by the Ministry of Transportation so that hundreds and hundreds of people are now benefiting from those solutions. This is the kind of stuff that never would have happened without this team going in and teaching people how to think outside the box, how to work across silos, how to use data to define the problem, how to turn outside your organization and talk with residents to generate better solutions.

JAG: In terms of the metrics that you mentioned, one of those was not that the city’s socioeconomic rank improves or that the city’s budget grows because of more tax revenue or measures of success like that. Is there a reason why that’s not a metric for the success of this program?

JA: Flipping the socioeconomic status of a community in a three-year period is… if you think about all that entails, I think that’s the answer to your question.

JAG: Of course. But have you done any follow-up with Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Beersheva, where you’ve been working for longer to see the longer-term impact of the program?

JA: The Digitaf (a Hebrew portmanteau of digital and taf, baby) program in Tel Aviv (which combines all municipal services regarding babies and children in one place), that’s a great example of an innovation that came out of the initial work that the Tel Aviv innovation team has done that has now scaled. It’s really a great example of how civic innovation supported by a mayor can reach a level of scale that creates a meaningful impact in the lives of young families who are struggling to make ends meet in Tel Aviv. We make it easier for them to access a whole suite of high-quality services and supports to make it easier to be a parent.

JAG: At the same time, a city like Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorer cities and is not generally considered to be on a positive trajectory financially because of broader demographic and socio-economic trends. So where do you see the role of innovation in addressing those larger issues?

JA: We work in cities like Jerusalem all over the world. And there is no silver bullet that turns any city around really quickly. I would just say it’s a critical capacity for any city that wants to move itself forward. This is one important piece of a puzzle that you have to put together in order for a city to move forward over a period of time.

People take notes as part of a workshop during the Hazira conference at the Peres Center for Peace on July 25, 2023.

JAG: Can you tell me a little more about what has been going on in the conference here specifically?

JA: The innovation teams are coming in from the front line and taking a pause and reflecting with each other on lessons learned and ideas to share. I think one of the real advantages of doing this work in Israel is that we can create and support civics in its efforts to create a flourishing ecosystem of local government innovators who are speaking with each other across cities and sharing ideas. 

If you spent a day in a municipality, you’d be surprised to see how much they feel alone and how isolated they feel. If you’re the head of sanitation in the city of Bat Yam, you’re sort of a monopolist. You’re the only head of sanitation in your city. You actually have to go to another city to learn from and benefit from the expertise of somebody who’s maybe been there before, done it, tried it and learned something from it. So we make those kinds of connections really easy and obvious here and you can see it in the faces of the individuals that are here. They’re just soaking up the knowledge and the lessons learned from each other. 

And I mentioned that part three of our work is spreading ideas in these communities, so that’s really what we’re trying to support here. They come here, they share, they learn from each other, they go back, they get some inspiration, they go back for the hard work, and that sort of process is one that we want to ‘wash, rinse and repeat’ because it’s hard work. And we want to make sure that we’re taking care of the people that are doing it.

JAG: And how did you come to partner with the Peres Center for Peace? 

JA: The folks here [at the Peres Center] are always talking about bottom-up innovation and how it is really core to this place. And, of course, it’s very core to what Bloomberg Philanthropies believes: that almost every major grand challenge that we’re facing around the world rolls down the hill and onto the front steps of City Hall. 

And yet we don’t equip local governments and the people that work day in and day out in them with the tools and techniques they need to muscle up bigger, more ambitious solutions. And so that spirit I think was what really connected our organizations.