Mark Funkhouser: How Cities Can Face Hard Truths

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Mark Funkhouser

This is part of a series of interviews with leading practitioners and thought leaders on new approaches and solutions that have been proven to work. This interview is with Mark Funkhouser, the publisher of Governing magazine, former mayor of Kansas City, MO and author of Honest, Competent Government: The Promise of Performance Auditing.  

You have seen local challenges up close; and now see them nationwide. What are the greatest issues facing cities today?

Just like there is a growing wealth divide amongst our citizens, the same is happening with our cities. There are some places doing really well and some in a vicious downward cycle. These are places that think they can just cut taxes or cut services and get better—and that’s not enough.  

The most important thing to do is to recognize the situation.  You have to look in the mirror and realize you’re caught in this whirlwind, in this negative cycle. You have to grapple with these issues and get ahead of the curve and over time build yourself up.

I see this happening in a lot of cities and it’s like the old story about the frog. The frog will be just sitting in the warm water and it keeps getting warmer and warmer until the frog is boiled. Well, if at the beginning the frog had jumped in the water when it was real hot, it would have jumped right out! Cities in such situations need to realize they are in hot water and assess what (significant) measures they need to take.

What cities have recognized their fiscal distress and really turned things around?

Junction City, Kansas; a little town of 25,000 did this. Like many places, they thought the housing boom would go on forever and around 2006 they borrowed a ton of money to invest in real estate.  When the market fell apart they found themselves with ten times the debt they could afford. So they were a classic case of spiraling down and there is a lot of pressure on public officials to kick the can down the road and pretend everything is all right. Here, the leadership got honest. The new mayor and city manager confronted their situation and went to residents and said ‘here is the bad news and what we need to do.’ They then cut services enormously and citizens voted themselves a tax increase and as of now they are almost completely dug out. Realize what they did had no magic—it’s the same old stuff like they cut parks and other services and relied more on volunteers. This is real workaday stuff, but the critical part was that they were honest and direct.

Let’s say you’re advising a city on data; what are the best approaches?

This is one where it is critical to work with peers. I’d say go see other mayors doing the same thing like Mayor Fischer in Louisville.  Most mayors will be more than happy to show you what they have going. Of course, you won’t replicate it wholesale as your circumstances are unique, but talking to others will inspire the right thinking and questions.

When we talk about innovation the challenge is not the creation of innovation, but its diffusion—the spreading of good ideas. As Malcolm Gladwell said in the Tipping Point, in our hyper-connected world face-to-face interactions are even more important. People, especially mayors who receive 3,000 e-mails a day, have developed an immunity to communication. So e-mails and just reading documents is not nearly as helpful as peer interactions as a way to sort through all the information we are receiving and develop the answers that are most useful. 

This interview was conducted by Neil Kleiman, National Resource Network Director of Policy, Research and Evaluation.