Harvard alumnus Horacio Larreta shares lessons for innovative city management

By Ishani Mehta, MPP’14, News Editor

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend an invigorating talk by Harvard alumnus Horacio Rodríguez Larreta who serves as the dynamic Chief of Cabinet in the Buenos Aires City Government in Argentina.

 The talk, titled “The Challenge of Transforming Buenos Aires”, drew insights from Larreta’s public service career as city manager of a metropolitan city fraught with complex problems of transportation, security and environmental management. Below are some important lessons I drew from the refreshingly candid and pragmatic talk.

1.      City innovations require scale. Pilot programs are of limited utility in this context because what is required for innovations in transportation or other essential services to succeed is achieving city-wide scale.

2.      Residents don’t care who provides the services. Often, city authorities’ hands are tied by constitutional division of power between city, state and the federal government. Nonetheless, residents of a city, who care only about service delivery improvements, have direct interface mostly with city officials and are not concerned with the actual division of legislative power. This continuously puts city managers in difficult positions where they are required to improve services outside their control, thereby requiring innovative problem-solving approaches.

3.      There are always winners and losers. Whatever policy change you advocate, there will always be losers who had benefited from the status quo. The losers are usually more vocal and louder with their criticism and resistance to change than the beneficiaries are with their praise. Sometimes, the only course of action is to move forward despite criticism.

4.      Allow the beneficiaries to own their ideas for change. The most sustainable and efficiency-enhancing changes come from within the community. Allowing people to brainstorm plans for improvement and own and implement them with the city’s support will be far more effective than an external panel of experts drawing plans without understanding the on-the-ground realities.

5.      Do not penalize your staff for mistakes. It is much better to do 10 things, making two mistakes and learning from those, than doing just two things perfectly.

6.      What you do not measure never improves. Performance measurement and evaluation is crucial for understanding the baseline situation upon which improvements can be designed. 

 Given my interest in urban policies for out-of-control city expansion in India, I shall certainly draw upon these lessons when the time arises.

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