COVID-19 Local Response Initiative: Insights and Guidance on Crisis Leadership

August 31, 2020

Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative aims to help city leaders build the leadership and organizational capabilities needed to make city government as effective, efficient, equitable, responsive, and resilient as possible. This is hard work under normal circumstances.

The COVID-19 crisis presented city leaders with the challenge to act under conditions of high uncertainty and high pressure. The lives and livelihoods of residents were at stake,and there was no complete, accurate information available, no playbook with the right answers, and no guidance on how to navigate the situation in the context of each particular city.

City leaders had to learn in real time how to respond to the crisis. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative facilitated this process of fast learning by offering 11 weekly sessions and information services tailored to their needs. Mayors and senior officials from 370 cities across the United States and around the world participated in the COVID-19 Local Response Initiative, a rapid-response collaboration between the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

They heard from experts in public health and crisis leadership, and learned from each other what worked and what did not in responding to an unfolding and unprecedented crisis. Over 11 weeks, as they scrambled to protect their community members from the disease and provide services to the ill, the bereaved, and the vulnerable, these city leaders shared their stories, concerns, hopes, and plans and got answers to their most pressing questions about the pandemic and how to mitigate not just the spread of the virus but also the economic and social fallout of measures taken to contain it.

Each week, faculty and staff at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative worked with professors from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School to plan a lesson focusing on a particular aspect of crisis leadership: from problem-solving processes and communications to collaboration, fiscal management, and supporting mental health. After each session, a summary of key takeaways went out via email to participants. These documents are compiled here for easy reference.

For city leaders who missed the first round of sessions, this compendium of tips, insights, and considerations may offer helpful guidance. The public is relying on local leaders to navigate this crisis — to respond wisely, lead a safe and strong recovery, and rebuild communities in ways that make cities stronger, more sustainable, more resilient, and safe for all.

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