Ever since COVID-19 first took its grip on the globe, many of the world’s leaders have turned to Israel for guidance. That’s because the country—led in many cases by city-driven innovations—has been on the cutting edge of recovery from the start.
The pandemic was a watershed moment for a highly centralized country, where mayors have historically followed the national government’s lead. Their bold actions—whether building contract-tracing systems from scratch, setting up networks of young people to check on isolated seniors, or creating vaccination campaigns among hesitant communities—were sometimes taken in defiance of national guidance and, as a result, changed many perceptions of the role local leaders can play in addressing the nation’s toughest challenges.
“[Our mayors] helped us to understand what a municipality should be doing in a situation like this that no one has ever dealt with before,” says Edit Bar, who heads a section of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior dedicated to building capacity among local governments. Local leaders “know what their people need.”
Now, as a wave of terror attacks presents new challenges, Israeli mayors are poised to build on this momentum. This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Sagol Family announced a new initiative to strengthen local leadership across Israel: The Bloomberg-Sagol Center for City Leadership at Tel Aviv University. "Local leaders are playing a critical role in responding," Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and the 108th mayor of New York City said Sunday in Tel Aviv while announcing the new initiative. "This program will support them."
“Central government doesn’t have an impact on our personal lives, where mayors do.”
— Moshe Zviran, faculty director of the new Bloomberg-Sagol Center for City Leadership
The effort, explains Sagol Family representative Yossi Sagol, is inspired by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, an executive training program for city leaders that has already trained 196 mayors and 318 senior leaders from 25 countries over the past five years. "By adopting this program in Israel, we can make a real difference on the way local authorities are managed," he says.
According to Moshe Zviran, Dean of the Coller School of Management at Tel Aviv University and the faculty director of the new initiative, the pandemic was a turning point for mayors. Residents trusted local leaders more than national leaders on everything from lockdowns to vaccination campaigns. “The citizens believe that the local leaders know what they’re doing,” Zviran says. “Mayors are the top line with regard to the relationship with citizens. Central government doesn’t have an impact on our personal lives, where mayors do.”
A good example is in Yeruham, a desert town of 11,000 in the country’s south. When COVID first began raging in 2020, Mayor Tal Ohana began investigating chains of infection herself. She went on to build a network of volunteers and municipal employees to run contact-tracing efforts, and leveraged relationships with local rabbis and others to institute targeted lockdowns in defiance of national orders to stay open. The efforts tamped down a local outbreak—and raised the interest of local leaders across the country.
“They suddenly got a model that other authorities could copy and use,” says Netanel Rubinstein, Director of Training and Knowledge Development of Local Government with the Interior Ministry. “And it started from the bottom-up.”
Successes like this have renewed discussion in Israel of decentralizing more authority and responsibility to local governments. Currently, municipalities are in charge of basic services like water, sanitation, and sewage, as well as amenities such as parks, libraries, museums, and cultural activities. A process is underway to decide what else local leaders might take charge of. It’s complicated by the fact that Israel’s 257 local authorities include cities as large as Jerusalem, with 875,000 people, as well as villages of a few thousand, and everything in between.
The new Bloomberg-Sagol Center for City Leadership will train leaders from across the diverse spectrum of Israeli cities, large and small, Jewish- and Arab-led, from the country’s north and south. A key component of the curriculum will be training in innovation methods that have been catching on in cities across Israel through a program known as Hazira.
Hazira, also supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, brings together cross-disciplinary teams of city employees from different departments to collaborate with residents on solving problems. Coaches teach the city teams how to use data to guide decisions and how to co-create solutions with residents using human-centered design.
In the coastal suburb of Bat Yam, city leaders used these methods to address persistent complaints about litter in public places. With residents, they co-designed a pilot that’s testing a new model in which the city offers basic cleaning and gardening services to private buildings by charging a small monthly fee. The Arab-led city of Sakhnin is using similar co-design strategies to improve the way city hall services are delivered.
Hazira is now working with eight cities across Israel, and is about to take on several more. The model is based on earlier successes of Bloomberg-funded innovation teams in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva. “Our mission,” says Itai Eiges, the head of Hazira, “is to change the culture in the municipality.” Hazira will lead innovation training offered to mayors and their teams through the new Bloomberg-Sagol Center.
At the ceremony Sunday in Tel Aviv, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf encouraged her Israeli colleagues to take full advantage of the new offering. Schaaf, a member of the first class of mayors to get executive training via the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, said taking part in the program would be the best decision a mayor could make.
“This program,” Schaaf said, “will give you the tools, the resources, and a community of other mayors to help you not just respond to the daily crises, not just solve the most vexing problems of your communities, but to think higher, to dream big, and to accomplish audacious goals.”