Pete Buttigieg is not a name you’re likely to forget. And that’s a good thing.
Buttigieg, you see, is not your average politician. Not many have Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship on their résumé. Fewer still get elected mayor of their hometown while still in their 20s. And as for taking a leave of absence to go fight in a war? That’s even more unusual. Buttigieg, however, spent seven months on military deployment in Afghanistan and remains an officer in the Naval Reserve.
This eclectic collection of experiences helped underpin Buttigieg’s decision to run for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) earlier this year. Up against more experienced and better known rivals, he nonetheless won widespread praise for his approach and message, which prioritised local solutions over those crafted in Washington.
Defeated but unbowed, Buttigieg returned home to South Bend, Indiana’s fourth largest city, with a newly-won national profile and a determination to use his voice to influence the debate well beyond the city limits. That said, no-one should doubt his dedication to his home town. “I love my job,” he says. “And as long as we continue to deliver good results in South Bend, I’ll be just fine in the future. But if we don’t, then nothing else matters.”
Mixing data with people power
Buttigieg is the youngest mayor in America of a city with a population of more than 100,000. Although he was elected aged just 29, politics has not been his sole vocation. Prior to his election, he clocked up several years as a management consultant with McKinsey – an experience, he says, which helped him understand the power of data and how information can strengthen both answers and outcomes.
“I certainly learned a lot about the power of setting targets and evaluating measures in order to stay focused and create accountability,” he recalls. “Not everything that matters can be measured, but you have a much higher degree of success if everyone knows what they should be aligned around. One thing I saw in well-run businesses is an alignment around what the goal actually is and what success looks like – basic stuff that I think is sometimes taken for granted when people are in the public space.”
A good example is how his administration became one of the first to migrate sewer data into the cloud. Partnering with a local startup, EmNet, South Bend is now the most densely sensored sewer system in the world, collecting more than 16 billion data points each year. As a result, the city is saving around US$500 million in water infrastructure.
But it’s not just about data and metrics. Buttigieg is clear that it only works at its best when it is combined with the human touch. “You lose the human factor at your peril – which is easy to do,” he says. “But I think with any community – just as in the business community – a lot of it comes down to people and simply how they feel about what’s happening around them.”
To illustrate his point, he recalls his experiences working on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. “I found myself in Arizona,” he says. “I learned a lot of lessons about how campaigning works and how it doesn’t – it is as much about relationships as it is about speeches or voter analytics. At the end of the day – and like all enterprises – it comes down to people: their needs and desires, and also their quirks and idiosyncrasies.”
Leading from the front
Buttigieg goes on to cite a key difference between the public and private sectors: how your time gets carved out. “In an environment like McKinsey, about 80% of the time was spent figuring out what was the right answer and 20% was communicating it and persuading others,” he explains. “But as mayor, it is more the other way around – I’m lucky if I get to spend about 20% of my time on the actual policy work. My job is mainly to do with selling it and making sure it is communicated well.”
It’s an important point and one that echoes the perspective of former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley – who endorsed Buttigieg during his DNC run. “People need to see commitment from leadership and from the top team,” he says. “One thing Martin has said is that leaders need to ‘make themselves vulnerable’. He wasn’t talking about our feelings but rather the vulnerability that is created when you are aligned around a public target that could very easily be missed.”
Perhaps the best example of this from Buttigieg’s tenure is his flagship 1,000 homes in 1,000 days challenge. This stems from the departure of the Studebaker car company from South Bend in the 1960s, leaving behind shuttered factories and many dormant homes. In response, Buttigieg committed the city to repair or demolish 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses in 1,000 days – a challenge which was met two months ahead of schedule. “We publicly committed to this so that everyone knew what success or failure looks like,” he says, looking back. “And this motivated me and my team to do everything we could to meet that target.”
This is a good example of risk-taking – something that the public sector is not always renowned for – but Buttigieg says that building a less risk-averse culture comes down to identifying the right risks to take. “Often these are political risks,” he observes.
“And sometimes it is the risk of having something not work out but then learning from it – as so often happens in the tech sector. On the other hand, the kind of risks you can take are fundamentally different. One of the things that makes the private sector so efficient is that if you take a risk and it fails in a certain way, then your enterprise will fail and it will be replaced by another one. But for something like our fire department, then failure is not an option.”
No hiding place
Buttigieg speaks passionately about his life as mayor. It is clear that he relishes being at the heart of the action, and there is certainly no inkling that he is keen to move onto a larger stage any time soon. “I think the most robust discussions about the future of public life aren’t about government versus the private sector, but rather about different levels of government,” he says.
“For a long time in the US there has been a conversation about federalism and the balance between the federal level and the state level, as if those were the only two levels that matter. Meanwhile, the local level has never been more dynamic or more important. What we’re seeing is that a lot of people who might have headed to Capitol Hill a generation ago are instead heading to the local level. I’ve benefited tremendously from the ability to attract talented, impact-oriented and motivated young people to work in our city administration on cutting-edge projects.”
The inherent visibility of being mayor, he continues, means that the buck stops with you – for better or worse. “There is an immediacy of impact,” he explains. “Everyone knows exactly how local decisions affect them – if I close a road, then people will know it and know who is responsible; if we plough the snow well or poorly, then people will know it. This means the prevalence of alternative facts is not the same problem in local government as it is at the national level, because people are very well informed about their own environment and the impact of government decisions on their lives. This forces us to be more communicative and more effective in everything we do.”
Onwards and upwards?
Looking back on his bid for DNC chair – he withdrew prior to the final vote when it was clear he would fall short – Buttigieg nonetheless expresses no regrets about the decision to step into a fiercer political and media spotlight. “I’m certainly glad we did it,” he says. “There are some very important lessons that I think everybody drew. These include making sure we recognise the importance of local and state offices and not treating the presidency as if it is the only office that matters. We’ve also learned the importance of remaining a big tent while not getting bogged down in internal differences.”
As for what happens next, only time will tell. Buttigieg, though, seems well placed to continue blazing a trail. “I want to help make sure that national decisions are anchored in the impact on ordinary people,” he concludes. “As important and interesting as the drama in Washington sometimes is, fundamentally it is less meaningful than what is going on in our normal everyday lives.”
It’s a good answer. And one that hints not only at past success but of potential – both local and national – still to come. Watch this space.
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