Mapping Cities’ Connecting Capabilities

Image by Jude Arubi on Unsplash

By Ruth Puttick and Fernando Monge

For years, city governments have been leading the charge in tackling a range of issues and problems, from gun control to climate change. Yet this is hardly a single-organisation endeavour. How can we map and grasp the collective ability to deliver positive results?

The need for cities to collaborate to tackle complex challenges is now well established. City governments are increasingly well networked, accessing insights, solutions, and resources from their residents, civil society, wider tiers of government, academia, and the private sector. They are also connected to other cities and many other organizations both in their own country and worldwide.

In our own research with cities, we have confirmed the novel ways in which city governments are deploying capabilities with support from both internal and external organisations. For example, Bogotá City Council is improving the lives of women and their families through its “Manzanas del Cuidado” (Care Blocks) programme. A key element of its success is the political leadership to set priorities and understand how these can be achieved through creating the structures within the city government, such as new teams, engaging residents and political stakeholders, forging partnerships within the city to deliver services and a broader network of stakeholders — both domestic and international — to leverage additional capacity and resourcing. This is underpinned by Bogotá City Council’s effective communication and the ability to foster effective cooperation and partnership arrangements with grassroots organisations, the private sector, philanthropy, development banks, national government, and others.

All the way across the Atlantic, we have also learned how Freetown City Council has been able to overcome operative constraints by building strategic alliances and mobilising financial resources from a diverse set of sources, including national government, the World Bank and philanthropy. This cooperation with multiple stakeholders is an integral part of Freetown City Council’s policy design and delivery process.

Fostering these connections and attracting investment can be difficult. Of course, not all cities are created equal, with differing economic, environmental and social contexts. For some smaller towns and cities, there may be a lack of capacity to even complete the application form to bid for funding. And there needs to be the capacity to develop and foster strong relationships with those who can provide support. In our interviews with mayors, it was made clear that there is a high degree of political bargaining and negotiation for city governments to attract resources and investment. And even where there is leadership at the top, and investment is secured, the city government needs the knowledge, staff, and ability to effectively use it. Cities may be affected by budget cuts or can be hamstrung by hiring rules limiting their ability to attract talent and deliver.

In our work with Bloomberg Philanthropies, we are developing a Public Sector Capabilities Index that can help cities identify their strengths as well as areas where critical skills must be built up. An integral part of our concept of Public Sector Capabilities is the “collaborative muscle” that cities need to develop to adapt resources, processes and skills in response to an ever-evolving environment with constantly shifting demands, challenges, and needs. Dynamic capabilities enable city governments to identify and respond to threats and opportunities (‘sense making’), to connect different tiers of policy and service delivery and leverage resources (‘connecting’), to experiment, develop and adopt new solutions (‘seizing’), to adapt internal processes (‘shaping’), and to reflect upon, test and adapt new ways of working (‘learning’).

Yet, there is still a lot to be understood about the capabilities for collaboration. First, where does the capability to collaborate reside within city hall? In other words, what are the skills, competencies and routines needed to develop valuable relationships and connections? But just looking inside city governments is not enough. A second fundamental question is how do we map the capabilities that the city hall is leveraging beyond its boundaries?

For our index to become a globally relevant assessment toolbox, we need to understand the capabilities city governments possess inside and the capabilities they need to mobilise outside the city to make change happen. So, although our Public Sector Capabilities Index is focused on city governments, there are a host of other organizations, including national governments, development banks, and foundations, to engage and influence if we are to unlock the resources that enable city governments to deliver results.

These are some of the questions we are grappling with in developing our index. And we believe it is not just a theoretical exercise. Luckily, there are tools that we can build on to map and identify collaboration capabilities within and outside city halls. In doing so, we hope to help cities and their partners in being more intentional and strategic when investing in the right skills and competencies and when developing valuable relationships and connections.

If you have ideas and want to join us in this stimulating endeavor, we would love to hear from you. Please contact Ruth Puttick,



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

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