City Hall Upended

When COVID arrived in the UK, Adam Hawksbee MPP 2019 pivoted from economic development to pandemic response.

Published May 13, 2021 

Adam Hawksbee’s life has seen an abundance of moving boxes as of late. After graduating from HKS with his MPP in 2019, he packed up several years’ worth of possessions and memories from his time in Cambridge and returned to his native Britain just before Christmas. Rather than heading back to family, friends, and the familiarity of his hometown of London, Hawksbee signed a lease on a flat in Birmingham, England’s second-largest city, located in the country’s West Midlands industrial heartland.


The immigrant-rich and diverse metropolis, like many post-industrial British hubs, has been working to transform its economy by capitalizing on its large concentration of universities and growing number of workers in professional services and creative industries. In 2016, Birmingham joined with several surrounding cities and towns to form the West Midlands Combined Authority, a new administrative body with its own elected mayor and responsibility for regional economic development, housing, transport, skills, and other issues.


At the helm of this newly constituted regional governing body is Andy Street, a political neophyte who was elected as the first-ever mayor of the West Midlands in 2017. Street’s timing was fortuitous; just one year earlier, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies established the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative at the Ash Center to train mayors and other senior city leaders in management and leadership techniques. Street enrolled in the program’s second-ever cohort of mayoral students in 2018.

Hawksbee in 2019 working as a research fellow for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that Hawksbee’s and Street’s paths would ultimately intersect through the Bloomberg Harvard initiative. The two first met in New York in the summer of 2018, at a Bloomberg Harvard teaching session providing in-person classroom training for program participants. Street had flown in from the UK for the training, while Hawksbee had traveled from Cambridge to observe the session as a research assistant for Bloomberg Harvard Faculty Director Jorrit de Jong. There, the two discussed the West Midlands’ new Inclusive Growth Unit and how the authority under Street was working to promote equitable economic development.


“I realized right there that would make an excellent PAE project,” says Hawksbee, referring to his Policy Analysis Exercise, the capstone project for second-year MPP students at HKS. “In my PAE, I argued that by acting as a regional body that delivered programs through local authorities, [the West Midlands] could make more of the rich tapestry of what I call in the report ‘intermediary bodies.’ So, they were sometimes missing the chambers of commerce, the neighborhood associations, the religious groups, the charities. All of the people that needed to both create and distribute value more equitably might sometimes be included on a task force, but they were rarely involved in actual program design and delivery.”


After completing his HKS degree in the spring of 2019, Hawksbee was hired as a research fellow by the Bloomberg Harvard initiative and helped lay the groundwork for their City Leader Guide on Equitable Economic Development, which brings together multiple diagnostic tools to assess the racial wealth gap in cities. It was the perfect complement to his PAE, which examined similar issues in the West Midlands. His work on equitable economic development with the Bloomberg Harvard initiative, coupled with his detailed analysis of the West Midland’s inclusive growth efforts, made him an ideal candidate to help Mayor Street craft a strategy for the greater Birmingham area. “When this position with the combined authority opened up, I just knew it was the perfect fit,” Hawksbee affirms.


From his new perch in Birmingham, Hawksbee went to work for Mayor Street, heading up policy and program development for the West Midlands Combined Authority. There, he handled the relatively traditional work of forging new policy initiatives, developing budget requests for the UK Treasury, and charting longer-term growth strategies for the region.


Then, barely months into his new position, COVID-19 upended everything. Rather than poring over budget documents and five-year plans, Hawksbee and his colleagues were thrust into the authority’s emergency response to the pandemic. “My job just completely changed,” says Hawksbee. “So, my colleagues and I began working with local leaders on how to get food and other support to people now locked inside their homes. [I wondered,] ‘How are we going to help manage this crisis as it continues to unfold?’”


Though much of his work prior to the pandemic centered on economic development, Hawksbee was able to draw on his experience at HKS to help guide him through the COVID-19 crisis. “The adaptive leadership training I received from faculty like Ron Heifetz really came into its own. I was able to sit in on some sessions with Professor Heifetz where he delved into the role of authority and the role of leadership in crisis situations, particularly when you need to give people direction, protection, and order. Ultimately, it's all about getting to the next day.”


Having only recently relocated to Birmingham to work for Mayor Street, Hawksbee’s office soon shuttered. Tethered to Zoom for much of the day, he found himself working remotely like countless others, navigating a new job and a new team. Ultimately, however, “the job came into its own,” and Hawksbee was able to start thinking about what a post-COVID recovery would look like. COVID-19 served to reinforce the massive interdependency between social services and the economy, inspiring him to start reimagining the region’s economic underpinnings.


“It's all well and good for us to be reopening stores and reopening offices, but ultimately the reason that people can't get jobs is because of unstable housing and the significant health inequalities that we have,” he concludes. “So, unless we build that economic recovery on a foundation of strengthened social services and community services, then we're not going to make real progress.”


Written by Dan Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs