The latest Ash Center research, teaching and ideas

Over the past year, the Ash Center community has been actively convening leading experts, releasing new research, and sparking novel ideas. Below is just a sample of some of this work. 

Published October 21, 2020


Kim Leary Convenes Local Leaders Working to Empower Women and Girls

This September, a new Ash Center initiative led by Associate Professor Kimberlyn Leary convened leaders from across the country in an online discussion of city-level innovation advancing the status of women and girls. Over two days, participants heard from Harvard experts as well as their peers on topics including building multisector partnerships, public narrative, and the state of women and girls in cities during the pandemic. The convening not only served as a forum for sharing insights into what’s worked, but also helped leaders make connections and spark ideas for future work.


Real-Time Training for City Leaders Amid Crisis

With mayors playing a central role in driving social and economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative launched five programs that focus on providing city leaders with the skills required to respond to emerging challenges, with an emphasis on social, racial, and economic recovery.


COVID-19 Local Leadership Response program: weekly sessions for mayors and senior staff worldwide, March–June 2020.


Leading Through Crisis: Reducing the Impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and Africa program: biweekly sessions for African and Latin-American Mayors, summer 2020.


Leading Social and Economic Recovery program: monthly sessions for mayor and senior staff worldwide, beginning July 2020.


US Cities Recovery Leadership program: monthly sessions and additional support, for a cohort of 40 US mayors, beginning July 2020.


Workshops on Public NarrativeLeading through Loss and Talking about Race: Special sessions for alumni mayors, summer 2020.


Developing Digital Era Skills for Public Service 

Ash Center faculty affiliate David Eaves has helped launch a new international community of professors, teachers, and practitioners who are worried about the modern-skills shortfall inside of too many governments. Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age is a resource for giving the professors, lecturers and educators inside both universities and in-house government academies free, open access teaching materials on the digital-era skills that all public service leaders now need to have.
“As someone who has taught digital competencies to future public leaders for several years, it has been so helpful and important to pull together a community of peers who can share best practices and develop common resources,” said Eaves. “This is even more critical in a COVID-19 world where the government response has been a digital response—any new service has, at its core, had to be online and accessible. As a result, digital government is no longer about the future, it is about the present. Ensuring public servants have the skills for a digital era government is thus a pressing challenge.”  

Chief Data Officers Focus on Racial Equity and Pandemic in Fall Convening 

The Innovations in Government program’s Civic Analytics Network, comprised of chief data officers and other senior data officials of twenty-five of the largest US cities, held its fall convening virtually in October. The convening focused on data-driven responses to COVID-19, economic recovery, the future of urban mobility, and the role of data and analytics in ensuring racial equity. Despite the virtual format, the successful convening provided a unique opportunity for members to discuss these critical issues and learn from their peers and experts how to better serve their cities.

New Tools for Self-Governance 

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, housed at the Ash Center, recently released four Nation Building Toolboxes. These online, multimedia learning tools assist Indigenous leaders and policymakers explore, expand, and develop governance structures and strategies to strengthen their nations. The first three toolboxes address: nation-owned enterprises, constitutional reform, and justice systems.

The most recent toolbox, the COVID-19 Resources Toolbox, was created amid the start of the pandemic to help Native nations navigate the crisis. Continuously updated, this toolbox bridges critical public policy with public health resources, assisting tribal nations as they address a range of challenges like virtual schooling, food distribution, mental health, business reopening, and more. Watch this Google-produced video short, featuring the Tohono O’odham Nation, to learn more about how these digital tools are helping tribal nations learn from each other.

In the coming year, new toolboxes dedicated to youth leadership, diversity and equity, and education will be released.

Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Basin? 

The Greater Mekong Basin (GMB) is one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth, home to nearly 1,100 different freshwater species and accounting for an estimated 25 percent of the world’s freshwater seafood supply. While this interconnected region—comprising parts of China’s Yunnan and Qinghai provinces, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—is considered the “rice bowl” of Asia, the six countries who rely on the Mekong operate with little coordination.


In 2016, China created the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative to support economic development among GMB countries. The arrangement raised a number of questions about how the region’s natural resources would be managed and protected. Starting in the spring of 2019, an Ash Center research team, led by Ash Center Director Tony Saich and Senior Fellow in Development Malcolm McPherson, with support from the Harvard Global Institute, began studying how the GMB’s natural resources might be jointly governed.


The Ash research team partnered with scholars from the GMB region and, together, they sought to understand whether China—the GMB’s principal upstream country—could be induced to lead an effective natural resource management effort. The team, however, concluded that China lacks the necessary incentives and will likely continue prioritizing its varied regional economic objectives over any meaningful action to preserve the Mekong’s abundant natural resources.

Considering this conclusion, researchers have begun identifying key areas within water governance, environmental sustainability, and infrastructure expansion where collaboration has mutual benefits for all GMB countries. Future research efforts will focus on how each country can build on these benefits to improve the health of the region.


A New Reading List for City Leaders 

For mayors on the job, time to reflect on management, strategy and innovation is scarce—forget looking up leadership theories in textbooks. To spur new thinking and share promising approaches, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is creating the world’s largest collection of high-quality instructional materials on governance, management and leadership in cities, which is open and free to all.


More than 40 city-specific teaching cases and toolkits are available or in development. Cases, which focus on current issues and feature diverse protagonists from around the world, explore topics including Exercising Strategic, Moral and Crisis Leadership; Motivating Action & Leading Change; Experimenting, Innovating and Taking Risks; Collaborating Across Organizational and Sectoral Boundaries; Using Data and Evidence to Improve Government Performance; Negotiating Effectively; and, Engaging Citizens and Communities.


Authors include faculty and fellows at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School as well as expert practitioners from cities around the world.


By making these new resources widely available, the Initiative aims to impart the leadership and organizational capabilities needed to innovate and problem solve not only to city leaders who participate in the Initiative but also to practitioners outside the training program. Educators at several universities have already demonstrated interest in adopting the catalog of materials.