The Future of American Cities: An Interview With Stephen Goldsmith

Published on May 13, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Clare Coffey

The Future of American Cities: An Interview With Stephen Goldsmith

Press Release:

Former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith is joining the Emsi advisory board, bringing a wealth of experience in building regional prosperity. 

In addition to his tenure as mayor, Goldsmith served as chief domestic policy advisor to the President George W. Bush campaign and special advisor to  the president on non-profit and faith-based initiatives. Under Mayor Bloomberg, he held the post of deputy mayor for operations, a position that included responsibility for New York City’s sanitation, police, and fire departments.

He is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. At Harvard, he runs the Data-Smart City Solutions project, an initiative whose focus on data analytics for local government perfectly dovetails with Emsi’s mission.

Goldsmith is also a chairman emeritus of the Manhattan Institute, and has published six books on urbanism, innovation, and city governance. His partnership with Emsi and Strada is a natural extension of his work on these pressing issues.

“The workforce analytics effort that Emsi is involved in is exactly what’s needed by cities and states,” Goldsmith said.

“We are thrilled to have Stephen join us as a member of our advisory board. Fostering regional economic prosperity lies at the heart of Emsi’s mission, and Stephen’s decades of experience tackling these issues at the municipal level will provide invaluable insights as we strive to further our goals,” said Andrew Crapuchettes, Emsi CEO.

Emsi provides labor market data that helps economic development, higher education, and workforce development professionals build a better workforce and nurture strong economies, businesses, and graduates. Emsi data features both structural and real-time labor market data (job postings), as well as alumni profiles and resumes. It is trusted by hundreds of institutions and businesses across the US, and is frequently cited in prominent publications, including Forbes, USA TODAY, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

An Interview with Stephen Goldsmith

We sat down with Stephen Goldsmith, Harvard professor, former mayor of Indianapolis, and our newest advisory board member, to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing America’s cities.


Emsi: You have a long and very distinguished background in public policy and government. Can you speak to that background and how it shapes your current work?

Goldsmith:  For some time  as a public official, a teacher of public officials and as an advisor to public officials, I have focused on how to use technology to drive innovation for the purposes of producing better public services.

It’s generally clear that when one uses data you can refine the delivery of public services in order to have more impact–a better return on investment, you could say. Government generally operates with a set of routines, but you don’t want every person to be treated the same, because they have individual characteristics. So whether you’re trying to solve an infrastructure problem or a child welfare problem or an education problem, data insights will raise the effectiveness of those services.

One of the most important issues facing the communities of practice that I convene–meaning the chiefs of staff and the chief data officers, mayors of large cities, county executives–is economic mobility. So using data to improve workforce results is something I’m particularly interested in.

Emsi: What are some long term projects you’re interested in accomplishing?

Goldsmith:  For my purposes the general approach of city leaders about upscaling the workforce is somewhat outdated. It’s based on insufficient data. It’s based on a limited set of levers. If one looks at a regional economy, we know that data insights are possible from a range of sources that weren’t available five or six years ago—yet most city officials have tools that were crafted 20+ years ago. My hope is that through a better understanding of the demand side, meaning the employers, and better understanding of what’s lacking on the supply side, we can calibrate those systems better and break these upward mobility barriers.  I think organizations like Emsi and Strada are particularly well positioned to do that.

Emsi: Of all the things that cities and mayors and people in economic development could do, why do you think that data and analytics really stand out?

Goldsmith: Data and analytics stand out in the delivery of any important service. The more complicated the question, the more important the use of data. Right now a situation which is interesting. Many of the larger cities have both too many underemployed folks and too many unfilled  jobs.

That would suggest that this ought to be a policy problem we can solve. If we understand the skill sets necessary for those jobs, and what we can do to create additional skills for folks that are underemployed, we ought to be able to create those upward mobility ladders.

We have many dynamic changes. Labor markets present  more digital systems. Officials have access to better data analytics. More activity posted online gives one more access to both the needs and the supply. What we don’t have is a government system that says, how do we look at this from  a system viewpoint that includes the mayor, the county executive, the two-year college, the four-year college and the K-12 system? How do those things work together? How does leadership make those work together? Once you bring those parties together then you need data to say “Okay, this is the credentialing piece that’s missing. This is how we can add to this particular skill set.” So this is an unusual time. It may be one of the most unusual times in a century for our ability to provide new governance tools that produce local public value.  

Emsi: What do you think prevents cities and places and organizations from really getting into this work and investing in it? In our experience, when we talk about what we do in data,  nobody ever says, “No, that’s dumb.” So where do you think the holdup is occurring?

Goldsmith: Right. There’s a lot of opportunity and there are a couple challenges. One challenge is that nobody’s in charge. The university president’s in charge. The mayor’s in charge. The county executive’s in charge. That’s all another way of saying nobody’s in charge. So that’s one set of issues. The second set is that the opportunities driven by the data exceed the understanding of local policy officials on how to apply it.

It’s actually the opposite of the private sector, where the demand for a solution drives the supply. In the public sector a private company develops a technology that actually  exceeds the demand for it at first until the public sector users understand the applications and opportunities.

I think it’s a governance issue. It’s just a lack of understanding about what really is possible. We also have all these legacy systems: workforce investment boards and formal two-year degrees and things that we think are the solution but they’re not necessarily right in a particular circumstance. At least not by themselves.

Emsi: I think this is actually the theme of our conference this year. The theme that we want to focus on is this idea of leadership, and how organizations can lead through persuasion and sharing information, sharing data with others. That’s the remarkable attribute of everybody who uses our data well. They’re not using our data in isolation. They’re using it to play leadership roles within a community.

  So I like what you said there. Who’s in charge? The problem is no one usually is. So how can you position yourself to be a leader in those types of conversations? What do you think this looks like in five to 10 years?

Goldsmith: Mayors and county executives should use their authority to convene a collaboration network that will manage a job creation upscaling in the community, real time dashboards, shared algorithmic insights. It won’t resemble in any way what we do today.

Emsi:  And do you feel like those partnerships are happening between cities and universities, employers and NGOs, etc?

Goldsmith:  There are lots of partnerships, and many of them are good. But they’re not complete enough collaborations. Because a real collaboration is going to require some give and take, which is a conversation. I had these conversations decades ago as mayor of Indianapolis.

You would go to the community college and say, “Here is the 16-week course we need.”  They’ll say, “Well, we don’t have one of those. That’s not something we want to offer.” You go, “Well there are a large number of job openings in this area and there are many people who need jobs and those jobs could be filled.” So then you have to conduct this negotiation. Does the program need to be subsidized by the employer? What exact skills are you trying to teach?

In addition there is another issue related to individuals who have the skills but the market doesn’t  recognize that they do by conventional methods. Yet perhaps all the candidate needs is a certification course, or maybe they don’t even  need the certification, they just need the course. But the certification stands in their way.

So there are a lot of partnerships that just need to be informed by data to drive better collaboration about what’s offered in a community.

Emsi: My last question: what’s the risk involved with these new developments you see emerging in the next five to ten years?

Goldsmith: In any sort of public intervention, there’s a risk that your results will be disproportionately beneficial to people who are already well positioned for the opportunity.

For example, if public officials  use algorithms to identify a set of skills and then set about to  change the way community colleges or technical schools operate, without care they could end up not sufficiently benefiting those who are a little more difficult to reach.

The system has to watch out for bias: racial bias,  gender bias, geographic bias. I think the risk is that the system will design itself for quick wins, when the real benefits could be more broadly applied to those who are now frozen out of the workforce, but actually are pretty skillful folks and they just need a little bit of connectivity.

For press inquiries, or to learn more about how Emsi can help your city reach its full potential, contact Rob Sentz.