Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Mad about Madison: a city hall visit in Wisconsin


Photo credit: H Muirhead

Hannah Muirhead is our head of international operations and found both inspiration and common purpose on her city visit to Madison, Wisconsin in the US. 

In my time at LGIU I’ve visited councils all over Ireland, Scotland, Australia, England and South Africa meeting with councillors and staff, exploring their policy priorities, and pulling out common threads in international local government that can drive LGIU’s global work. I have never visited a council in the United States though, so it was with much excitement that I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin in early November with the opportunity to meet with some of the great people at the City of Madison and other institutions in the city.

It was great to be able to spend time talking to Syed Abbas, who is Alderman of District 12 and recently finished a term as president of the Common Council, about some of his experiences as a local elected representative. Among many other topics, we chatted about the issues and opportunities experienced by a rapidly growing city like Madison; about the importance of efficient public transport, housing density and making sure the two align; and about how sound and innovative local policymaking can address some of the wider national and international issues that land in local communities such as gun violence, environmental degradation, and social inequality. What stood out to me from our conversations was that he is not just a passionate community representative but an alderman committed to utilising all the levers of the Common Council to enact change for the people in his district and in the city as a whole – speaking with him offered some great insights into the functioning of an American council.

Alder Abbas introduced me to Karen Kapusta-Pofahl, Chief of Staff of the Common Council. We spoke a lot about the key issues facing councils in different countries, particularly about the housing crisis, about retrofitting, about addressing dereliction and blight, about international approaches to dealing with homelessness and what US cities might be able to learn from these. We also had an interesting discussion on the challenges local governments in the US experience in terms of state preemption – when legislation made at the state level overrides local ordinances and restricts local decision making – an issue I’ve seen come up in conversations with councils operating in other local government systems, particularly in Australia and South Africa.

I met with the City’s Sustainability and Resilience Manager, Jessica Price, who took me through some of the programmes Madison has in place to help them reach their ambitious climate and energy goals (100% renewable energy and net zero carbon emissions for City operations by 2030 and community-wide by 2050), including their new Building Energy Savings program. The City is leading by example here by reducing energy waste in its own buildings and facilities, while also helping commercial building owners make the necessary changes to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings using tools such as energy benchmarking and periodic tune-ups.

Next, I was lucky enough to be able to meet with House Representative Samba Baldeh in the magnificent State Capitol building. His seat on the state parliament is the 48th assembly district which covers the north and east sides of Madison and he has previously served three terms as an alderman of the City Council. In the context of previous conversations I’d had that day, it was interesting to speak to a state politician who recognises the importance of local government and to learn more about some of the interplays between the different tiers of government in Wisconsin.

I then spent a truly fascinating morning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was introduced to Trudy Watt who is Academic Director of an MSc in Design and Innovation and, along with Holly Burns, teaches a class on Design Thinking as part of that degree program. I got to speak a bit about myself and my job and about what I hoped to learn about the applications of design thinking in a municipal context.

I got to spend time chatting to the students, learning more about the practical implementation of design thinking in different contexts, including with one group who had been set a design fiction task in which I saw distinct parallels with some of the new municipalism/future scenarios work LGIU conducted in the aftermath of the pandemic – imagining local governments that have departed from traditional models of service provision in various ways and speculating about how these councils might function.

A few of the councils I’ve spoken to in Ireland and the UK have said that a key challenge they face and would welcome insights on is addressing the complexities that exist in local government policymaking, particularly in navigating some of the risks around transformative innovation. Spending time with this class and speaking to the staff and students confirmed some suspicions I’d had (admittedly bounded by my quite limited knowledge of the subject) that design thinking must absolutely be a tool for this. So watch this space for more!

This blog post only scratches the surface of the discussions I had during my week in Madison and I’m grateful for everybody who took the time to share their knowledge and insights with me. Many of the key policy priorities of the City of Madison are reflective of those of councils around the world, and I look forward to building LGIU’s relationship with both local government and academia in Madison and following up for a deeper dive into some of the issues and projects I’ve mentioned here.

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