Action Insights

Eight Types of Power City Leaders Can Use When Negotiating

  • Authors Brian S. Mandell, Stephen Petraeus, Guhan Subramanian, Lisa Cox

Last Updated

Strategic Leadership and Management

Africa, North America, United States


City leaders often feel their hands are tied in multiparty negotiations, but a study supported by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative offers a framework for analyzing power in public negotiations that can help mayors and their staff develop a strong negotiation strategy.

Read the Action Insights below, or download as a PDF for use later.

Do you know your full arsenal of power moves when you’re getting to the negotiating table? Are you leaving value on the table for your city when bargaining with private sector parties, non-profits, or other government entities? As we argue in a recent academic article, negotiations in the public sphere demand a specific lens on how power is distributed and how it can be garnered, especially to support a mayor’s policy agenda and make a difference in constituents’ lives.

Every day, cities and their leaders are at the center of negotiations large and small, from simple procurement contracts for grass mowing to large-scale public-private partnerships for building a subway line. And while some citizens might think that mayors wield untold formal power, many times it’s the informal power, or a mixture of the two, that ultimately gets a negotiation to the finish line with constituents’ interests served.

Where City Leaders’ Power Lies

Understanding the eight types of power at a public official’s disposal can help city leaders more exhaustively analyze their own power—and that of others—when preparing for the trenches of a negotiation. See the table below for definitions of the eight types of power at play in a public negotiation.

Formal power might be what first comes to mind when one thinks of the influence of the mayor’s office. We differentiate broad formal power into four subtypes: institutional power, convening power, veto power, and shift power. Institutional power might include a mayor’s ability to focus on certain problems and influence the public agenda or to broadcast (or limit) certain messages, such as what’s included (or not included) in a mayor’s first 100 days plan. A mayor might leverage convening power by bringing together stakeholders and controlling the meeting agenda, e.g., leaving off or adding in certain discussion topics. Meanwhile, veto power might be brandished as a threat to change the negotiating field or leveraged to prevent an unacceptable deal. Mayors generally have low shift power, since they can’t be seen “flip-flopping” or treating different parties unequally.

Informal power, though less straightforward and more nuanced than formal power, is just as important, and it includes moral suasion power and nuisance power. Moral suasion power is especially relevant in the public realm, as it tends to deal with more controversial topics that may turn on moral or ethical arguments. Moral suasion is also available to weaker parties, and if expertly wielded, can, for example, secure a “seat at the table” for someone who was not party to a negotiation at the start. Nuisance power allows a group with no formal role in a negotiation to potentially change the narrative. For example, individuals without formal authority, such as grassroots activists, can call attention to a specific issue through protests, the media, or other negative publicity. Even using nuisance power as a threat can be a potent tool in negotiations.

Mixed power includes momentum power and coalitional power. Momentum power may take the form of earmarking funds for a project to send the message that the project is happening, a perception that could assist in rallying support. Coalitional power is a blend of formal authority and personal relationships. For example, a well-connected mayor can call on a diverse group of allies and other stakeholders to direct their resources to a larger cause. Coalitional power paired with nuisance power can create a formidable agent for change.

The City Leaders’ Power Move Checklist

Given the growing expectation for city leaders to navigate and negotiate complex, multiparty issues and the increasing role of public-private partnerships at the municipal level, reflecting on different types of power in public negotiations could prove beneficial to city leaders. Below, we outline several suggestions:

  • Be prepared
    Ideally, before a negotiation, a mayor or city leader will have evaluated the formal, mixed, and informal power held by each party to assess the balance of power. This will inform a city leader’s initial strategy, even if new events and new parties require changing the strategy along the way.
  • Build relationships
    Well-connected mayors can more quickly rally support and get their messages amplified, which can be extremely advantageous when exercising power such as momentum power, coalitional power, and nuisance power. While a mayor and other city leaders can certainly build relationships throughout a negotiation, having a base to call on before negotiations have even started can save precious time during the throes of a negotiation.
  • Limit one type of power to strengthen another
    For example, low shift power can allow for increased moral suasion power. That is to say, while standing your ground limits your flexibility, putting forth moral or ethical reasons for doing so can allow you to authenticate and better leverage moral suasion power.
  • Consider two-level games
    In two-level games (the iterative process between separate negotiations that influence each other), leverage your knowledge of both arenas and sequence your actions to help you build power. City leaders may also want to consider which parties are included at which levels to identify overlap and to assess the barriers and opportunities at each level. For example, when a state governor vetoes legislation, it can affect the choices and decisions of that state’s mayors in their negotiations.
  • Leverage power parity
    If one party falsely thinks that they hold an outsized portion of the power, it may be advantageous to show counterparties that the power is more balanced than they might think. When negotiators know that their power is matched, they are more likely to work toward an alternative that is mutually acceptable to more parties.

Ultimately, no matter how simple or complex a city leader’s negotiation is, having a sense of where different types of power lie can be beneficial to driving a political agenda and achieving the best outcome for a city leader’s constituents.

Further Reading

  More Resources Like This

Stay up to date on our latest work to improve cities

Follow us