Cities As Laboratories of Democracy: Partnership, Service & Innovation


  • David Sander, Ph.D.
January 5, 2024 - (5 min read)

Learn more about Mayor David Sander’s agenda in this week’s CitiesSpeak Podcast

One century ago, the National League of Cities was born. As I step into the role of NLC President 100 years later, in 2024, I’m excited to keep the work we do as local leaders fresh – partnering with one another to innovate and serve our cities, towns and villages in the process.

I’ve had the privilege of having NLC by my side for the entirety of my career as a local elected official – in fact, for the entire existence of my city. Rancho Cordova is a uniquely young city. Our journey to incorporation began in earnest in the late 1970s, on a road was paved with grit and sheer will to overcome tremendous odds.

In 2002, residents voted overwhelmingly for cityhood, with a record 78% of the vote. One year later, Rancho Cordova was formally incorporated as a city, and I was sworn in as one of its first council members.

It was an exciting time, but as the founding council, we faced numerous challenges addressing issues that had gone neglected for years – whether it was implementing code enforcement, renewing long-declining neighborhoods, or jumpstarting our economic development. Like many of you, we joined NLC hungry for information, advice and help from other leaders in cities similar to ours. And we found it, particularly in the First Tier Suburbs Council.

As a practicing scientist, I quickly realized that governing felt familiar to me. I was experimenting with strategies: hypothesizing, changing variables, reinventing processes and observing the impacts, all in the pursuit of building an amazing new city. I found that being a local leader is not all that different from being a scientist. Our cities, towns and villages are like laboratories – places for discovery, where we have the opportunity to explore new ideas and experiment with solutions to gain a broader understanding of the world.

Partnering with Community Stakeholders

Whether it’s community nonprofits, local businesses, or other partners, all of the stakeholders in our cities have critical roles to play in piloting experiments that help solve our challenges and build our collective knowledge of how our cities can operate more seamlessly. To me, the beauty of our city governments lies in our ability to convene and form partnerships with these groups that make up the fabric of our communities. 

No one organization can do the important work of serving our residents alone. Our constituents are some of the best scientists in our cities. They bring different viewpoints to the table, suggest changing variables, and they innovate to drive strong outcomes for our community. And it’s our role as local governments to empower those groups, to facilitate partnerships between them, and to help provide the funding and infrastructure needed to make those experiments happen.

Committing to Public Service

I believe that most of us who choose to be a part of NLC ran for public office because of our dedication to service – to actively deliver results for our residents in pursuit of what’s best for our communities. Our work as local leaders is, first and foremost, about public service, not partisanship.  

As we near the next presidential election in November 2024, this year, I’m asking every single member of NLC to recommit to that promise. In this election cycle, it’s going to be tough, and it’s going to get ugly at times, but it’s our responsibility to set a strong example of civility in politics, to be devoted to the democratic process, and to always prioritize the best interests of our communities.

That’s why, this year, I’m relaunching NLC’s Presidential Election Task Force in partnership with our First Vice President, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, LA. As we prepare for the election, this nonpartisan initiative will make sure local government has a seat at the federal decision-making table and that cities continue to have the federal support they need to make locally-driven investments. For more information about what we have in store and how you can be part of this important work, visit

Innovating to Build Better Cities

Finally, what really makes our cities laboratories is how we innovate within them – the opportunities we have to experiment with new ideas and strategies that have the potential to change the way we do things, for the better.

It’s about imagining the future of our cities. It’s about harnessing new research and data to improve our city operations and processes. It’s examining and testing the emerging trends and technologies that could change the ways we govern.

So, this year, as we celebrate NLC’s 100th anniversary, I invite you all to join me in finding and celebrating the ways YOUR communities have innovated over the last 100 years – and the incredible outcomes that are still ahead in the years to come. I’m so looking forward to celebrating this incredible milestone with all of you – let’s get to work together!

David Sander serves as Mayor of Rancho Cordova, California, and is the President of the National League of Cities.

About the Author

David Sander, Ph.D.

About the Author

David M. Sander, Ph.D. serves as the President of the National League of Cities and is the Mayor of Rancho Cordova, CA.