Pete Buttigieg was in high school when he started talking about redrawing traffic patterns to make his city’s troubled downtown more inviting. Even his friends thought that was a bit unusual.

“There was a fair amount of teasing: ‘What are you talking about?’ ” recalled James Mueller, a classmate and later a political ally. “He was convinced we could reverse the decline.”

By the time Mr. Buttigieg was able to carry out his idea as mayor, he had degrees from Harvard and Oxford and training as a McKinsey & Co. business consultant. He also had a squad of young hires, many fresh from elite universities and eager to bring data analysis, “process mapping,” “key performance indicators” and other new business tools into a slow-changing municipal government.

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