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Mayors: Does Bloomberg have lessons for Street?

Mayors: Does Bloomberg have lessons for Street?

🕔01.Nov 2017

As seven Mayors meet together for the first time in London today, Chris Game wonders why the West Midlands Mayor has not availed himself of a leadership programme inspired by, perhaps, the world’s most successful Metro Mayor. 

As Rumpole of the Bailey almost certainly advised, never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer. But I’m no barrister – never fancied the wig – and, although the answer here could easily be just a phone call away, I thought I’d indulge in a few paragraphs’ idle speculation.

Why, I wonder, is WM Mayor Andy Street the only eligible recently elected UK metro mayor not to have signed up for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative Program for Mayors?

Harvard and Kennedy you’re probably familiar with, but it’s Bloomberg here who’s the heavyweight deal. I mean, initially, the New York-based but very global finance, software, data and media company.

Yes, the one with TV and radio stations, business magazines, the Bloomberg Terminal software system, an entity exchange (no idea!), and even its own ‘Bloomberg Government’.

The latter is actually the company’s subscription-based government information service, but for most of the 21st Century – from a couple of months after 9/11 until the end of 2013 – it could equally have been City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.

For Michael Bloomberg, founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg LP (Limited Partnership), is the same Michael Bloomberg who succeeded Rudy Giuliani as three-term Mayor of New York City – a lifelong Democrat, who stood and won as a Republican, then turned Independent!

He did other headliney things that come easier if you’re the city’s second richest man – campaigned with his own money, took a salary of $1 p.a., donated his staff’s computers, paid for the morning bagels, and regularly commuted on the city subway.

More substantively, he turned the city’s $6 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus, increasing both spending and taxes; introduced the single three-digit 311 phone number for all the City’s agencies and services; extended the subway; required all city taxis to be hybrid vehicles; legalised same-sex marriage, and a great deal else.

But, as much as what he did, it was how and where he did it that fascinated visitors. For he imported from either baseball or Wall Street the famous ‘Bullpen’ – an open-plan warren of some 50 really quite cramped cubicles, packed together with minimal privacy, one of which was his own work station.

It was as open a set-up as Theresa May’s pre-election Downing Street was closed, and certainly put the Mayor within arm’s, or shout’s, reach of all his top staff – though whether they were all as happy with the idea as they appeared in photographs I used to wonder.

The point is that, whatever his methods, Bloomberg has the virtually unique experience of running, provenly effectively, both a huge company and a huge city – 290,000 employees, or over three times the number of John Lewis partners.

And he’s now channelling that experience and $32 million of his personal wealth, through his charity Bloomberg Philanthropies, into sponsoring the unique Leadership Programme exclusively for major City Mayors run by Harvard’s Kennedy and Business Schools.

A group of up to 40 mayors, 30 from the US and 10 from around the world, are participating in the inaugural year-long learning exercise, which kicked off in July with an “immersive” 3-day executive in-residence programme at the Bloomberg campus in New York.

Following which there will be on-line learning sessions, with mentoring input from the Harvard team; an on-demand system for mayors and their staff to call for support with policy research, identifying best practices, and intros to other city leaders; and a parallel executive training programme for key mayoral staff.

The programme, in true management-speak, is for “mayors (1) committed to leading their city with an innovative, results-driven agenda; and (2) serious about rapidly improving their ability to achieve their agenda”.

Here’s the thing, though. For whatever reason, applications for this first programme was by invitation only. And, prompted in part no doubt by the global publicity Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham received following the Manchester Arena bombing, all five eligible newly elected metro mayors (excluding, that is, Peterborough & Cambridgeshire) would have been invited.

Four took up what certainly must have seemed like a brilliantly timed opportunity – Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram (Lab, Liverpool City Region), Ben Houchen (Con, Tess Valley), and Tim Bowles (Con, West of England) – and found at least the July experience, to judge from their reports, “a privilege”, “inspiring”, with “lessons hugely relevant for all UK cities”.

It was hard, therefore, not to wonder why the fifth invitee, with less first-hand local or national, political or governmental experience than any of them, opted out – even of the opportunity to share the experience with those he’s going to need to work pretty closely with over the coming 30 months.

Yes, of course Andy Street knows much more than the others about running – and successfully – a far larger business organisation than the West Midlands Combined Authority will ever be. But few know better than Michael Bloomberg what’s actually involved in making the transition from the world of big business to that of big city government.

After all, US history is littered with unquestionably successful businessmen who’ve transitioned to become some of the greatest Presidential flops – from Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, through Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, to oilman and serial groper, George H W Bush.

In our own local government it happens regularly – most recently in Cheshire East – that councils have to pick up the pieces after businessmen (and it usually is men) have difficulty grasping how different “the processes and protocols of local government” are from the private enterprise environment in which they’d previously flourished.

New councillors are constantly exhorted to attend induction courses and subsequently to take advantage of the opportunities to develop their skills, extend their knowledge of unfamiliar service areas, and generally to learn how to do their job more effectively. Shouldn’t we expect at least the same of our full-time and far more highly remunerated mayors?

Don’t misunderstand: I’m in no way questioning our new Mayor’s first months in office, his sensitivity to the norms and practices of his new world, or his ability to learn and adapt fast. With his record, it would be as absurd as it would be impertinent.

It’s quite simply that, when I first heard about the Bloomberg Mayoral programme, my very first thought was that, if any of the new Mayors signed up, ours would be the first. And I’m just intrigued as to why I got it so wrong.

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