How the future could be philanthropic, by Cliff Hague

Does your local council have an innovation team funded by a private philanthropist? Thought not, but give it time.

If we look across the "pond" to the USA we can see some interesting changes emerging in urban governance. America’s mega-rich tend to be more philanthropic than their British counterparts, so the trend over there may not be replicable over here.

However, with the prospect of yet more deep cuts in local government spending after the election, while businesses need good city planning and management, how else are we going to square that particular circle?

In the last five years, Bloomberg Philanthropies has given more than $150M to almost 70 municipal councils. The money is to support urban innovation. The trigger was an approach to the foundation from the mayors of a dozen cities. They described the problems of getting coordination across different departments, and the risk-averse culture of their organisations.

Bloomberg put together a team of people with local government experience. They studied urban innovations in cities around the world. The outcome was a model for how officials could become more inventive and data-driven and better at working with partners outside the council.

New Orleans is one of the showcase examples for the funding generated from the former mayor of New York. By chasing foundations and non-profit organisations the city was able to attract $15M into its budgets last year from local and state foundations. Private funders have paid for a climate adaptation officer, and someone to work on the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, along with computer programmers and many other positions.

The Bloomberg model puts a team – a mix of experienced public sector people and some from the private sector – into the mayor’s office with a brief to deliver strategic and coordinated approaches to problems to deliver measurable results. In effect it is a group of in-house consultants. The grant money is not tied to any particular policy field.

Among the successes reported are a dramatic cut in the murder rate in New Orleans, a 30% reduction in retail vacancies in key commercial corridors in Memphis, and the development of a holistic "well-being" index in Santa Monica. Elsewhere, the Knight Foundation has given Andrés Duany $600,000 to develop "lean urbanism" to cut through normal regulation procedures for major projects.

While foundation grants are nothing new in the USA, the Bloomberg programme is about achieving structural and cultural change in urban public administration. Some planners will regard it as an opportunity to get in extra resources and new ideas, but others will see it as a threat, e.g. by prioritising quantitative measures of success.

It begs questions about public service provision becoming dependent on private philosophy. It can be seen alongside the targeting of local government by management and computing companies promoting the use of big data.

The financial crisis in local government planning in the UK stunts rather than promotes innovation. Maybe innovation teams could inject a new impetus into the way councils go about planning and managing development.

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