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Can Michael Bloomberg save American cities with data at the core?

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles June 29, 2017
Michael Bloomberg is giving $200 million to provide new tools that allow city mayors to innovate, solve problems, and work together to move the needle on the issues he believes matter most to citizens and America's future. 

michael bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is on a mission to save American cities. In response to what he perceives to be a federal level abandonment of the urgent priorities of urban citizens—open government, rapid adaptation to new technology, health care, climate change, immigration, global commerce—the former three-term mayor of New York City and self-made billionaire is spending millions of dollars of his own money to promote “data- driven, evidence-based” decision making at the city government level.

Let’s call it a “Washington workaround” and stipulate up front that the diminutive but laser-focused Bloomberg is as close to the “anti-Trump” as you’re likely to get.

Through his Bloomberg Philanthropies charity, Bloomberg has launched a suite of charitable investments to help city governments innovate and better serve residents with technology. The latest of these is the American Cities Initiative, a $200-million investment to be made over the next three years. As part of this initiative, $17.5 million in grants and technical assistance will go to participating cities. Innovation experts will be deployed to assist the first 300 participating cities with one-day city hall training sessions, and much more.  Bloomberg said in a statement:

We are in the middle of a political era defined by Washington impotence, but as Washington has grown more dysfunctional, cities have begun to play a vital role in determining our nation’s reputation as a global superpower. The American Cities Initiative will incentivize and support the innovative efforts of those cities paving the way for America's future.

The first related investment is a program called Mayors Challenge, a contest that encourages the nation’s mayors to address critical issues themselves. Among the highlights:

  • Innovation experts will visit the first 300 cities that sign up for the Challenge to deliver one-day city hall training sessions to accelerate idea development by drawing on the expertise of the community.
  • As many as 35 "Champion Cities" will then win up to $100,000 each to test and refine their ideas.
  • Five Mayors Challenge Winners will be selected based on the idea's vision for tackling an urgent challenge, potential for impact and successful implementation, and potential to spread to other cities.
  • One city will win the $5 million grand prize; four others will receive $1 million implementation awards.

In total, up to $17.5 million in grants and technical assistance will be provided to participating cities. There is no limit to the focus of the projects, but some are expected to address Bloomberg priorities such as climate change, the opioid epidemic, illegal guns and obesity. The challenge focuses on three core areas:

● Promoting bold leadership and effective problem-solving in city halls;
● Advancing critical policies and legislation in areas ranging from education to climate change to opioid abuse; and
● Empowering citizens--including artists, volunteers, and entrepreneurs--to solve problems and strengthen social cohesion

All American cities with at least 30,000 residents are eligible to apply.                                                      

What Works Cities

Bloomberg has been increasingly instrumental in advancing tech and open data efforts in local governments in recent years, largely through an initiative called What Works Cities that was created in 2015.

The initiative pairs government agencies and mayors’ offices with university and nonprofit partners, in the service of innovation. Its goal is to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making and engage residents.

What Works Cities is part of a larger set of grant programs offered by Bloomberg Philanthropies that focuses on municipal innovation. As with the foundation’s prior work in cities, the initiative aims to spread data-driven decision making in local government.

What makes Works Cities different from other programs is that the grants don't go to mayors or their employees. Instead, the money pays partner organizations that specialize in data collection, open data and performance management. Those outside groups then play a consulting role to mayors and their staff.

The data experts helping cities are Results for America (a nonprofit focused on evidence-based policy), the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Sunlight Foundation (a nonprofit focused on transparency and open data in government) and the Behavioral Insights Team (a company started in the United Kingdom that focuses on low-cost program evaluations to inform and improve government services).

Although the partners offer advice through short digital guidebooks, conference calls and site visits, city staff still have to implement and manage their own data projects.  The foundation’s goal is to help at least 100 U.S. cities use and manage data through the project. Any city with a population from 100,000 to 1 million can apply.

But, wait there’s more

In another effort to boost Mayoral leadership. Bloomberg Associates, Bloomberg's pro bono consultancy, announced it will accept five additional U.S. cities into its portfolio over the next three years. This comes after completed engagements with the cities of Los Angeles and Kansas City, MO and ongoing work with Oakland, Nashville, Detroit, and Houston. In addition, Bloomberg Philanthropies has enrolled 30 U.S. mayors into the inaugural class of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which begins mid-July.

Mayors hailing from cities as diverse as Philadelphia, Mobile, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Anchorage will participate in the year-long program, which aims to close the quality gap between training offered to private sector executives verses their public sector counterparts. Within the next four years, as many as 300 mayors and 400 top mayoral aides will participate in the Initiative’s executive training programs.  Bloomberg explained:

With more and more of the world living in cities, mayors are increasingly responsible for solving major challenges we face, from climate change to poverty to public health.  But despite the importance of the role, mayors often lack opportunities to learn from experts--and one another. By giving mayors tools and resources--and by connecting them with peers facing many of the same challenges – this program will go a long way toward helping them run cities more effectively.

My take

Michael Bloomberg is not a typical warm and fuzzy politician.

He doesn’t kiss babies. He doesn’t sugarcoat bad news. He doesn’t try to scare or irritate people. He puts his own money behind policies that he believes in. He already plays a significant role in shaping some of the nation's fiercest policy debates, having invested millions of dollars in an advocacy group that pushes for stronger gun control and another that promotes liberal immigration policies. He has also made $80 million in donations to the Sierra Club in recent years to help combat climate change. Most recently, he offered to pay the US’s costs of the climate change membership at the UN.

Bloomberg is nearing the $5 billion mark in philanthropic giving which, according to Forbes, is considerably more than the net worth of the other well known New Yorker currently residing in the White House.

Having lived in Manhattan for 45 years and experienced first hand the leadership of every mayor since John Lindsay, it is my opinion that Bloomberg was far and away the most effective at getting things done. And, with an appealing lack of fanfare and angst. He is a gifted technocrat with a deep and abiding faith that the answers to most questions of public health, arts and culture, the environment, education and government innovation are in the data. That’s how he made his billions; that’s how he manages and governs.

Obviously, Bloomberg is trying to influence policy and has a progressive agenda that he is pushing.  He believes what the numbers tell him is the right thing to do, not just the what is the most expedient or politically useful. He seems fairly convinced that he is smarter than you or me and the chances are quite good that he is.

My feeling is that the leadership and technological seeds that Bloomberg is now planting will come to fruition in the years ahead and will be influencing  how governments at all levels are run and managed long after the spectacle of the heads of world’s greatest tech companies being dragged to the White House like reluctant supplicants at Lourdes for a multi-billion dollar photo dip has long faded from memory.

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