Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Street Walkers - a new way of managing cities

It's a stereotype but like many stereotypes has some truth in it. Most city managers (middle ranking and senior local government officials in the UK) work in offices. They attend meetings (long and boring), they write Memoranda and Briefing Papers and they Reply to Letters. They often arrive at the office by car from some suburb and return home the same way. Sometimes they see very little of the city . They can be very out of touch with the lives of those who inhabit the cities they manage - in the same way that rich people living in gated communities can be out of touch with the way poor (and middling) people live.

This is a major problem.

But one good way to see what's wrong (or right) with cities is to walk round them, taking your time and observing closely. Here in Brighton, it used to be (maybe still is) a requirement for the official known as the Seafront Manager that he or she walk the seafront at regular intervals. That's a very good idea.

I want to generalise it. Highly paid managers go to seed if they are allowed to just sit in offices all day. Half the time, they should be out on the beat, walking an area of the city for which they are responsible, talking to anyone who will talk to them. And they should be able to instruct those tasked with such jobs to deal with problems they see. That might be a small and immediate problem, like a sofa abandoned on the pavement, but it might also be a bigger problem.

Today it was raining in Brighton, not heavily but steadily. Along the main seafront road, the drains weren't coping and vehicles were sending up serious volumes of spray onto pavements and  pedestrians. Something isn't working. The drains are blocked. A city manager who had to walk the pavement and get soaked would want to know why they were blocked and what arrangements ought to be in place to ensure that they stayed unblocked. And even for this relatively small problem, management skills would be needed to diagnose it fully and to solve it.

A city manager walking the streets would be free to have bright ideas which might require a lot of expenditure to carry out. The other day, I blogged about Western Road, Brighton. If a city manager had to walk the full street  once or twice a week, no way would he or she let it stay the way it is. The whole set of current arrangements would be upended.

Street walking managers would be motivated managers. Over time they would see things getting better every time they went out on the beat. And people would start being nice to them.

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