Skip to main content

Follow the Data Podcast Episode 13: The Innovative Mayor

The 13th episode of Follow the Data presents a conversation with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about how to cultivate and retain innovation in city hall. LA is unique in that the city appointed a Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation, and the city continues to illustrate impressive capacity to take risks and experiment for the sake of innovation.

In this episode, Garcetti speaks with James Anderson, who leads the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, about bold leadership and what it takes for city leaders to raise the expectations of civil servants and citizens alike to seek more from our public services.

The Government Innovation programs’ Innovation Teams embed staff directly into a city hall as dedicated capacity to help mayors. They manage resources across agencies, and creatively confront the biggest challenges in a given city. In a wide-ranging conversation recorded in Los Angeles City Hall before a group of Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded innovation, or i-teams, James and Mayor Garcetti discuss how to attract top talent, how to make innovation part of a city’s DNA so that it endures beyond a single administration, and how LA’s i-team has become the mayor’s go-to analysts and doers.

We hope you enjoy the latest episode: The Innovative Mayor.

Listen to the episode on Sound Cloud and iTunes Podcast. Please follow us on

Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!


KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

During the recent Mayors Innovation Studio, Mike Bloomberg told nearly 40 mayors, “Innovation means following the data wherever it leads and trying new things. That requires bold leadership.” With Mike’s words in mind, Follow the Data is excited to introduce a special episode featuring my colleague James Anderson, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. They talk about bold leadership and what it takes for city leaders to raise the expectations of civil servants and citizens alike to seek more from our public services.

James leads the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, working with mayors in more than 270 cities. Government Innovation initiatives like the Mayors Challenge, What Works Cities, and Innovation Teams, among others, support city halls to create a culture of continuous innovation, one that focuses on citizens, prioritizes data, and maximizes results.

The Innovation Teams embeds staff directly into a City Hall as dedicated capacity to help a mayor. They manage resources across agencies, and creatively confront the biggest challenges in a given city. In a wide-ranging conversation recorded in Los Angeles City Hall before a group of Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded innovation, or i-teams, James and Mayor Garcetti discuss how to attract top talent, how to make innovation part of a city’s DNA so that it endures beyond a single administration, and how LA’s i-team has become the mayor’s go-to analysts and doers.

So without further ado, Follow the Data presents: The Innovative Mayor with James Anderson.

JAMES ANDERSON: Mayor Garcetti, on behalf of Bloomberg and we have iTeams from dozens of cities around the globe, thank you for hosting us in beautiful L.A. We are a room of innovation geeks and we’re all trying to make the public sector more responsive, more effective and to create more and better value for our residents. So, we have the privilege at Bloomberg of working with mayors in cities around the globe.

Through the government innovation programs we invest in 250 cities worldwide, we see a lot of great mayors, we see a lot of great mayors doing great things. And one of the things that I can say is sort of reflecting on what we’ve seen come out of L.A. over the last few years. It’s been deeply inspiring, the way that this administration has seized opportunities, stood up against big challenges, and really tried to bring the best of innovation and evidence to bear to move the issue forward.

So, I think we have a lot to learn from you and I know you’ve taken very seriously this effort of, how do I make L.A. government a more innovative government?  One of the first things the mayor did is he created a deputy mayor for budget and innovation. I had never seen that before, so he brought those two work strands together, which I think is really powerful. Shortly thereafter he applied to be an innovation team mayor, so maybe we can start with you talking a little bit about all the different levers you’re trying to push to create a more innovative and responsive public sector.

MAYOR GARCETTI:  Well thank you Jim and let me start by just welcoming everybody to the City of Angels. I know you come from France, from Baltimore, from Detroit, from exotic places like Long Beach, just down the street from here, so it’s really great to have all of you here and I kind of feel like I’m with my tribe; if this is innovation geeks then I’m one of you and it’s really great to see you here. As a jumping off point for framing the iTeams that quotation above my head is from Aristotle’s politics, and it says, “The city came into being to preserve life, but it exists for the good life,” and so I know for all of us it’s really fun to get involved in data and innovation, and, all the tools that we have with technology. In the end I think this should be a guiding principle, that we don’t just come here to be safe in our cities. We come here to find and to define what the good life is. And that all the things we do with innovation are only interesting or important or impactful if they actually bring the human element of improving people’s lives or defining what that good life is. So early on in the administration I just, I said we wanted to make this not an issue area but a value. And I think the most important thing you can bring back to your cities is to make sure this is a central value because it’s very easy to make innovation or innovation people a part of an administration or a part of city government. But it’s almost self-segregation, and if you instead make it something that is a prism that has to refract everything that you do, it becomes a very different thing, it becomes part of the air, it becomes an element of what you breathe as an administration.

I think that’s kind of where we started just with that value proposition. Then you had to, have to figure out an administration, not just how you put it in the mayor’s office, but how you breathe it through a city itself both inside the government and beyond. What does that mean to citizen participation, which we say a lot about but always fear it. Let’s be honest, government fears kind of citizen participation because we see the good and bad. We’re human beings, we know we can be good, we can be bad, and how do you do it within the bureaucracy that will long outlive your administration?

ANDERSON: It’s a great answer. So maybe if you could just step back and reflect a little bit as the guy in charge and the buck stops with you and this is a value that matters to you. What are some of the ways that you reinforced it? How did you bring that value to life in an ongoing way with your top staff or with the agencies or with the broader public?

MAYOR GARCETTI:  There’s a lot of different ways. We learned to speak plain English, which is tough for all of us especially when we want to brand our things as unique or we want to be part of kind of the cutting edge. To bring it back to plain English and so that it would inhabit any executive directive that I put forward or cabinet – I do a cabinet meeting, some mayors do, some don’t, but I bring together my main general managers once a week and then kind of feather in ones from the smaller departments and did presentations, letting them know that we had these teams out there. So, I mean in the broadest sense bringing data in, I remember I reinterviewed 37 General Managers and chiefs and I first came in and said I’m going to reinterview all of you for your jobs, which no mayor had ever done before. It’s not that strange a thing for Chief Executives to do, Governors and Presidents do it all the time. It’s not like when the President says I’ll just take your cabinet and we’ll start working from there, but in city government both for better and for worse, it’s kind of like if you don’t commit a crime, or you don’t die, you’re still there, and we’ll work through it, you know, and I kind of wanted them to realize as a new administration and we want them to be a part of this. But then we said, you know, when I said we want you to start counting what you’re going to do measuring what you’re going to do, setting goals I would say a third of the general managers said, okay great, and embraced it, a third said okay, I’m going to do this because it’s my new boss and a third were like ugh, I got to do this, because it’s what the mayor says.

And with the latter two thirds, I think one the most important lessons I learned was how you get innovation databased kind of policymaking, as I said look, I’ll let you know if there’s something I want you to measure and I’ve certainly made campaign promises and there’s things that I want to do, but this is really a tool for you. If you’re not measuring anything you don’t know, so because we’re data geeks I can pick the least sexy example. For our contract Administration Bureau which is part of our public works our contracts that we do for people who build things for us in the city. We learned when that General Manager learned he could actually measure things, he said well let’s see how long it takes for us to pay our vendors, and it was up to 6 months. Today it’s two to three days, and that was that switch was flipped in a week. But because he had never measured it he didn’t know, some of the skeptics came back later and said, once I learned this was my tool not yours, it was a very powerful thing. So don’t brag, and don’t own and don’t segregate too much, don’t own this as your own if you want it to continue. Don’t brag about it too much or the next administration will say well, that’s what they did. That’s not what I’m going to do. And make sure it’s not just the mayor’s office, but something that really is owned by everybody in the enterprise.

ANDERSON: Do you talk data with your general managers and with your staff, and what form does that take?

MAYOR GARCETTI:  Everything, it takes visual form with our GeoHub which if you haven’t checked it out — We worked with eSRE to be the first city in the world to kind of spatially put all our GRS stuff together and get translators between departments so that we made them talk to each other about data for the first time but did it visually instead of just numbers. I do it through, executive directive, I put an open data, executive directive out as I think my third one, early, early on, again, a lot of resistance, both inside the departments and my own administration, people are like, it’s going to be a lot of stuff that they find out that’s going to be embarrassing. And lo and behold, like a month into it, the L.A. Times published something that said that it was taking us three times longer to pick up couches in one part of town than another part of town, and they said I told you mayor, and I said exactly. Now you’re going to fix it. And we brought the general manager in, within three months it’s the same pick-up time around the whole city and we went from unranked to number one open data the last three years running, so it sometimes through that. And then it’s also in their own goal setting.

I have, in our charter, it’s mandated but no mayor had ever done it, that you have to do yearly reviews. And I think, because how do you do that with 37 general managers? I mean, it takes a lot of your time as mayor but I sit down and do that every year. And in that there’s a whole preparation that leads up to it but my team goes through what were the goals, let’s review them from last year, what were the numerical goals that you wanted, how’s our data there? What do you want to change? What are new goals? So, it’s a very hands-on back and forth process about the specifics, about the values, and about the obligations that they have around data.

ANDERSON: So we’re here at the invitation of your innovation team. So, I can tell you that as I go around the world I’m more and more pointing to the L.A. iTeam as a best in class example of what these teams can do and be in the world. Can you talk a little bit about the hole that the iTeam filled and the way that you’re using that infrastructure and that group of talent to drive innovation more broadly?

MAYOR GARCETTI: I think you know in management consulting, there’s kind of two classes of management consultants. Those who tell you what’s wrong and wish you luck in fixing it, and then there’s those who come in to do the implementation, because if you just do it with your existing team, something’s wrong and it’s not going so you need sometimes outsiders to bring change. I wanted our iTeam to kind of be both, the analysts and the doers, and we’ve tried to make sure that they’re not doing everything but they’re doing really important things that reflect the priorities that we have in housing, in jobs, a small business portal that we competed with cities around the country from the small business administration, won the grant and the idea that SBA had was whoever wins then shares it kind of open source for the rest of the country. So it wasn’t just for us, but a quicker way to get businesses up and running. A better way to let renters know their rights. We have a huge housing crisis here in Los Angeles because people want to be here. That’s good news, but we don’t have enough housing for them and a lot of people were being displaced. We had a whole anti gentrification campaign that was funded from Bloomberg and helped us make sure that every renter for the first time knows her or his rights, which a lot of them just don’t so they get taken advantage of.

Police officers, we have about 40% our police department can retire in the next few years and we see really good reflection of our city demographics today, almost to the percentage, African American, API, Latino, Anglo and yet if you look at the recent classes we were noticing there weren’t many African Americans in the newer classes compared to that, so I could easily skate out of here saying we still have 11%, that reflects the city, but unless we change it some mayor 20 years from now would suddenly have a city that was half as representative of African American population and we knew the reasons why, the whole debate right now, it’s tough for a kid who is African American to get involved in our, you know, cadet program because there’s a lot of peer pressure like, why you want to be a cop right now? Cops are the folks who are against us, and you know that happened in two or three years just in the popular imagination and the popular discussion and so we came up with a program through the iTeam to take those cadets who do have that, working with pastors first to bring more African Americans into the program, but then we lose them after high school. So, we’re doing a program with an associate officer program where these young people get paid while they’re going to college and stay on the LAPD payroll. They don’t have to go through the whole civil service long process and hope that we’re going to get them; they’re queued up ready to go and they can become officers right afterwards. So, it’s really a wide range of projects that we tackle.

And I kind of say we’re a resource, so there’s the official projects we do, but then now the things that we don’t get grants on we’re using the iTeam to just take that methodology forward: on homelessness. Right now, we set up a war room a couple of floors down from here where for the first time we’re bringing general managers, you know the fire chief and the police chief and Public Works head all sitting around a table talking about a specific neighborhood and how we’re going to tackle getting rid of encampments and helping people get resources and get off the streets. That never happened before. So, it can be from the most complicated issue to the simplest problem but it’s really been five or six projects I would say at a time that we tackle.

ANDERSON: So, at Bloomberg Philanthropies, we promote a set of sort of core values that when we look at innovative cities around the globe we typically see them, in those cities. We see bold leadership, so mayors and other leaders that are willing to press their bureaucracies out of the comfort zone to raise the expectations of the citizenry around what they should expect of their public services. That’s number one.

We see a commitment to data and really sort of thinking about data in the broadest possible sense. We see a commitment to openness and collaboration so government can’t go it alone. How are you partnering with folks outside of government to extend reach and extend impact? We see a big focus on citizen engagement. How are we turning the goodwill of citizens into an incredible asset to help us solve problems more powerfully? And lastly, we see a capacity to test and to experiment and to take risk and create room for failure. So, I just rattled through 5 sorts of capacities. Can you reflect on where you think L.A. is strong and where you think there might be opportunities for further growth?

MAYOR GARCETTI: We’ve learned a lot from the failures as much as we do from the successes, early on I was very committed to doing something with a summer, we called it the summer of learning which was a way of kind of badge based learning for young people in the summertime to earn little credentials and have a, it was kind of hip a few years ago and there’s some money that McArthur was funding for and stuff. We did it for the first summer, and it wasn’t a great success. We don’t control the school district here in L.A., so that was part of the problem but we realized there’s no standards, and it was a project that we ultimately walked away from while we were simultaneously trying to ramp up the number of youth jobs from 5,000 to ten to now 15 and soon 20,000, summer youth jobs, and we realized it should just be incorporated as part of that overall Summer Youth Learning and jobs program, I think early on it was like well tell us what’s wrong, we need more data. Let’s fix it and sometimes you must learn to walk away from something that isn’t working.

Second, the citizen engagement. I think that L.A. needs to be much stronger in that area. We’re not a liberal town as much as a libertarian town traditionally, and just like, give us our basics, like steal water from Northern California, you know, give us some freeways and then let us do the rest. Well there’s limits to that over time. And so engaging people has been both a success and we can go further. You’ve got to look for really interesting opportunities; all cities close down their city streets for fun events, right? So we did this for Steve Aoki who’s a D.J. and musician and I said I’ll do it but you have to give us as a condition for the free tickets you’re giving out every single one of those people has to pledge to do something for this city, some community service projects. So we got all these younger Angelinos who aren’t really are of goodwill but aren’t traditionally, show up for the street cleanup project, folks who pledged to do that. And the Olympics there is another great example. We’ve been trying to build a volunteer corps for 4 years and maybe we had a couple thousand people in the database; the moment we won the Olympics and leading up to we have 16,000 people are saying for the next decade, we want to volunteer.

So look for those moments that aren’t government things, but where government can kind of extract action out of people. And I think that’s a real lesson that I learned in that fourth value area.

And then finally I would say our biggest challenge in Los Angeles and it’s probably not dissimilar in your areas but we may be the worst is we have too much division horizontally and vertically. What do I mean by that? Horizontally: we have a county of L.A., which is ten million, a metro area of 18 million, it’s the third largest urban economy in the world now. But just in the ten million of L.A. County there is 88 cities. So that’s the horizontal. And you know, traffic doesn’t stop at one city to the next, you know, crime doesn’t stop one city the next, air pollution floats over all of us. And then vertically, we’ve segregated off our school district from our city, our hospitals are separate, because that’s the county, our community colleges are its own governance. Literally if you have a mosquito problem we have a government, it’s called vector control, you guys probably have them too. Air has its own government, water has its own government. So, we have 20-something levels. So you wind up picking things where, I directly control this; but homelessness, our biggest problem isn’t just the City’s responsibility but they need somebody to take leadership. So, we’re fumbling through it and I think we’re getting better but that’s the most important thing for us. Don’t shy away from it just because it’s not your sole jurisdiction.

ANDERSON: I wanted to ask you a quick question about talent. You have some tremendous general directors and I think you’ve had a lot of them stick around for quite a while. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to attracting talent, retaining talent, keeping great people when obviously the private sector can outspend you on their paychecks, readily?

MAYOR GARCETTI:  We’ve just got to keep pumping up what a government pension is —

ANDERSON: That wasn’t what I expected.

MAYOR GARCETTI:  You have to find people who are willing to sacrifice, or who are younger or who are later in their careers, and kind of find those 3 buckets. But what I, what I have found is it’s the old, it took me a while to get to the old being Benjamin Franklin saying, like if you ask somebody do something for you, they’ll be friends for life. And I’m the other way. I want to give I don’t want to ask people for anything and I realized over time when you ask people to do things because it’s what this city needs and you get them to reflect for a moment on what they want to leave behind in their life. I think there really is a universal impulse, especially among talented people who say, look you have tackled this that and the other, but you’ve never done that here. Come in and do that. I found a lot of people who, they haven’t worked for me for time but I’ve got a lot of the dollar a year or zero dollars a year volunteers, we’ve passed a huge film tax credit in the state of California, but we really championed that from here from L.A. and I got the best entertainment lawyer there is to be my film czar. It’s an unpaid position but it was like a great thing for him. He believed in it. He didn’t want to see filming keep leaving L.A. and – California, he brought it back. I have a retired CEO who is helping us look at the data to match those kids in the summertime with jobs that they love and know, and so you know he’s brought together two different technologies to make that happen. So, I think it’s really appealing to people’s, sense of what legacy they want to have in life and what they want to do that I find makes it compelling. And build a team that’s fun to be around, you know, nobody wants to come into a boring city hall where they don’t have any authority, empower them, and it’s important for you to talk to your bosses. Don’t be scared, but one last thing I’ll say on this is you have a role too if you’re not mayors: don’t feel the competition with people who are brought in, give them some space, give a lot of people come in from that they spend like a little while, like, that sucked.

Because people feel so threatened because somebody who’s come in who has had a career in the private sector or who has a little bit of star quality, like let those people go and draft off of them. Trust me. You’ll still be there afterwards but, um, figure out a way to give them the space because they’re slightly different creatures.

ANDERSON: That’s great advice. This is a group of people that are all, most of them are less than four months in their city halls and/or in this particular capacity in city hall, they’re trying to negotiate their relationships with their mayors. They’re trying to be bold. They’re trying to get their city halls to act and work in new ways that we believe can be more powerful. Do you have any advice to them on managing all that and being successful?

MAYOR GARCETTI:  Well find out what your Mayors like to eat and always bring that to your meetings because there’s a weird thing that happens where we remember with our stomachs the people that we know and love. So, I’m just saying, find out what that candy is, or that treat. That’s a little piece of practical advice. Secondly, I would say you know, learn how to be helpful to the rest of the team. Don’t think about yourself as a separate team. I’ve had either 4 to 6 deputy mayors, we used to have like 14 or 15 when I came in here, and I looked more at the Mike Bloomberg model of like how do you have a few people with large portfolios and how can we make that work?

And look you have this problem, I think all of us do in our cities with a number of things, like where do you put sustainability, where do you put data? Where do you put innovation? I mean these things that don’t neatly fit into any one department, because it should be something we’re doing across, gender equity, like where do you put gender equity. So, we just sandwich them into whoever seems to be willing to take them. If you can build your iTeams as a go to place on projects. And just a good sounding board for approaches so that you become a resource whether you work on that, whether they go back to their column and start working on it separately or not. I think you’ll really be able to grow your power. And your power comes from what you’re willing to give up, not what you’re willing to hold on to.

We have an airport out in Cross County lines and in Ontario, California, an airport that L.A. owned. The folks out there had been crying for it for the last 15 years. Why do you guys own our airport? They had invited us a long time ago to take it but, and I gave that up to them which my predecessors didn’t want to do because it was ours. We weren’t making money or losing money but it’s like we don’t give up something we own, and I said why not? Imagine if another city owned it here. We passed the largest transportation initiative in the nation’s history times two at the local level in November called Measure M, it’s 120 billion just for the first 40 years, 15 rapid transit lines that will be built here in the coming years, and that only happened because I as mayor of the biggest city but only 40% of the population went out and asked people what they wanted and was willing to say okay, our stuff can wait a year or two because they need something in this part too.

So, I think within a bureaucracy within your mayor’s office within a city in a regional area look at what you can give up. I know we’re not seeing it modeled at the national level, but the key to strength is being able to, to share.

ANDERSON: Words to thrive by. And with that, please join me in giving the mayor a huge round of applause for spending some time with us, and the words of wisdom. Thank you so much. Thank you very much.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

We’d like to thank James Anderson and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Christian Nwachukwu, and Ivy Li, with music by Mark Piro.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.