Private sector needs some public spirit
By Luke Johnson
Published: July 8 2008 19:06 | Last updated: July 8 2008 19:06
I was delighted to see the unspeakable Ken Livingstone defeated in the London mayoral elections. He debased the office he occupied, and sent a toxic message to wealth creators. But his replacement, my namesake Boris Johnson, will have a hard task because the UK capital faces plenty of issues. It is expensive, crowded, noisy, crime-ridden and angry. And its economy is dependent on the City of London, which is facing a sharp slowdown thanks to the impact of the credit crunch on the financial services industry.
Media and tourism, the two other big sectors, cannot be relied upon to take up the slack. The mayor will need all his skills as a promoter to attract investment and retain jobs. He could do worse than study the career of Frank Wiggins, perhaps the greatest city booster of them all.
Wiggins became leader of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1897, when the city population was just 75,000. He occupied the office until his death in 1924. He had arrived in California at the age of 54 to regain his health or die, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
His “fiercely bewhiskered” countenance became the living embodiment of LA promotional campaigns for two decades. Initially the region pushed citrus fruit farming, and rapidly became a leading agricultural area in the US. But later came industry and entertainment, and the legend of sunny southern California as the Promised Land was born.
In the first 25 years of the 20th century, the population of Los Angeles grew by 973 per cent. This expansion was partly thanks to the efforts of the boosters, led by Wiggins. The city built the largest artificial harbour in the US in San Pedro. The Owens Valley Aqueduct provided LA with water and made a legend of William Mulholland (immortalised in the movie Chinatown). Three transcontinental railroad lines served the city. Manufacturers liked LA because it was a non-union town with a wonderful climate and cheap land. Within two decades it was the second largest city in rubber and car production. It became home to all eight major movie studios and came to dominate film production. Later, it was a centre of the aircraft industry.
London needs someone like Wiggins.
Although Mayor Johnson may have made a bad choice in one of his top aides, Ray Lewis, who was forced to step down last week after a number of allegations of past misconduct resurfaced, he has recruited good advisers in characters such as Tim Parker and David Ross, who are both self-made entrepreneurs who understand how to manage projects and motivate people.
Each has obviously decided he has made enough money to spend time in public service. They may find the clash of cultures difficult to handle. There are many contrasts: timetables, priorities, unions. But the numbers tend to be really big, and it all matters for our quality of life.
In this country too few business superstars are willing to take time out of the private sector to help in areas such as education, health and welfare. The public sector desperately needs reform to become more productive and innovative. This has to involve not just private companies and social enterprises contracting with the public sector – it also means entrepreneurs and managers spending some time working within the state trying to improve society.
Sadly, party politics and the media take their toll in such affairs. Everything is seen through the prism of whose side you are on.
Ideally, business talent would be seconded regularly to government and the civil service, whether Labour or Conservatives were in power. They would do it without fear of being vilified or pigeon-holed. But we are suspicious of “advisers” and unelected officials, and adversarial politics means any flaws or mistakes are pounced on by journalists and the opposition.
That is all part of open democracy but it is also a great shame. It puts off bright individuals who would like to contribute.
In the five years since joining Channel 4 I have developed a far better understanding of the challenges of operating within our political system. If we want things to get better, more private sector leaders must lend a hand.
email@example.com The writer is chairman of Channel 4 and runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008