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LONDON LIFT-OFF - THE LAUNCH OF THE GLA

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Behind the successful launch of the capital's elected body was a transition team wotking feverishly to set it up fr...
Behind the successful launch of the capital's elected body was a transition team wotking feverishly to set it up from scratch. Bob Chilton, interim head of paid service at the Greater London Authority, described the problems involved.

'As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted 14 years ago . . .'. So began Ken Livingstone's acceptance speech - at which point the staff of the Greater London Authority left the count, nipped through Westminster School's grounds and returned to Romney House to receive London's first directly elected mayor. Upon his arrival in Romney House, staff spontaneously lined the entrance and clapped their new chief executive into his headquarters.

While the media has focused attention on the election, behind the scenes a unique management task of preparing the new authority has been discharged. There is to be no 'shadow' year for the GLA. During the summer of 1999, a transition team was appointed to prepare for the new authority so it could 'hit the ground running', but the team also had to avoid pre-empting important decisions which the mayor and assembly would want to take - not a comfortable combination.

The team came with various pedigrees: civil servants, local government officers, quango staff and from the private sector. This ensured the transitional GLA was not captured by a single culture, but able to develop its own approach.

There is no precursor body around which the GLA can be shaped. Everything had to be built from scratch. Constructing a strategic territorial authority worthy of London from nothing in a few months was an immense task. Project management was critical, but not as much as the shared enthusiasm of the staff to succeed.

Problem after problem had to be surmounted, frequently with the constructive support of our sponsor, the Government Office for London. In years to come, when team members reflect on their careers, their time in the transition team will probably be the highlight.

How often do public servants get the chance to create something new?

Will the new GLA function? So far, so good. The result is not perfect; it shouldn't be, leaving scope for its finalisation by the mayor and assembly. But the first payroll run was error free, the external auditor - now appointed - hasn't had palpitations over the finance systems, the phones work, staff have been recruited, briefing documents produced and an abandoned building recommissioned. Susan Thomas's corporate services directorate delivered high calibre permanent recruits; 27% are black and ethnic minority, 55% are women.

And in the final month before the election, 140 staff from three pre-existing London bodies - the London Research Centre, the London Planning Advisory Committee and the London Ecology Unit - joined the project, bringing valuable skills and experience upon which the new authority can draw.

In the first week, Mike Ricketts' communications directorate found itself in a media epicentre and is still on its feet; John Bennett's secretariat steered us through the first meeting of the London Assembly; Mike Barkway's strategy and Jeroen Weimar's performance and partnership directorates are engaging the mayor's policy remit and Trevor Robinson's and Keith Beddard's teams are ensuring the GLA's administrative services meet members' requirements.

Only the voicemail system still causes anxiety. Why is technology, supposedly the answer to problems, usually the source of them?

What do the mayor and assembly make of this? We received them with some trepidation, but also relief that the GLA was getting its own governance. The authority now has a tremendous asset in 26 high quality politicians, many of whom have substantial leadership experience in other bodies.

If the mood before the election was one of unease that the transition team might have done too much detailed preparation, it has been replaced by an impatience to accelerate the customising of the GLA to their requirements.

If they are able to take for granted the authority functions and concentrate on its continuous improvement and their mandates, then we will have succeeded. The capacity of local government to sidestep prescriptive legislation is already evident but the monitoring officer, Murziline Parchment, and her legal team have experienced only receptiveness to their advice. And there is growing pace to the policy leadership of the mayor.

Are there lessons to be applied elsewhere? A team dedicated to delivering the outcome was definitely the right model, but supportive hosting by the Government Office for London was also critical.

We met our targets, but more capacity earlier would have eased the strain. Preparing for an unknown future client was difficult. Our efforts at consultation and accessibility helped with the preparation, but if it is ever to be repeated, even more effort in that direction would be advisable.

It is too early to tell whether the aspirations of the legislation will succeed. However, key questions are already obvious. Can a politically competitive election produce the sort of non-adversarial, inclusive assembly envisaged by the white paper, which will be satisfied only with the role of scrutinising the executive mayor?

How will a single body of staff support two separate, directly elected, points of political responsibility within the same body? How will the GLA maintain a credible democratic conversation with Londoners when there is only one mayor and 25 members in the GLA but 7 million individuals and tens of thousands of public and private bodies trying to engage them? No doubt issues we have not yet even glimpsed will rear up for the GLA's attention.

The adventure has begun. The mayor and the assembly are now in charge of the GLA. If the Government Office for London was ground control and the GLA the mission vehicle, the transition team are the booster rockets which launched it into orbit. We have lift off; and no sign, yet, that it might be an Apollo 13.

The will to succeed and enthusiasm of the staff of Romney House augur well for the new authority. The ambition of the mayor and the assembly are palpable. The first weeks are behind us, the celebrations over. Now the hard work begins.

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