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LGC Interview: A behind-the-scenes operator who has served three mayors

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The election of six new metro-mayors in May added a new dimension to local democracy in some of England’s major cities. In London, which has had an elected mayor since the turn of the century, Jeff Jacobs has spent almost 10 years at the helm of the Greater London Authority (barring a blip in 2009 and 2010, more on which later).

Jeff Jacobs

Jeff Jacobs

A civil servant by background, unlike his predecessors in the role, Mr Jacobs prefers not to use the term chief executive, instead sticking with the technical head of paid service.

“I’ve never been too fussed myself about the title, mainly because the mayor’s really the chief executive,” he says. “I see myself in the same way as I did when I worked for central government: facilitative, a bit more behind the scenes, giving advice and securing delivery of the mayor’s priorities.”

Mr Jacobs concedes this unassuming approach – “I don’t have an ego” – may have helped him survive two changes in administration at City Hall and seen him work for all three of the capital’s mayors to date.

He is clear about the differing roles of the London boroughs and the GLA, which he stresses is “not a delivery organisation”. This distinction was in evidence in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire where he says the GLA offered support to the response team but “didn’t interfere”. He says it is too soon to give a full assessment of how local government in London responded to the disaster but says “clearly something went wrong in Kensington & Chelsea.”

The mayoral set-up in London is quite different from that in the most recently created mayoralties where the areas’ councils are all members of combined authorities and their leaders automatically form the mayor’s cabinet. Combined authority mayors must also choose their deputy from among local leaders, unlike in London where the mayor appoints his deputies and they do not possess a personal political mandate.

Mr Jacobs says this dynamic could mean combined authority chief executives have “more of a role” making the political leadership work. “The person in my position in a combined authority is clearly going to have to worry about the other people democratically elected in the cabinet and who have got some control over strategies in a way that’s not so much of an issue here.”

Mr Jacobs notes there have been numerous recommendations from outside experts that the London mayor should have a cabinet but it has never happened. “It’s remarkable the similarity between the three administrations in terms of the way appointment processes and the roles that individuals around the mayor have played,” he states.

Mr Jacobs, who entered the civil service aged 16, first joined the GLA in 2007 as an adviser to Ken Livingstone. After Boris Johnson won the election in 2008 Mr Jacobs was appointed director of transition, overseeing the change in administration. In 2009 he lost out on the permanent chief executive role to former Barnet LBC chief Leo Boland, only to be brought back in to his current role two years later when Mr Boland made himself redundant as part of a cost cutting exercise.

You can’t be London’s spokesman without being able to project on behalf of London and be taken seriously

He says his biggest challenge in recent years has been running the 2016 London mayoral election, his first time as a returning officer. Famously Sadiq Khan’s [Lab] victory was not announced until the early hours of Saturday morning due to a glitch with the e-counting software.

“When you get to the end of the £20m project and there are thousands of people involved, three counting centres, a very complex contract arrangement [with the software provider] and you get into the final stretch and something goes wrong… I’d say that was as big a challenge as I’d faced in a long time.”

The technical glitch has left Mr Jacobs with a big decision to take in the next few months – whether to continue with e-counting for the 2020 contest or switch to manual counting for the first time in the history of the London mayoralty. Given there were 14 million votes to count in 2016 for the mayor and assembly members this would be no mean feat, and would likely mean the results would take three days to count.

He adds: “This is one of the things where there’s no role for the mayor.”

Mr Jacobs counts leading the GLA through two political changeovers as among his most significant achievements, along with the progress made toward greater devolution to London and the 2012 Olympic Games.

As someone who grew up in the East End “with bomb sites all around”, seeing the transformation of that part of the capital had a special significance.

Mr Jacobs says his experience as deputy prime minister John Prescott’s private secretary when Labour came in in 1997 stood him in good stead for managing changeovers in administration, a process he recommends is handled incrementally rather than as a “big bang”.

He describes how when Mr Johnson was first elected on a manifesto that had promised big savings in the GLA budget, an “almost zero based approach” to looking at costs “set the organisation up in arms”. He said managing that changeover was particularly difficult as there were quite a lot of people in the organisation who had primarily “come to work for Ken”.

“I was used to a background of the civil service where you work for any political administration as crown servants and that’s how I thought this place needed to operate.”

The first year of Mr Johnson’s administration was marred by resignations and turnover among his top team.

Speaking about that time, Mr Jacobs says after the election “Conservative Central Office sort of appeared in one form or another” and a number of appointments were made, including businessman Tim Parker as deputy mayor who had no experience of local government. “One felt pretty early on that some of this had not been thought through prior to the election,” he says. While this was understandable as energies were focused on winning the election, he says, bringing in people with whom the mayor had no prior relationship meant it was “probably no surprise that things went haywire”.

“It is very noticeable that under Sadiq’s administration there has been none of that, it’s been much more carefully managed… I think a lesson was learned,” he says.

Having worked for three mayors, Mr Jacobs says the most important attribute required is to be a “serious personality”. “You can’t be London’s spokesman without being able to project on behalf of London and be taken seriously”.

He says all three mayors had important strengths, whether that is Mr Livingstone’s deep knowledge of London and its people, Mr Johnson’s likeability and eye for making a statement or Mr Khan’s serious approach to making a difference.

“In their different ways they’re all pretty remarkable politicians.”



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