Baltimore to assemble Bloomberg-funded team to tackle a city problem

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP)

As the New Orleans homicide rate continued uncontrolled six years ago, city leaders tried something new. They assembled a small, diverse team of outsiders to brainstorm solutions under a pilot program of Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The team studied policing tactics across the country and helped build a strategy that drove down homicides about 20 percent over four years.


That outsider approach will now be reproduced in Baltimore, the latest city selected for an "innovation team" funded and guided by Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York.

"They really came in and just blew the entire conventional thinking up," said Brooke Smith, chief of staff for New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu. "The theory behind these teams is you are not the content expert."

On Tuesday, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh announced that Baltimore was selected for Bloomberg's Innovation Team program. The city will receive as much as $500,000 annually for three years, officials said.

"What this allows us to do is not just look at what our processes are, but look at what other cities are doing," Pugh said.

Bloomberg Philanthropies selected six other cities for its third class of grantees. In past years, teams have tackled rising rents in Boston, traffic in Centennial, Colo., and blight in Mobile, Ala.

The program provides money and guidance for mayors to recruit their teams, usually ranging from three to seven people working full time, said Andrea Coleman, who helps run the program at Bloomberg.

"The idea is they take this broad issue or priority area and they understand the root causes," she said.

Teams usually work out of City Hall to study a particular problem.

"Too often in government, there's sometimes an urge to jump straight to solutions," Coleman said. "It's better to develop a deep understanding of the problem first."

Bloomberg Philanthropies was founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to manage his charitable giving. Pugh has visited Bloomberg to discuss methods to improve housing and reduce crime in Baltimore.

She hasn't settled on a particular problem for her innovation team, she said. But she's considering homelessness, housing, crime or city finances.

Baltimore continues to struggle with violent crime and vacant housing. Pugh said her team could include experts from other cities and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Other cities to receive grant money in the latest class include Austin, Texas; Detroit; Durham, N.C.; Be'er Sheva in Israel; and Toronto. Innovation teams currently operate in Seattle, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, among other cities.

Some 95 percent of participating cities have reported their innovation teams shaped strategies to address a particular problem, according to Bloomberg. The teams developed 90 innovative strategies and secured more than $70 million in outside matching grants to continue their work.


In New Orleans, Smith said the innovation team also streamlined customer service and drastically decreased average wait times for, say, a business permit.

"In order to really innovate and solve bigger challenges and get to solutions, you need an outside team," she said. "The day-to-day content experts don't have the time to really reflect ... they're too busy."

Diana Morris, director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore, praised Bloomberg's grant program as a results-driven project. The nonprofit Open Society Institute works to promote transparency in government and protect the rights of residents.

Innovation teams benefit by drawing solutions from cities around the country, Morris said.

"There's a lot of comparison that goes on," she said. "I don't think things have to be brand-new, they just have to be good ideas."

Only cities with at least 100,000 residents and mayors with at least two years left in office were eligible for Bloomberg's grant program. Bloomberg then invited candidates to answer questions in an application.

"We took a hard look at cities whose mayors had already shown a commitment in some way to investing [in] innovation," Coleman said.

The newest innovation teams are scheduled to begin work in the spring.