This is how London mayor Sadiq Khan's top team is shaping up

Sadiq Khan and some of his supporters walking to City Hall on election day back in May. Image: Getty.

Over the last few weeks, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, London mayor Sadiq Khan has been adopting a tone of pragmatism and optimism. His stance reflects the core message of the Centre for Cities’ recent event with Dr Benjamin Barber: “As nation states descend into paralysis and democratic dysfunction, cities are re-emerging as pragmatic problem solvers.”

Khan has spoken up for the diversity of Londoners and the dynamism of its businesses; built international alliances with Paris and Madrid; and renewed calls for devolution of more powers over health, education and skills. These very visible and high profile interventions have been accompanied by a less visible process of putting in place his City Hall senior team. In recent weeks, the mayor has appointed deputy mayors including Jules Pipe (planning, regeneration and skills); Rajesh Agrawal (business and enterprise); and Justine Simons (culture and creative industries).

With the City Hall senior team now pretty much complete, it seems an appropriate time to revisit two of the key lessons from our report setting out what makes a successful mayoral team based on interviews with senior staff from the first 16 years of City Hall administrations.

Prioritise appointing the right chief of staff

The chief of staff is the most important political appointee that the mayor makes. They need to ensure that City Hall and its 800 staff deliver the Mayor’s vision and programme, providing leadership for City Hall staff, as well as being the “eyes and ears” of the mayor in negotiations with external partners, such as Whitehall officials and the boroughs.

David Bellamy, a trusted member of Khan’s Tooting constituency and mayoral campaign teams, was appointed Chief of Staff soon after he took office as mayor. And given his close and long-standing association with Khan, he undoubtedly knows his mind very well.

However, the individuals that have excelled in the chief of staff role over the last 16 years have also brought to the job an impressive track record of senior political leadership skills and experience. Given Bellamy’s lack of political leadership experience, it will be important that he gets the full political backing of the mayor as he gets stuck into his job.

Appoint trusted deputy mayors to lead the four big policy areas: planning, housing, transport, and policing

These four senior and political roles require individuals with strong political leadership skills and experience, rather than specific policy expertise that will already be provided by the directors already within the GLA.

In this context, Jules Pipe is a standout appointment. He has been mayor of Hackney since 2002 and chair of London Councils since 2010. His political leadership and experience offers the mayor the connections and depth of understanding required to get projects and plans delivered. And Sophie Linden, the new DM for police and crime, was formerly both the deputy Mayor of Hackney and a special adviser on policing and crime to home secretary David Blunkett.

James Murray and Val Shawcross also have track records of delivering their briefs of housing and transport, which bodes well for enabling them to deal with some of Khan’s biggest policy challenges. Murray led on housing at Islington borough council; he is now charged with doubling house building numbers, and ensuring that half are “genuinely affordable”. Shawcross, with eight years of experience in the London Assembly transport committee is well placed to lead on negotiations over funding a fare freeze and instigating the night tube while maintaining an expanding network of public transport.

Both these deputy mayors will need to work closely with the executive director for housing and land, and the commissioner for Transport for London respectively. This will require a clear division of responsibilities between the politicians and the executive to ensure there is a clear strategy, decision making hierarchy and accountability.

Our interviews with those who have been there and done it underlined the importance of the mayor having a clear vision and a team of the best people to deliver it. Time will tell whether his top team has the blend of expertise, experience, political nous and good luck to, as Barber argues, improve the lives of Londoners in ways national government seems less able to do.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities think tank, on whose website this article was originally published on the think tank's blog.


To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.