Today’s meeting of the London Assembly’s Budget & Performance Committee will have felt eerily familiar to fans of The Apprentice, and not just because the most recent series culminated with an episode shot in the City Hall chamber.
The highlight of each series is surely the episode in which the business plans of Lord Sugar’s would-be apprentices are unrelentingly scrutinised by Claude Littner.
Today the chamber hosted an equally outmatched contest between Assembly Members and the bosses of London and Partners, the Mayor’s wasteful, duplicating and utterly unaccountable to Londoners promotions agency that in the coming year will swallow up almost £14m of City Hall funding.
Never mind the garden bridge, this body – utterly reliant on public funding to keep its doors open but determined to keep its use of that money a carefully guarded secret – is the true folly of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty.
In the world of London and Partners, no hotelier would open their doors if it didn’t exist to first persuade and tempt business and leisure visitors to the capital, no airline would advertise that it was the best way to reach these shores.
Tourists wanting to see Buckingham Palace or Downing Street, or who wanted to enjoy the view from atop the London Eye, would instead visit some other city and country offering the exact same attractions but for the heroic efforts of London and Partners.
Worse still, no business looking to expand overseas would immediately think to head to the world’s preeminent financial centre.
It’s only because L&P exists and can advise them on such obscure technicalities of the modern business world such as the need to install broadband in the office and understanding the tax regime that such firms come and prosper in London.
In true Apprentice style, Assembly Members were told that all this is achieved by L&P helping such apparently cluelessly-managed firms “network within their vertical”.
No, me neither.
While they did revisit – fruitlessly – the issue of L&P’s lack of public accountability, AMs were today mostly focussed on the agency’s latest business plan in which it makes dire noises about the threat to London’s brand.
Asked by committee chair Gareth Bacon both to describe the brand and explain why it was under threat, this is what Chief Executive Laura Citron (eventually) said:
What guff. pic.twitter.com/dMWpT8HuyZ
— will jennings (@willjennings80) 6 March 2018
In fact, never mind The Apprentice, that answer would have been right at home in an episode of W1A.
Labour’s Leonie Cooper was next with the tough questions – why does L&P claim that “Globally, London’s values of tolerance and progress are increasingly being questioned” – who was saying this?
Citron suggested that perhaps the language in her own organisation’s business plan wasn’t quite right and might need to be revisited.
Fair enough. Especially as she’d just warned that increased security costs could see London lose events and visitors to Dubai, hardly a bastion of “tolerance and progress”. The two conflicting answers did rather suggest a lack of internal scrutiny when the business plan was put together.
This certainly seems to be the case in other areas of L&P’s operations.
As Len Duvall pointed out, the agency has developed a habit of setting itself targets and Key Performance Indicators which it then easily beats – if you’re regularly beating your goals, they weren’t sufficiently challenging in the first place.
L&P has still not finalised the KPIs it plans to measure itself against in the coming year, and some of those it has set are so weak they may as well not exist.
Take for example its KPI to achieve 50% of its funding from non-City Hall sources. As Green AM Sian Berry pointed out, that’s already its budget.
You can’t make your own agreed budget a KPI and then ask to be taken seriously.
What about the claims that L&P has helped attract and keep over 1,000 firms here and supported the creation of 34,500 jobs since being foolhardily set up by the former Mayor?
How does it decide when to take credit?
Apparently firms are sent a survey asking whether they feel L&P played a part in their decision but, asked for the response rate to such surveys, the agency’s bosses failed to provide a number.
Given the lack of ambition in their various targets and KPIs, it’s probably safe to say they’re delighted with the rate, no matter how low it turns out to be.
But with a vaguely worded business plan, some heavily cliched marketing speak and a service built on the provision of already widely available information, London & Partners would quickly be ejected from Lord Sugar’s boardroom and it’s a shame Sadiq didn’t consign it to the scrapheap along with Boris’s bus and his bridge.