For all the innovations that are spinning out of NYC under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the idea that almost no other mayors are stealing is the easiest one to implement. That's the open-air office, the egalitarian "bullpen" that Bloomberg, whose spare cubicle is no fancier than any of his underlings', brought to City Hall from his media company.
If you want to be like Mike, nothing could be simpler than doing the bullpen thing. We're talking plaster work, not politics. Yet it's the difficult ideas that ambitious new Bloombergian mayors seem to latch on to first. Things like taking over the schools.
Finally, there's a new mayor warming up in the bullpen. D.C.'s Adrian Fenty, who has carefully cultivated his status as a Bloomberg mentee -- yes, he wants the schools, too -- ditched his predecessor's private suite for an open-air cubicle amongst the managerial masses. According to the Washington Post, Fenty's workspace is so austere that the filing cabinets are empty but for some bags of peanuts and bottles of Vitamin Water. (For a detailed diagram of Fenty's new offices, click here.)
I first saw Bloomberg's bullpen in 2004, while reporting this story for Governing. At the time, I figured it was what the executive office of every city hall would look like in ten years. Open and bright, with cubicles in the middle and meeting tables on the perimeter, the space itself said "transparency." Not that city business couldn't find a way behind closed doors somehow. But the office space itself wouldn't encourage that. It would send the appropriate message to developers, contractors and other bigwigs when they pay the mayor a visit.
The idea never caught on as much as I thought it would. Why is that? Maybe mayors think the corner office is the just reward of an election victory. Perhaps they believe, as Louis XIV did, that their visitors should be suitably awed by the trappings of power. Or perhaps they're concerned, as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick just found out, that the media will see any kind of office remodeling as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Yet there's an efficiency argument to made for the bullpen. Management without walls means that decisions can be made more quickly, without the trouble of scheduling meetings. As JoAnne Ginsberg, Fenty's legislative chief, put it, "In the time it would take to send five e-mails back and forth to talk about a situation, you can solve it with a short conversation."