Bloomberg Charity Offers $9 Million for Best New Governing Ideas

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is offering $9 million in prizes to U.S. cities through his charitable foundation in a competition for ideas that local governments can use to solve problems.

The contest, which Bloomberg Philanthropies calls the Mayors Challenge, starts today when the foundation sends invitations to compete to 1,300 mayors of U.S. cities with more than 30,000 residents. They have until Sept. 14 to enter their submissions, said James Anderson, director of the charity’s government-innovation program.

The top 20 finalists will visit New York at the philanthropy’s expense for a so-called ideas camp, two days of mingling with foundation-selected experts to refine proposals on affordable housing, health, money and management. The winner, to be announced next year, will receive $5 million, and four runners-up will each get $1 million. New York City isn’t eligible, Anderson said.

“While our cities are unique, many of the challenges we face -- from obesity to pension costs to preparing residents for the jobs of tomorrow to just doing more with less -- are very similar,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “The Mayors Challenge creates an opportunity for mayors to champion their boldest ideas and to have them take root locally and perhaps spread nationally.”

Future Programs

Other institutions give recognition to past accomplishments in urban policy that have already made an impact, Anderson said. What sets the Bloomberg prize apart is that it encourages future programs that can transform the way government works, he said.

The Ford Foundation’s Metropolitan Opportunity program has approved 51 grants totaling $31 million this year, according to the New York-based organization’s website. It attempts to connect low-income people with affordable housing, jobs and transportation though regional planning and innovative land use.

Bloomberg, 70, mayor of the most populous U.S. city and founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is ranked 20th on Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest billionaires. The magazine estimates that he has a net worth of $22 billion.

In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies distributed $330 million worldwide, according to its website. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Bloomberg fifth among U.S. charitable donors. The foundation has established separate core areas to finance programs on health -- including a worldwide anti-tobacco campaign and an effort to improve road safety in Vietnam -- the environment, the arts, education and government.

‘Real Policy’

It has committed $24 million to city governments in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Louisville and Memphis as part of a three-year program “so that they can go out and hire somebody to really spearhead innovation with the support of the mayor,” Bloomberg says on a video posted on the philanthropy’s website.

“In a baldly political sense, he’s collecting chits,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of urban politics at Baruch College in Manhattan. “But the bottom line is, is this good for the public? And the answer has to be yes. There’s real policy being made here. And he gets the personal satisfaction of funding a good thing and receiving praise from the five mayors participating in it.”

The foundation’s promotional video features Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel discussing the $6 million his city received. He used the money to hire staff to evaluate and improve agencies’ customer services, and develop energy-conservation programs to cut carbon emissions in residential buildings. The city has reduced licenses and permits required of small-businesses by about half, said Anderson.

‘Bold and Innovative’

The foundation has twice flown and housed groups of mayors and representatives for New York conferences, at which they discussed strategies to deal with issues such as poverty, health care, public safety, economic development and the streamlining of services, Anderson said.

Prizes will be awarded for ideas that show “bold and innovating thinking, a solid implementation plan, high likelihood of creating a measurable impact” and an ability to replicate the program in other cities, Anderson said in an interview.

“Our cities are uniquely positioned to inspire and foster the innovation, creativity and solutions needed to improve people’s lives,” Bloomberg said. “The Mayors Challenge creates an opportunity for mayors to champion their boldest ideas -- and to have them take root locally and perhaps spread nationally.”

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