Business and government roll down cooperative line again
Written by Michael Lewis on November 4, 2015
It’s been long in coming – far too long. We’re on the cusp of seeing business and government back at work together, speaking with one voice for the good of Miami-Dade County.
You’d think that would be normal, and for a long time it was. But it hasn’t been for decades.
Back in the day, tight-knit CEOs partnered with government on big challenges. Often, it was business that raised the issue and pushed for progress.
But Miami’s power core disappeared. Eastern, National and PanAm airlines are dead. Knight-Ridder, then parent of the Miami Herald, moved to California. Southeast Bank was sold out by federal regulators. Ryder is no longer a player. You can count the big losses.
Other corporate leaders didn’t replace them at the table with government – in fact, business itself was no longer close-knit. The reasons matter less than the loss of unity.
The fact that entrepreneurs predominate in Miami didn’t help. Each business makes its economic mark, but a collection of entrepreneurs doesn’t have the goal to unify or the clout to balance elected leaders’ power.
So government went its way and businesses met in chambers of commerce and bemoaned inattention from elected officials. Not to blame either side, but that was the way it was.
Was, that is, until a couple of weeks ago, when developer Armando Codina – one of the few business leaders with the ability to cross lines in a fragmented Miami – gathered 30 CEO-level folks and invited the county mayor and one commissioner (the most the sunshine law allows) to a private meeting to discuss transportation.
Now, if everyone in Miami agrees on one thing, it’s that we simply must fix transportation. On virtually everything else we have multiple views, but on transportation we have unity – we all say it stinks and we want better.
Several hours later, the CEOs walked out of a Brickell Avenue hotel room more united than before. The large employers closed ranks, and the elected officials joined in that unity.
And so after decades Miami got a start – fragile, but a start – at building a bridge linking business and government.
While one powerful roomful agreed to work on adding transportation, starting with a vital east-west rail line, few were invited. This began at the top, and lots of folks who weren’t there have a chance to let rivalries build and undo cooperation.
That wouldn’t be hard. Everyone has a favorite transportation locale to fix – with 13 county commissioners, it’s one apiece. The easiest way to roadblock a major upgrade is simply to divide the pie 13 ways, so that everybody gets a few circulator buses and some patched sidewalks and nobody gets anything significant.
Even if that me-too mentality doesn’t derail cooperation, clumsy performance could. Business is not enthralled with government efficacy, and elected officials don’t get told what to do. Both camps face walking on eggshells to keep from turning a cooperative effort into a messy omelet.
But if they can in unity get a rail line funded and operating, it will be a solid start toward more transportation links – remember, this is only the easiest and first route – and then to cooperation on other issues that will be harder because agreements will be more complex.
The one commissioner inside the meeting, county transportation Chairman Esteban Bovo Jr., afterward noted that government and business should team up on rising sea levels and climate change, where solutions are much harder than transportation but imperative for Miami’s future.
He also mentioned that public-private partnerships can fuel financial as well as policy advancements. He sees a role for business expertise in both.
But all of that is a long way off. Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Mr. Bovo first need to encourage the other 12 commissioners to open their ears to business other than at election time. And Mr. Gimenez and Mr. Bovo need to keep their own bridge solid with business.
This all should be a natural, but we’re so far out of practice at government and business cooperation that it will take effort to get back on the united path that led Miami ahead decades ago.
Mr. Codina called his meeting after careful thought. He explained afterward that he had looked hard at the most successful cities in the US and all have three things in common:
They have enlightened political leadership. They have committed business leadership. And they work together.
We’re about to try that last one again. We need to get back in practice. And now we’ve got a good start.
Keep it rolling.