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A devil of a job in the City of Angels

A Doer, Not a Speaker
A devil of a job in the City of Angels

overall rank: 26

country: Thailand

population: 9,200,000

snapshot: The City at a Glance

Bangkok governor Bhichit Rattakul likes to compare his job with a gardener's - he is happiest when he has his sleeves rolled up and his hands dirty, finding out what is happening at ground level. The allusion is also a reminder that Bhichit is a bona fide greenie. Elected two years ago on a promise of cleaner canals, restored heritage sites and efficient transport, he still has a devil of a job to do in the City of Angels. But there is no doubting his commitment.

You might find Bhichit visiting the site of a new flyover to discuss with workers how best to speed up the construction. Or he could be on the riverfront, helping to work out how to replace illegally encroaching housing with a walkway and park area. Says the former MP (three times) and ex-science minister: "Being the governor means being a doer, not a speaker. I accept all complaints. I don't mind people saying, 'Come here, governor, you have to do this or do that.'"

Bhichit, 52, heads some 60,000 employees of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), and must answer to a 60-member elected assembly. There is also a stifling bureaucracy to deal with. To launch an initiative, the governor must seek the cooperation of a dozen or more government agencies. Kraisak Choonhavan, a trusted aide, notes: "We spend half our time struggling with the bureaucracy and complicated mechanisms." Bhichit's technique is to persuade, not confront. "In the past, the BMA didn't get on well with the agencies, maybe because of political reasons, conflicts or saving face," he says. "When we took office, we said, 'We are one of you. We are not Big Brother, we want partnership.'" Rather than deal with department heads by memo, the mayor prefers informal discussions. It's surprising how much more effective that is, he says.

And the results are measurable. Apart from the unsightliness and congestion caused by a massive skytrain project that is taking shape, street life has slowly improved over the past two years. High-profile blitzes on litterbugs, stiff penalties for smoke-belching vehicles, clampdowns on dusty construction sites, more greenery and small parks - they have all been part of Bhichit's goal of what he calls "improving the city's livability." Traffic jams have eased, too, partly because recession has taken cars off the roads, but also because of new expressways and better coordinated traffic lights.

There are other innovations. Bhichit brought in a team of full-time advisers, experts in areas ranging from health to graft-busting - and in a less traditional one of public participation. In an organization where service and community spirit are unfamiliar concepts, the new BMA buzzwords are educate, motivate and empower. Integral to this is accessibility: helping citizens to get their views heard in City Hall.

Bhichit's unconventional methods have drawn criticism. Some dismiss his walkabouts as public-relations stunts. Others see no substantial improvement in city life. A sometimes sensitive man, the governor seems to feel the barbs keenly. He talks of not seeking a second term in 2000. But, whatever he decides, Bangkok is already gradually shaking off its image as the city from hell.

- By Julian Gearing / Bangkok

Snapshot: The City at a glance

City AverageRank
Overall Score475226
Average Income US$6,6938,76317
State Educational Spending Per Cap/$223e200.2215
a Ratio of House Price to Income15.92426
Hospital Beds per 1,0001.8*635
Dust/Suspended Particles(ug/m3)300*240.7328
Vehicles per KM City Roads559224.6238
Criminal Cases per 10,000110* 8132
TV Sets per 1,00084.3m 241.69(-)

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a = Average house price divided by average annual income.
b = Household income.
c = Based on household income.
d = Officially, land cannot be bought or sold.
e = National figure.
f = U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pollutants Standards Index.
g = Air Pollutant Index.
h = Per 100 families
i = Per 1,000 families
j = Per 75,000 people.
k = National figure, TV sets per 1,000 people.
m = % of households with TV sets.
n = Measured in Parts per Million (ppm).
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