Problem solving is the name of the game for mayor’s chief of innovation
Robert Feldstein, the head of Seattle’s new Office of Policy and Innovation, tries to bring the “go big, solve problems” philosophy of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Seattle.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In December, Robert Feldstein was winding up a job with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he got a call from Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray.
Would Feldstein launch an Office of Policy and Innovation for Seattle and could Murray include his name in a news conference to announce his new staff? In three hours?
Feldstein said, “Yes, but I still work for a different mayor, so let me check.”
Three months in, Murray and Feldstein are drawing on a Bloomberg playbook developed to help mayors effectively design and implement innovative solutions to pressing city challenges.
For Bloomberg, that included building a coalition of city mayors opposed to illegal gun sales to try to keep them out of the hands of criminals as one strategy to address high murder rates. It also meant bringing business and elected leaders together to make an economic case for immigration reform.
The short version of the approach, Feldstein said, is: “Go big, solve problems and maintain a healthy skepticism about the way things have always been done.”
In Seattle, Feldstein’s highest-profile project so far is Murray’s effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Many cities and states have raised the minimum wage, even as much as the 65 percent Seattle is considering, but none yet as high as $15.
“We know we’re going to be stepping a little bit into the unknown, but that’s also how you change the national conversation,” Feldstein said.
In his seventh-floor City Hall office, with a large view of the middle of a neighboring skyscraper, Feldstein, 39, is both intense and personable, grandiose and funny. He describes his hometown of Hancock, N.H., as a place so small you could run an errand but not errands.
Feldstein, who will make $170,000 a year, is one of the few new hires in the executive office whom Murray didn’t already know. The mayor wanted someone familiar with an approach developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies called Innovation Delivery Teams, whose goal is to help government provide services more effectively. It’s being piloted in five cities, including Chicago and New Orleans.
The strategy involves assembling a staff of analysts to quickly marshal data, bring in stakeholders, challenge the conventional wisdom including that in city departments, choose the best among possible options and implement a plan.
Murray said he didn’t want to follow the model of some previous Seattle mayors, with a large team of analysts dedicated to one area of expertise. Rather, he wanted a rapid-response team capable of addressing emerging problems.
Since January, that has included how to coordinate multimillion-dollar construction projects to create a world-class waterfront and how to get more low-income residents enrolled in the city utility-discount program.
Asked what he’s observed of Feldstein so far, Murray said, “he’s a very bright, out- of-the-box thinker who’s both analytic and innovative.”
Feldstein said he got his passion for public service from his parents, who met in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement. Both worked on policy issues in New York City before deciding to move to New Hampshire and raise their family.
His father was a dean at Antioch New England Graduate School and then president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. His mother helped organize small farms before turning her attention to international agricultural development.
“Our household discussions were about community engagement, problem solving and making change happen,” Feldstein said.
His professional career has been about finding new approaches to old problems. After graduating from Harvard University, he spent the next seven years working for the Center for Court Innovation, where he helped design and run the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn.
The center was one of the first to try specialized courts such as drug court or domestic-violence court to offer offenders a range of opportunities including treatment, job training and education in exchange for suspending a criminal charge.
Feldstein said he went from junior planner, looking at blueprints for a renovation of an old school building, to project director, overseeing 100 employees and 12 agencies providing social services to offenders.
After earning a master’s degree in education from Stanford University and teaching middle school for several years, Feldstein returned to government.
His former Red Hook boss, John Feinblatt, was heading up Bloomberg’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. He hired Feldstein for some contract work researching immigration reform and then as his chief of staff.
“As soon as I heard Robert was back in the five boroughs, I put out an all-points bulletin to get him here,” Feinblatt said. “He thinks big thoughts, but he knows how to translate those thoughts into action.”
Bloomberg wanted to get at the causes of violent crime in New York City but soon learned that 85 percent of the guns used in those incidents were bought in other states. A New York City-only approach wouldn’t work, Feldstein said, so one of his jobs was to provide ongoing support to the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
During his four years in Bloomberg’s policy office, Feldstein said, the coalition helped pass universal background checks for gun sales in three states and published investigations on the proliferation of Internet gun sales.
In the process, he said, Bloomberg “elevated the issue into a national conversation.”
But gun-rights advocates objected to Bloomberg using city staff and city computers to host the group’s website and run what was essentially a national lobbying effort.
Dave Workman, senior editor of the Bellevue-based TheGunMag, said that in addition to the ethics questions, he’s not sure how effective the group has been.
“I don’t know that they’ve accomplished that much. I think it’s become rather polarizing,” he said.
Feldstein defends the effort. “Public safety is the number-one priority for mayors and cities,” he said.
The minimum-wage fight in Seattle also is proving to be polarizing. Some restaurant owners say they’ll be put out of business if they have to raise employees’ pay 65 percent. Some business owners say they’ll be forced to raise wages for all workers, once they boost the lowest paid to $15 an hour. And if activists aren’t satisfied with the compromise reached by the mayor’s committee, they vow to launch an initiative drive and place a measure on the November ballot.
Feldstein urges skeptics to allow the process to work. “This group came in with their own ideas and points of view, but now there’s a shared problem to solve,” he said.
Feldstein’s last stint on the West Coast ended up with him homesick for New York City. Will he be able to adjust to laid-back, low-key Seattle? He acknowledges that he already misses his friends in New York — “my people” — he calls them. And he hasn’t found a deli with bagel and whitefish salad.
But he said he’s excited to be in a city that’s in the midst of a discussion about what it wants to be for the next 20 years.
“I’m working with a progressive mayor to try to solve some of the big problems. It’s a good match,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes