Why Seattle City Hall Doesn’t Get Amazon

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Exactly.

Pretty horrible week for now ex-Mayor Ed Murray, wouldn’t you say? A week ago, Murray’s office responded to news that Amazon is seeking to open a second headquarters in another North American city with a statement that read, in part, “My office will immediately begin conversations with Amazon around their needs with today’s announcement and the company’s long-term plans for Seattle.”

Between that milquetoast statement and now, Murray stepped down amid a fifth accusation of sexual assault. That whole situation is just gross. Then the Seattle Times published a garment-rending editorial in which they scolded City Hall for not sucking up enough to the tech giant that occupies more real estate than the next forty biggest companies combined. According to the Times, repeating some leftover Mitt Romney talking points from 2010, “Seattle’s current political leaders must recognize that poor planning and anti-business posturing come with a heavy price. Their politicking creates uncertainty for job creators and was a factor in Amazon’s decision to look elsewhere to expand.”

The friction between Amazon and City Hall isn’t caused by differences on labor, tax policy, or zoning. Having been exposed to both milieus, I’d posit that the friction is essentially cultural. When City Hall talks about Amazon, they reveal their profound ignorance about the company’s values or operating principles. For starters, a lot of people in the city can’t seem to wrap their heads around this HQ2 concept, the notion of a co-headquarters. Amazon isn’t breaking up with Seattle; it’s simply entering the  polyamorous phase in its relationship with the city. And guess what, Seattle? This means you can mess around with other companies, too!

Seattle’s City Government is the most turf-oriented, hierarchal organization I have ever encountered; I recognize that structural inertia is probably an inescapable feature of government in general. For two years, I spearheaded an effort to get Seattle recognized as a UNESCO Creative City, a project that ultimately failed (and how!), but which gave me numerous insights into municipal governance and international cultural diplomacy.

In City Hall, ideas are valued only insofar as they come through acceptable channels and include buy-in from various constituencies. Good ideas die if the right person in the right department with the right title can’t claim it as their own. As a private citizen pushing for Seattle to apply for an international program, I got a lot of quizical looks from people who seemed perplexed that nobody had given me permission to lead this project. At times I was aggressive, ruffling the feathers of people who like to decorate their offices with commemorative plaques and trophies.

I was operating like an ex-Amazonian. Why did I need anyone’s permission to establish contact with the State Department and schedule a meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris? Amazon’s leadership principle, Bias for Action, had been drilled into me as an employee. According to this principle,  “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”

If you antonymically translate that quote to convey its opposite meaning, you get a pretty accurate description of how government works. Slowness matters in government. Many decisions and actions will haunt you forever and potentially end your career, so require endless study. We value calculated risk avoidance.

The statements coming from Seattle’s city government and the Seattle Times about Amazon are embarassing in their cluelessness. Have they ever even talked to an Amazon employee? To be fair, Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about how it operates. But Seattle has had twenty years to figure this company out, and here we are in 2017, with local government and media still treating the most innovative company of our era like Boeing.

To be clear, I am absolutely in favor of criticizing Amazon. I have criticized the company over the years in deep disagreement with their business practices, particularly as they relate to the publishing industry. I’ve even criticized Amazon’s culture to Amazon managers’ faces, which partly explains why I don’t work there anymore.

Amazon’s effect on the city’s housing and economy in general has been disruptive and requires some mitigation from the city government. Can Seattle be a city where schoolteachers, bookstore clerks, yoga instructors, baristas, college professors, and artists, you know, live? These are serious issues that require a lot of brainpower and cooperation to address, but we’re not going to get far if we don’t at least try to better understand how Jeff Bezos sees the world. More to the point, we’ll be mired in the tarpits of indecision, pathological consensus, and risk avoidance unless leadership in City Hall exercises some of their own bias for action. I’m not holding my breath, frankly. Institutional group-think blinds us against understanding just what the hell is happening in South Lake Union and prevents the kind of nimbleness and risk-taking that continues to fuel Amazon’s success. The mediocrity-acceptance of Seattle Nice and the passive aggressiveness of Seattle Freeze are just as much to blame for the city’s growing pains as the 800-pound gorilla gobbling up entire city blocks.

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