Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order creating an Innovation Advisory Council and named its co-chairs.

Share story

Tech companies such as Amazon opposed Seattle’s short-lived head tax on large businesses to pay for homeless services and housing, but Mayor Jenny Durkan now says they can assist the city in other ways.

Rather than tap the companies’ bank accounts, she wants Seattle to tap their know-how. For example, they could help the city design apps for social services, Durkan says.

The mayor has convened an Innovation Advisory Council to seek advice on challenges such as homelessness and transportation, she announced Thursday during a news conference at Zillow’s downtown headquarters. She described the panel as a “new collaboration with Seattle’s technology community that will better highlight technology solutions.”

Besides Amazon, participants at this point include Microsoft, along with Zillow, Expedia and Tableau, whose leaders spoke out this year against the idea of a head tax. Durkan said the Innovation Advisory Council concept grew from discussions during her campaign last year about working with local companies, rather than in response to this spring’s head-tax battle. She said she reached out to the businesses.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

A Durkan executive order creating the council includes no concrete pledges of time or money by the companies.

“What we’ve heard from company to company as I’m talking to them is, ‘Tap us for our know-how … We have some of the most talented people on the globe right here in Seattle,’ ” the mayor said.

Her order says the group will identify issues, make policy recommendations and implement projects related to “data analytics, dashboards, applications and software for the city.” The order says the businesses “will commit to helping deliver these technology solutions.”

Asked about specifics, the mayor said the participants could help design an app allowing the city and service providers to quickly and easily connect people experiencing homelessness with shelter beds and benefits.

“Right now, our Navigation Team goes out” to make contact with people living on the street “and they literally are on their phones calling shelters asking, ‘Do you have space?’ ” Durkan said.

In contrast, “I can pick up my phone today and can probably reserve a room on any of the seven continents, except for maybe Antarctica, for tomorrow,” she said.

The mayor and City Council passed an annual tax of $275 per employee in May on Seattle’s highest-grossing businesses. But they repealed the measure less than a month later under pressure from a referendum campaign bankrolled by businesses and supported by voters lacking trust in City Hall to spend the money effectively.

Expedia President Aman Bhutani, a co-chair of Durkan’s new group, downplayed the effect of the tax debate. In an interview, Bhutani said his initial goal is to learn more about the city’s problems.

Steve Schwartz, senior public affairs manager for Tableau, said the head-tax debate got corporate leaders talking and thinking about City Hall.

“It catalyzed a lot of conversations within the business community,” Schwartz said. “I talked to more of my counterparts in other companies in the last three months than in the last three years.”

Racquel Russell, vice president for government relations at Zillow, said the real-estate listings company can contribute housing and economic research.

More than 60,000 software developers call the Puget Sound region home and more than 100 out-of-town companies have opened engineering centers in Seattle, according to Durkan’s office.

The tech-company council isn’t the only Durkan group charged with addressing homelessness. The mayor joined with King County Executive Dow Constantine in December to create One Table, a 75-member regional effort. That panel’s work stalled during the head-tax battle and is ongoing, with a meeting scheduled for Friday.