March 9, 2020

Discipline, Academic Excellence, and the Socratic Method: A Q&A with Paul Meyer (MPA ’61)

What contributed to your decision to pursue your career in support of the public good? Was there a defining moment? 

I majored in political science as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I had been exposed to several professors who had served in government jobs and shared what a noble undertaking it was. George Shipman was one of the professors who promoted public service as a career. George was Chair of the Graduate School of Public Affairs and encouraged me to enroll in the program in 1960. During the next two years, I was a research assistant for a Ford Foundation study and took on a big project examining the relationships of the various governments in the Puget Sound Region.  

What was the biggest challenge you’ve had in your career and how did you address it? 

From 1974 to 1979, I served as the Ombudsman of Seattle and King County. When I was originally hired on, I was told, “Paul you have six months to turn this office around or we are going to eliminate the funding and kill the program.” At the time, the King County Charter had the Ombudsman written in as a part of the Legislative Branch and could only be eliminated if the Charter was amended. The City of Seattle approved the program by ordinance, and the City’s participation could be eliminated simply by a legislative vote. 

It became my responsibility to show how the Ombudsman’s Office was an independent and effective office that can manage citizen complaints concerning King County government agencies, while collaborating with King County Council, especially at a time when King County Councilmembers were frustrated by the recognition the Office of the Ombudsman was receiving.   

What I learned during this time was to process citizen complaints and use them to improve services provided to the public. I hired eight people who provided the professional services needed to demonstrate the office’s important role in improving city and county services, and the office worked more closely with the King County Councilmembers to help them be more responsive to citizen’s complaints. With a transparent and collaborative approach, I was able to help turn the Office of the Ombudsman around and leaving it in good shape after my five-year tenure – and it still exists today.  

What would you consider one of your greatest professional successes? OR – what is something you have been most proud of professionally? 

I think turning the Ombudsman’s office around and leaving it in good shape after my five-year tenure was a big professional accomplishment. I created a National Ombudsman’s Association in the United States and held the first meeting of 20 or so ombudsman in Seattle. I began to see and promote the importance of independence, fairness and honesty. 

Another experience that I consider a professional accomplishment was my role in helping to establish the Department of Health and Social Services which came out of the 1970 Legislative Session, introduced by Governor Dan Evans. I was part of a team which helped to “sell” the program to the five agencies that were merged into the DSHS umbrella. I had the responsibility of meeting with employees and legislators in King County who would be affected by the merger. 

What is a great book you have read recently? Or the greatest of all times book you have read? 

One book that moved me emotionally is called, ‘Glimpses of World History’ written by Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote the book during his time in a British prison as a series of letters to his daughter, who later in her life became India’s Prime Minister as well.  

Another favorite book is called “The Road to Character” written by David Brooks in 2015. The book covers recommended deeper values to advise the way you live your life. Those values have continued to shape my thinking, and those values should be held by those who serve in public office – elected or appointed.  

What has been your strongest influence in life? Why? 

Al Ulbrickson, who served as the coach of the rowing team during the four years I rowed for the University of Washington. Al Ulbrickson was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the UW and drilled into each oarsman the importance of discipline and academic excellence. I have carried those values throughout my lifetime. Another benefit was the importance of teamwork and building trust with other people. It was true in rowing and those principles apply to all the work I have done in my career.  

What was your favorite memory from your time at the Evans School? 

During the years I was part of the Graduate School—1960 and 1961, the seminars were very small with 8 to 12 people. George Shipman, Morton Kroll and Fremont Lyden were our primary contacts. We not only learned from the material we were reading and the comments from our professors, but we learned from each other. 

If you could give Evans School students one piece of advice, what would it be it be? 

Stay open, stay flexible. Listen and use the Socratic method of asking questions to seek information. Be humble. Don’t try to pretend to be somebody you are not. Be true to yourself. 

Want to connect with Paul? Reach out to him at: