Government agencies and systems are extraordinarily complex and under virtually constant demand. Yet those who manage these systems—and deliver critical services such as emergency response, transportation, policing, education, and the like—have few resources to draw upon as they tackle immense management challenges, observes UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs graduate Eric S. Lee. This is in stark contrast to large organizations in the private sector, where management experts at respected firms such as Bain or McKinsey stand at the ready to lend deep intellectual capacity and manpower to muscle through thorny management challenges.
Appreciating this gap, Lee launched a management consulting firm modeled on the traditional firms that support corporate executives, but tightly focused on the civic sector—government agencies and their not-for-profit and philanthropic partners.
“I was really struck by how little support there was for people with big jobs in government,” said Lee, who graduated from Luskin in 1992 with a master's in Urban Planning. “People can offer advice but there is very little support for how to reorganize a staff so it’s optimally organized, to re-engineer an agency for its best possible results.”
The firm, Bennett Midland LLC, is based in New York City and has been growing significantly since it opened in 2006, in response to strong demand from civic sector leaders.
Before launching Bennett Midland, Lee pioneered the field of “problem solving courts” as one of the founders of the Center for Court Innovation. Over 17 years, the Center has experimented with a wide range of demonstration projects—anchored by the special powers of the courts—to reduce crime and strengthen neighborhoods, in the United States and around the world.
“Landing in New York City after graduate school at UCLA, I expected to continue to work in economic development,” Lee said. “Our first project was an experimental court in the Times Square area, which sought to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of crime and disorder. What was revolutionary—and attractive—was the idea of bringing together a whole range of players, all tightly focused on solving the problems that lie below the symptom of low-level criminality.
“A big transformation in my career came when Michael Bloomberg became mayor. I was galvanized about going to work in this new administration, and participating in smart, intentional efforts to help the city thrive.”
Lee joined the Bloomberg administration in 2002, serving as a senior policy advisor to the mayor.
“We came into office following the attacks of September 11th, and a lot of New Yorkers were worried about whether the city would be safe—both in terms of the risk of future attacks, and also in terms of continuing the progress in reducing crime that was underway, but felt fragile,” he said. “We were able to address those concerns forcefully—both by rolling out policies to dramatically reduce crime, and to thwart potential attacks on the city.”
After a few years working in the Mayor’s Office, Lee appreciated how difficult it was to effectively meet the demands of daily governance while also pushing forward bold, impactful ideas. He wanted to bring civic leaders more tools, additional capacity, and a trusted partner to bring to life big and important projects. “Starting a business was a completely new thing for me—filled with unexpected challenges and opportunities.” The firm is about helping government, and its organizational partners, perform at the highest possible standards and offer consistent, quality services.
Since launching the firm seven years ago, the work has been intense and the demand for services robust. Shortly after he was elected mayor of Newark, NJ, Cory Booker hired Eric and his team to shape a response persistent crime in that city. In particular, Mayor Booker hired Bennett Midland to help assess how the city was handling gun cases and, offer potential strategies to reorganize the way such cases were handled by police and prosecutors. In a wholly different arena, Bennett Midland worked with the New York City Department of Transportation to review the impact of newly installed bicycle lanes and how they affect the liveliness of local businesses. Bennett Midland’s analysis demonstrated that businesses located nearby recently installed bike lanes and other pedestrian improvements generally had larger sales increases during the study period than other commercial streets without these improvements.
Lee also continues to be involved in life at Luskin. He has donated to UCLA Luskin to help produce the next generation of leaders.
“I am motivated to support UCLA as it faces very real fiscal challenges,” he said. “I was supported with scholarships when I was in school, and now that I am out I want to be supportive to those who are studying at Luskin today.”
And, who knows? Perhaps Lee’s generosity will further along the education of someone with a passion of helping the greater good and with dreams of starting their own business to do so.