Will the DDOT brain drain and low morale continue?
Councilmember Tommy Wells announced late Friday night that Scott Kubly, the official in charge of the streetcar, Circulator, and Capital Bikeshare, is leaving DDOT. This contributes to a worrisome pattern of good officials quitting amid declining morale.
Kubly is leaving only 2 months after the departures of Karina Ricks, head of DDOT's Policy and Planning department, and Leah Treat, head of finance. Treat left to work for Gabe Klein at the Chicago DOT.
While their contributions will be sorely missed, it's important to point out that there are many other talented transportation executives at DDOT.
Residents should be most concerned about whether DDOT is having trouble recruiting and retaining talent, particularly those willing to work exhaustive hours at meetings across the city to carry out a vision that inspires them.
With so many projects at critical junctures at DDOT, the prospect of a brain drain is a major challenge for new permanent director Terry Bellamy, new chair of the DC Council Transportation Committee Mary Cheh, and ultimately, Mayor Gray.
In any sector, the best talent is attracted not just by the compensation and responsibilities of a job, but also by the opportunity to work on impactful, cutting-edge projects. When employers create an exciting vision, it attracts talent.
Do talented transportation executives no longer view DDOT as a good place to shape the future of urban transportation in America?
Kubly says he's been thinking of leaving DDOT for some time. He considered leaving after Adrian Fenty lost the primary, but stayed partly because of his admiration for Bellamy and amid encouragement from many quarters to finish the streetcar job he started.
However, he cited a general malaise at DDOT that has grown in recent months. Working for the DC government is not seen as positively today as it was a year or two ago. He said that people now say something like, "I'm sorry," when they hear he works for DC, following the many scandals that have recently plagued the government.
Will more talented people leave DDOT? Will the city be able to attract talented and energetic people to the many now-open positions at the agency? They need to hire (or promote from within) a deputy director to fill Bellamy's previous job, a head of planning to succeed Ricks, a head of finance to replace Treat, and now a head of mass transit for Kubly's job.
In addition, there are several key new positions created at DDOT in the budget, including ward planners and, perhaps most importantly, a parking czar.
These questions are no doubt weighing on Bellamy. DDOT is well-funded in the new budget. But funding positions isn't enough if a bad reputation for DC and low morale at DDOT dissuades talented people from applying.
Ultimately, DDOT is much more than Kubly, Ricks, Treat, Klein and Bellamy. There are scores of excellent, visionary, dedicated public servants working in the trenches, spending long nights reassuring nervous residents, crunching numbers, and designing innovative projects.
Instead of prompting accusations, these departures can and should be a turning point, an opportunity to reassure DDOT employees and rebuild any morale problems that may exist.
Mayor Gray and Director Bellamy need to reach out to DDOT's remaining talented planners, engineers, and analysts. They should give personal assurances that they are still committed to a vision for transportation that transcends politics. They should praise and reward those who take risks to effect change, and perhaps apologize for the way political scandals have dampened the mood at DDOT.
We owe that much to the dedicated planners whose work goes largely unnoticed by most DC residents, yet whose dedication is critical to making Washington a great city.
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