Greater Greater Washington

Serious fixes for WMATA, part 2: Set goals and policies

Besides appointing members who actually show up to meetings and ride transit, the WMATA Board can start fixing the authority's problems by spending more time on high-level policies and performance metrics instead of trying to decide every individual small issue.


Photo by Billy V on Flickr.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Board has been that they micromanage the agency. Ironically, one of the other criticisms of the Board is that they weren't sufficiently aware of details, like the safety problems that existed prior to the June 2009 Red Line crash.

So which is it? Should the Board stick their fingers into every little thing, or be more hands-off? Many people say the Board should be more like a "corporate board." But a corporate board wouldn't be monitoring details. If Greyhound were to have a big safety problem, people don't ask why the Greyhound Board of Directors didn't personally know about the problems. Honestly, few people know who's on the Greyhound Board of Directors anyway.

But with WMATA, people vociferiously disputed our argument that we shouldn't blame the Board. They should have made sure to know, people said. Hang them all, others said. Change has to start at the top, said Debbie Hersman, the chair of the NTSB. The Board has to be paying more attention to safety.

On the other hand, when the Board spends a lot of time on an issue, they get some amount of ridicule. They spent three meetings discussing what to do about the SmarTrips going negative. People didn't laud them for being so thorough; they called it an embarrassment, which is definitely how it sounded for those listening to the meeting.

What should the hapless Board members do? Scrutinize more or less? Delegate more, or less?

The RAC believes the answer is in choosing how they spend their time. The Board should be very involved. But they should be involved at a high level. Instead of asking why this bus was rerouted or that sign appeared in a station, set goals, and ask the General Manager to meet those goals. Spend most of the time talking about what are the right metrics, and how the authority is performing against those metrics.

Take the escalators. This has quickly become the most visible sign of Metro's dysfunction. Yet despite a number of Board meetings discussing the issue and some consultant reports, we still don't know what to expect or how things will get fixed.

At the most recent Board meeting on escalators, members spent most of the time talking about signs informing people about outages, or complaining about individual escalators that are out. Nobody asked the key questions. What is our escalator reliability today? (It was in the Vital Signs report.) Is this correctly measuring what we want to measure? (As it turned out, not quite, since it was not counting brief unplanned outages.) And most of all, what reliability rate can staff promise with the current level of resources, or what could they achieve with greater resources?

A corporate Board of Directors generally doesn't second-guess every product launch, pricing decision, or the color of boxes for products. Or, as Mort Downey put it in one of the sessions, they don't "try to hit at pitches as they come in." Instead, such a board sets goals and expects the company's head to get the job done or get fired.

Next time an issue like the escalators comes up, the WMATA Board needs to ask a few simple questions: What is the long-term goal? What is an achievable and measurable performance target? And what does the General Manager need to reach that target?

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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"If Greyhound were to have a big safety problem, people don't ask why the Greyhound Board of Directors didn't personally know about the problems. Honestly, few people know who's on the Greyhound Board of Directors anyway."

Additionally: Greyhound's riders are almost universally the politically disenfranchised poor. Greyhound may not have regular safety problems, but it does have regular scheduling problems and routinely engages in the kind of deceptive business practices DOT would never tolerate for airlines or Amtrak. Transportation, like most other things, is a wildly different experience for the rich and the poor.

by Chase on Nov 12, 2010 10:23 am • linkreport

I'm a big proponent of applying those corporate standards to the WMATA board, but I also understand it never translates perfectly.

We need to go back a bit further into the history of corporate law: namely fiduciary duties generally and them the concept of trusts.

Basic question: To whom does the board owe these duties? The various jurisdictions that own it. Why: as a practical matter, we know WMATA loses money and they have to go back and get a subsidy every year.

I think a lot of staff/board interaction is driven by this dynamic. WMATA could always use more money, but staff has to be very careful to ask for only a few things at time, and those things may be a different priority than what the board wants and what riders need.

Perhaps another way to look at this is view anti-trust law. We've given a monopoly on public transit, and they have abused that trust. Remedies are difficult, but perhaps might help.

by charlie on Nov 12, 2010 10:28 am • linkreport

Yes, yes, yes.

What is the goal? Is that the right goal? What do you need to reach it? How do you know?

These questions should be repeated like a mantra by Board members before every meeting.

by Ken Archer on Nov 12, 2010 10:40 am • linkreport

I think people who clamor for WMATA's board to act more like a corporate board probably don't know much about corporate boards. Many (most?) of them are awful, packed with seat warmers that rubber stamp the CEO's decisions.

As far as the smartrip meetings go, that's the danger of too much public participation. They got paralyzed by feedback. They should have just picked a plan and implemented it. We all would have survived.

by jcm on Nov 12, 2010 11:07 am • linkreport

Accountability is key. You pretty much have to kill someone to get fired (permanently) from Metro. The accountability system is a joke and the workers know it. Thats why they are so damn lacksadaisical about their jobs.

by J on Nov 12, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

@JCM; I'd agree that too many corporate boards believe in the cult of the CEO,a and it is hard to reasons through the various duties board members owe outside of profit-maximixing outlook.

That being said, I think you've hit on something, which is why the Metro GM is so weak.

I'd argue getting someone from the same pool (people who have run transit systems before) is the problem. Those folks are third rate. Sorry -- it's true. They failed out of MBA training for McDonalds and do public entity work instead. Bring is someone w/o that background, give him the support to learn a bit and to tone down the arrogance (cough, Michelle Rhee) and you might have a winner.

by charlie on Nov 12, 2010 12:28 pm • linkreport

@ charlie Sometimes hiring an outsider works really well, and sometimes it doesn't. Mullaly at Ford appears to have been a stroke of genius, and there were a ton of POed car guys when he was hired. On the other hand, there's lots of examples of people who succeeded in one business and failed at another.

I still say WMATA's biggest problem is their inability to reconcile funding levels and service. I'm not sure any GM can fix that - it comes from a half dozen local governments. At some point, they're going to need more money or fewer bus routes.

by jcm on Nov 12, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

Love and honor. Miamian?

by GBL on Nov 12, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

@JCM; your general rule is correct, but perhaps I wasn't clear: you need an outsider because the universe you are drawing GM candidates from (people who have managed public transit operations) is piss-poor.

A GM needs to be able restore confidence in WMATA and give a sense that the decline is undercontrol. I agree the long term picture is killing MetroBus and limiting MetroAccess. The board is the one that needs to smooth the way for more money from jurisdictions...

As we saw from Fenty and Maryland this summer, current board members apparently aren't up to that task...

by charlie on Nov 12, 2010 2:37 pm • linkreport

At the most recent Board meeting on escalators, members spent most of the time talking about signs informing people about outages, or complaining about individual escalators that are out. Nobody asked the key questions. What is our escalator reliability today? (It was in the Vital Signs report.) Is this correctly measuring what we want to measure? (As it turned out, not quite, since it was not counting brief unplanned outages.) And most of all, what reliability rate can staff promise with the current level of resources, or what could they achieve with greater resources?

You are spot on here. However, in nepotistic Washingtonian politics, the intelligence to behave in such a way does not exist. Unfortunately, all folks on the board are politicians who are held accountable about signs and routes, not about abstract notions of reliability. This is especially true in the WMATA board, because most members are responsible to folks in a small geographical area that is covered by WMATA.

In fact, this is true even on this forum. How often don't we get comments like "I don't care what happens in Maryland, I live in DC". In fact, I remember a remark from someone complaining about seats being taken up by people who got on a line that started out of his jurisdiction.

If you have such a short-sighted public, than it is very hard to expect better from their representatives.

However, it would be a lot better if people at the board level would worry more about escalator reliability across the system, than about those #$%@% escalators at Foggy Bottom that haven't worked for at least the last four years.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2010 12:49 pm • linkreport

This is a lot of hair splitting and fighting along the edges of a broken system. WMATA needs to be broken up, it's a bottomless pit for taxpayers, and an endless source of wealth for the ATU. If you had a new system with less entitled workers who took pride in the system's operations, not their fat pensions, you would see all sorts of changes for the better.

by Kyle on Nov 14, 2010 5:45 am • linkreport

What needs done is a complete change of staff. It is currently a bunch of morons covering for each other. Just look at them sometime.

by Ted on Nov 14, 2010 7:51 am • linkreport

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