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Serious fixes for WMATA, part 3: Bring in the CEO

Previously, we discussed two of the six elements of the Riders' Advisory Council's report on WMATA governanace: setting high standards for Board members' attendance and ridership, and the Board focusing on high-level policy. Another very important element of the recommendations is getting more of a CEO to run WMATA, and treating him or her like a CEO.

Photo by infosnackhq on Flickr.

WMATA needs strong leadership, especially now. It needs someone who can formulate a clear vision for WMATA's future, what steps it needs to take to get there, and advocate for the necessary resources from governments, organization restructuring, changes to labor agreements, and more.

Unfortunately, the Board-General Manager relationship does not facilitate this leadership. The General Manager acts as an employee of the Board instead of as the head of the organization. The Board chair, not the General Manager, typically does interviews on TV.

The Board acts like a legislature today. They debate issues, often balancing the different needs and perspectives of different constituencies. That's a worthy function, but one that takes time and is usually not clean and simple.

The press then tends to report how Board members disagreed on an issue instead of on a clear path forward. And the agency doesn't move decisively on a clear path because it doesn't have one.

The RAC's report therefore recommends redefining this relationship. The Board should hire a top official who can act like a CEO. They should rename the position to CEO. And they should treat the CEO that way.

The CEO should develop a clear action plan for WMATA's future, including short-term and long-term fixes and a path to get there. He or she should present it to the Board, and get signoff. The Board should set high-level performance targets, as we discussed before. Then, the Board should largely let the CEO move ahead with specific operational decisions to meet those targets.

When someone goes on television to represent WMATA, it should usually be the CEO. Of course, individual members might speak in their individual capacities, but the CEO should be the cardinal spokesperson, just like in almost any company, nonprofit, or government, the chief executive is the main face of the organization.

Finally, the Board should not try to control what the CEO does or doesn't present to them. In recent budget cycles, the Board has set "guidance" that basically restricted what the General Manager's budget could and couldn't include. He had to propose draconian service cuts because the Board forbade him from suggesting fare increases over inflation or any increase in jurisdictional contributions, both of which ended up replacing service cuts in the final budget.

The Board gets to decide the budget, but the CEO should propose the one he thinks is right. This is similar to the way a state's governor proposes a budget, and then the legislature can modify it.

The flip side of this is for the CEO to stick to the budget he thinks is best until the Board changes it. In the last cycle, the Board would discuss the budget, some members would make individual comments about pieces they didn't like, and the staff would go back and revise the budget whether or not those changes had majority support on the Board. The budget became a moving target for advocates and other Board members. Instead, the CEO should simply formulate his recommendation, then let the Board keep it or change it on their own.

Some agencies make the role of the CEO even stronger. In New York, for example, the CEO is also the Chairman of the Board. This would be a more difficult change to make, requiring modifications to the WMATA Compact signed by DC, Maryland, and Virginia and reviewed by the federal government, but could be worth exploring as well.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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WMATA needs strong leadership


WMATA needs competent leadership.

Competence is the issue. Not organization and roll-playing.

As long as the debate is focused on ground-level details in stead of system-wide goals, we will get nowhere. And we won't get there as long as most board members are appointed political hacks.

by Jasper on Nov 16, 2010 9:51 am • linkreport

I agree the leadership also has to be competent.

Someone has to focus on the details. The report simply argues that the CEO should be the one to do that, not the Board.

by David Alpert on Nov 16, 2010 9:58 am • linkreport

@ David: I don't disagree with your general point of the post. It might help the governance of WMATA. However, it also might lead to gridlock if the CEO and the Board disagree.

My point is that regardless of structure, we need competent people. Without competence, the structural changes you propose are useless. It's like giving a structurally unsound building a new paint job.

BTW: I don't know how to define or require competence from the WMATA top. Electing in stead of appointing members would not make things better I think.

by Jasper on Nov 16, 2010 10:58 am • linkreport

As I said in the previous thread, any future WMATA leader should come from outside the public sector.

by charlie on Nov 16, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

I'm not convinced that the corporate CEO leadership model is the right one for WMATA. A corporation exists to serve its own interests, such as increasing income and market share. But Metro doesn't exist for its own sake, it exists to serve the interests of the public. In general we probably want Metro ridership to go up, but sometimes other transit modes, such as walking or biking, may better serve the public interest, or perhaps some routes may be better served by other transit systems. WMATA is already well known for putting its own interests above those of others; do we really want to make that problem worse? As awful as the current board/manager structure may sometimes be, in principle it's designed to properly represent the needs of the public instead of the needs of the transit system.

Or am I just being naive?

by jimble on Nov 16, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

I think David is right that WMATA could use a strong CEO, but there's no way the three jurisdictions are going to give up their power. The reason WMATA has a strong board and a weak GM is because that's the way DC, MD and VA want it. There's no way that DC, for example, is going to sit still while a CEO jacks up bus fares to balance the budget. Likewise, MD and VA wouldn't allow a CEO to jack up parking.

WMATA isn't a corporation whose sole goal is profit.

by jcm on Nov 16, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

General Manager title is fine. The new GM needs to be an experienced transit manager and an able politician. A good place to start to control Metro costs would be to rein back salaries at the most senior levels. Administrative FTE's may be declining while total compensation is increasing. The Metro Board must take action to control represented payrolls and increase employee health care contributions. Excessive overtime can be a reflection of poor management, insufficient staff, or organizational structure. More importantly, excessive overtime can be a safety issue.

by Interested on Nov 16, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

If I recall correctly, Richard White was actually CEO of WMATA--he had wanted the title changed from General Manager. When Tangherlini took over, it was as interim GM, and the title has stayed that way ever since.

I don't know the extent to which White's role was any more CEO-like than GM-like.

Was White's ouster the wrong move? I had plenty of criticism of WMATA at the time, and although I never thought that White needed to go, I wasn't terribly sorry when he did leave either.

by thm on Nov 16, 2010 1:36 pm • linkreport

Richard White had a long and successful run as CEO/GM (9 1/2 yrs.)
That makes him the longest serving WMATA GM. However he eventually lost the support of the Board that wanted to install their own choice. In some respects John Catoe was a poor selection but he was also a victim of timing and the new dynamics of the Metro organization. The problem facing White/Catoe and any GM is the need for very large annual capital infusions to maintain the system in a state of good repair. In recent years the Metro Board has crippled the agency's ability to perform large capital projects by gutting engineering staff and additionally failing to ramp up capital improvement projects. That's not to say that the local governments aren't putting in a lot of money annually because the have been supporting ever increasing operating deficits.

by Interested on Nov 16, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

@ jimble-

"WMATA is already well known for putting its own interests above those of others; do we really want to make that problem worse?"

I disagree! The problem, in my opinion, is that the WMATA board members have traditionally put the interests of the jurisdiction they respectively represented ahead of the interests of the system. What WMATA needs is a board and chairman and chief executive(or whatever the structure may end up being) that all put the needs of our regional system at the top of the list of priorities, and not below the interests of individual jurisdictions. I'm just saying...

by KevinM on Nov 17, 2010 9:03 am • linkreport

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