Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Communication


The H Street streetcar will take even longer to open than many thought. It's past time for DDOT to be more honest

There's more bad news for DC streetcars: The latest estimates show the H Street line may not open until early 2015. This isn't an additional delay, but rather seems to be simply a more genuine timeline of how long the remaining work will take. That's a step forward. Unfortunately, DDOT is still not being fully forthright about what's going on.

DC streetcars at the Anacostia testing & commissioning site. Photo by Dan Malouff.

What's left to do, and how long it will take

The streetcar team sent a construction update yesterday. It said that crews would move the streetcars currently on H Street back to the Anacostia testing and commissioning site for 6 weeks of vehicle maintenance and equipment installation. That was enough for Aaron Wiener at the City Paper to start digging for more details.

Here's a breakdown of what he found out.

First, the maintenance and equipment phase beginning today will last 6 weeks. Six weeks from yesterday is July 16.

Following that, DDOT will conduct final system integration tests. DDOT hasn't said how long that will take. Since we don't have a timeline, let's come back to this later.

Next, DDOT will train its day-to-day streetcar drivers. Each operator will have at least 30 hours of training, but DDOT hasn't said how long this will take overall. Let's come back to this later too.

Following that, the Federal Transit Administration will oversee final safety certification. In other cities with streetcars this takes 90-120 days, although engineers caution it could be more for DC since this is DC's first time doing it. Let's assume 120 days, or 4 months. Starting from July 16, that pushes the streetcar to mid-November.

Once safety certification is complete, passenger service should begin within 30 days. That puts us in December, before we've even accounted for the integration tests or the operator training.

Unless those tasks take no more than about one week each, an opening date after the new year looks unavoidable.

Honest communication will help regain trust

This may not exactly be another delay. Rather, it seems a more honest account of the timeline all along.

Last year, Mayor Gray trumpeted a late 2013 opening that now appears to have never been technically realistic. Was DDOT under orders from the mayor to hide the true timeline? Or maybe DDOT officials felt pressure to give Mayor Gray overly optimistic assumptions, and the mayor never knew the real timeline. Or maybe it's just taken a lot longer than anybody thought.

Either way, having been burned by this, the streetcar team now seems afraid to give many timeline details at all, forcing reporters like Aaron Wiener to try and piece things together.

But fear of missing another deadline is hurting DDOT more than missing deadlines would. Instead of setting expectations for 2015, DDOT officials keep saying they don't know how long work will take. Washingtonians hopeful to ride the streetcar soon have nothing to go on, and assume opening day is at most a month or two away. Every couple of months feels like a fresh delay.

Instead of one clear delay and one negative news cycle, DDOT's lack of communication have resulted in fresh news cycles reporting mounting delays every couple of months. The press has had an ongoing joke about a "race" between the streetcar and the Silver Line for which will open first. (It looks like the Silver Line will "win.")

DDOT may not know exactly how long every task will take, and it's understandable that the timeline needs padding to account for problems. It's taken longer than expected for Oregon Iron Works to build the streetcar vehicles. Officials say the extra-harsh winter slowed some things down. So did historic preservation at Spingarn High School for the maintenance facility (though in a city where preservation has a hand in many big projects, perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise).

But officials should have a general idea of roughly how long each task will take. Instead of giving no information at all about integration testing and driver training, officials could share a range. Instead of leaving us to guess how long until the line opens, they should give a range.

Then, if there's a setback that is out of everyone's control, like a lot of snow, honestly reassess the timeline. It doesn't help to insist that the line can open by July 2013 when it's also clear the vehicles won't arrive by then, for instance.

The agency's inability or unwillingness to articulate a realistic timeline is frustrating, and is clearly having a negative effect on streetcar politics. In 2010, a lot of people rose up to defend a streetcar project which seemed just around the corner. Four years later, there's much less enthusiasm to fight for streetcars, in part because DDOT has lost credibility.

DDOT's problem has now become similar to WMATA's. There's a lot of legitimate work to be done, and some understandable reasons why it hasn't been done yet. But problems and bad communication have caused the public to stop trusting the agency, and fear of potential negative stories has led people on the inside to keep quiet even more when they need to be communicating more. That's an enormous problem. Understandable delays sound like excuses when trust doesn't exist.

This is a difficult phase for any project

Infrastructure projects are expensive, time-consuming, hard on the community, and politically challenging. It's common for big projects like this to face obstacles in the home stretch. Costs and criticism have been mounting for years, while benefits remain off in the future.

Having to wait longer to actually benefit from the streetcar is frustrating. Not knowing how long it will take, or hearing timelines which are obviously unrealistic, is especially frustrating. But this difficult time will eventually pass.

Meanwhile, however, while it's still ongoing, DDOT must shed its fear of disappointing people, and begin to communicate with the public as openly and honestly as it possibly can.


DDOT social media goes from gold standard to gaffe-filled

The District Department of Transportation has long been known for its effective use of social media, particularly Twitter. But more recently, DDOT has fallen short on reaching out to the public online. The DDOT Twiter feed took a particularly bizarre turn this past Monday.

Screen shot of DDOT's Twitter page.

Residents who tweeted DDOT with a request to fix a pothole or a question about a construction project received an unhelpful and somewhat patronizing message: "Thx 4 this Tweet! Service has been requested. Thank you for using DDOT TWITTER. Thank you for being a "Super-Citizen'!"

While DDOT always used Twitter to disseminate information and promote transparency, it was its consistently prompt responses to service requests that earned it a stellar reputation among citizens. Mark Bjorge and John Lisle, who ran the feed, displayed a wry sense of humor rarely seen coming from a government communications office.

Bjorge and Lisle both left the agency earlier this year. Since then, tweets to DDOT have been answered slowly, or not at all. When these latest boilerplate tweets started coming out on Monday, the backlash was palpable.

DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez insists that the agency is trying to get back on top of its Twitter game and has no intention of letting its social media presence continue to slide. "Those responses don't represent a new direction we're taking," she says, and went on to state that the automated replies are "not effective" and are "being addressed."

The concerns they've heard have hit home for the agency. "This brings to light the role our followers play when it comes to our communication here," says Hernandez. "They are our eyes and ears, and their feedback is critical."

That's a great outlook, but it's even better when put into practice. Since Twitter has played such a vital role in communication between DDOT and District residents over the past few years, I hoped that the department would recognize the value in bringing on other social media-literate employees after the staff changes took place. Instead, District residents have lost one of the most reliable means of communicating with the city about transportation issues.

Hernandez was unable to say whether Bjorge and Lisle had undergone any special social media training, or what kind of training is being provided to those currently at the feed's helm. She mentioned that DDOT's goal was to have more than just two people running its Twitter account, as questions and requests could be answered faster if there are more hands on deck.

Whatever the method, let's hope that DDOT's social media growing pains end soon. The agency has a great model for how to do social media rightits own past. Many agencies may face a long road building the in-house capacity to use social media well, but it's sad to see one so quickly lose its expertise and success.

Public Spaces

Closed pools, communication snafus dismay children

Sometimes a public pool or other facility just can't be open when everyone hopes, but when the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) isn't able to keep its website and voicemail up to date, sudden changes leave children crying and parents frustrated.

Photo by tomorrowstand on Flickr.

On Labor Day weekend Saturday, September 8, I told my 3-year-old that we would go swim together at Wilson Pool when he woke up the next day. My son absolutely loves swimming, and went to sleep focused on my promise to him. That's what toddlers do.

The next morning at 8:30 am, I double-checked the Wilson website, and called to listen to their voicemail. Both said that the pool would be open at 9 am. My son put on his bathing suit and we walked to the bus stop for the 20-minute ride to Tenleytown.

As we walked up to the entrance, I saw a family with 3 children in dry bathing suits walking my way, one of whom was crying. A paper sign on the door said that the pool would be closed for another week, after 2 weeks of maintenance scheduled to be complete the day before. "I checked the website," the father said to his kids.

When I explained to my little guy that the pool was closed, he asked a couple of times, "When will it be open?" and "Why is it closed?" until the reality sank in and he had a crying tantrum on the sidewalk.

I tweeted my frustration that Wilson was closed despite contrary information on both the website and voicemail.

DPR replied to say that they had sent out a press release via email and posted the information on Twitter, but they have a small communications staff, all of which was unavailable for much of the weekend. The press release said that an "HVAC parts shipment has been delayed".

DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes says that the communications staff at DPR was 7 people when he arrived 5 years ago, and is now 2 people due to budget cuts. However, DPR did not request additional communications staff in the most recent budget.

Stokes also said that few DPR staff can update the website, since they first need training on the web platform. They aren't the only agency where the information on the web often lags other modes of communication; press releases for events from many agencies often go out to press lists but don't appear on the web until the next day.

DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), which runs centralized technology systems like the website, is working to switch to a new system built on the popular Drupal platform. OCTO Spokesperson Ayanna Smith says this will make it easier for more staff to update web pages. OCTO expects to finish this transition in FY 2013, which means by Sept 30, 2013, said Smith.

Because of their limitations placing pool closure information on their website, DPR relies on Twitter and Facebook to communicate closures. They have done a good job responding to residents via social media. However, it seems unlikely that pool users would think to check DPR's Twitter feed to check if a pool is closed.

DPR has engaged a firm to survey DC residents on how to improve their communication. What would you tell DPR? How do you think they should inform the public of unscheduled pool closures and other changes?


Metro opens doors, closes data

Metro used to publish lists of service disruptions online, but soon after I published a post analyzing the data, Metro stopped posting new reports and eventually removed the entire archive. Is this good customer relations?

Photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

Metro officials say that the reports require a lot of staff time, but they already have internal reports that show the same information, just in a more technical way. Metro could, and should, still release those reports to interested members of the press or transit aficionados who can interpret them for the public.

If Metro's performance is getting better, then posting these reports would help advocates write reports or articles about that fact, and boost public confidence in the work CEO Richard Sarles and his team are doing. If the performance is not getting better, then we should be having a public conversation with WMATA officials about what it would take to get improvements, or when the current repair schedule will start to bear fruit.

Here's an example service disruption from a report I received from a WMATA insider:

Other reports are a little simpler to understand:
A lot of this message wouldn't make sense to the vast majority of commuters. WMATA could still post these with a glossary that helps decode even this cryptic report, though there is the possibility that customers would see them and be confused, or call in to customer service about it.

Instead of posting these, WMATA created a "Vital Signs" report, which lists a few high-level metrics like overall rail on-time performance. But one number for rail on-time performance hides a lot of important information. A train can be late up to half the headway and still count as on time, meaning that when trains run every 20 minutes, trains could still be 10 minutes late or early. It doesn't include performance during planned track work, and other factors.

Today, WMATA's approach to public information seems to be to release only a few conclusions, not any deeper information. When the Riders' Advisory Council or others have asked for more, they've been told that it's the job of staff, and nobody else, to analyze data and tell the public and press what to believe about the issues.

But to many riders, this isn't satisfying. WMATA officials say they're aggressively fixing problems, but will those fixes actually lead to better performance, and when? So far, the agency has just cut the on-time performance target from 95% to 90%. It's never met its goal for the frequency equipment breaks down ("mean time before failure") since the data have been reported, and does not appear to be improving.

It's no secret that WMATA's reputation as a reliable transit service is tarnished by frequent service delays and offloads. If Metro begins to publish these reports again, customers could decipher the differences in service disruptions that are the fault of customer behavior like blocking doors, sick passengers, or police activity, and those that are due to maintenance issues like brake, track control circuit, or door problems.

Compare this to San Francisco and Chicago, two transit agencies that have longer histories of reporting service data.

Chicago reports number of rail delays of 10 minutes or more, percentage of track that is affected by a slow zone restriction, miles between rail vehicle defects, percentage of the rail fleet unavailable for service, and percentage of customer complaints not closed out within 14 days.

San Francisco reports how closely they're meeting the schedule (similar to WMATA), how the headways match up against the plan (more useful to customers for frequent routes), the amount of service, late pull-outs, overcrowded vehicles, the number of unexcused absences, mean distance between failures for trains, vacancy rates for service-critical positions, and the complaint resolution rate within 14 days.

San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.


Metro suffers complete blackout

Metro suffered a complete system failure last night around 11:30 pm. The failures were so extensive that all communications, including track circuits, were out of service.

Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

Customers on Twitter were reporting that rail operators had to leave and walk to the next station to get permission to move. WMATA's website was down, no communication came over any of the alert systems.

Former DCRA tweeter Mike Rupert wrote in the Local Gov blog that he thinks the complete lack of communication killed months of goodwill.

This wasn't Metro's only problem yesterday. In the morning, a cracked rail forced single-tracking between Van Ness and Friendship Heights, and then one train single-tracking stopped for 15 minutes due to door problems, forcing long delays for all riders trying to traverse the area.

With Metro's 30-plus year old system and a long backlog of deferred maintenance needs, some problems are going to crop up, but many riders and the Riders' Advisory Council have repeatedly faulted inadequate communication during crises.

Meanwhile, while Metro has launched a detailed campaign to explain its need for maintenance work, it has been tight-lipped about more specifics, such as timelines and costs for various aspects. Riders frustrated by multiple overlapping outages of lines, escalators and more may well tire of just hearing entreaties to be patient for a period of years, with little more to reassure them that the delays are leading to actual change.

Were you stuck in either of yesterday's problems? Looking constructively, what level and type of communication do you think Metro needs to achieve?


Mayor Gray must refute mediocrity, or fall victim to it

Members of Vincent Gray's administration have been both quoted and sourced on background as being unhappy with a city employee going above and beyond the call of duty on the job. The mayor must explicitly quash such thinking if he doesn't want to send a signal to all other city employees not to work very hard.

Lon Walls. Image from Twitter.

Lon Walls, the communications director for DC's the Fire & Emergency Medical Services (FEMS), gave Mark Segraves some revealing statements regarding the ongoing saga of Pete Piringer, who ran the DC Fire & EMS twitter feed (@dcfireems).

Walls told WTOP, "We had a discussion, I told Pete he was going out of his lanes in terms of other agencies." One of those "lanes" apparently included tweeting about fallen trees and crime scenes. It seems other agencies were miffed that @dcfireems was tweeting about things slightly outside their core competency, and that was "making [other agencies] look slow and unresponsive."

Washington Life Magazine listed Walls as one of the "Titans of PR" last year. He ran Walls Communications prior to becoming the head of communications at FEMS. (It appears that the regular website of his firm has been scaled back, with a more detailed site residing here.)

The site boasts of "transforming [communications] challenges into successful and measurable results." Is less communication with residents the kind of results the city is looking for? (Incidentally, Walls is on Twitter, but he doesn't appear to have mastered use of it as a communication forum.)

Put simply, Pete Piringer ran a fantastic service while working at FEMS. I'm one of the three people who worked on compiling the Struck in DC (@struckdc) twitter feed, and we relied on timely information from @dcfireems to keep people aware of how many pedestrians and cyclists had been victims of incidents involving vehicles in the city for over a year. Without the information that Piringer supplied, our service has withered on the vine.

In September, the feed went silent. Concerned reporters and blogs initially thought Piringer had just gone on vacation, but officials later revealed that they'd stopped the feed.

Walls told DCist, "I'd rather be slow and right than fast and wrong," and, "Social media is for parties. We ain't givin' parties." Instead of a sneering, derisive taunt, Walls should be able to see, as a communications professional, the value of actually "communicating" with citizens.

In response to objections, the Mayor promised on September 22 that @dcfireems would not be "filtered" or "silenced." This temporarily assuaged frazzled nerves, but the goodwill was short-lived. The @dcfireems feed has not mentioned a single struck pedestrian or cyclist since August 29. While it would be wonderful if no such crashes have occurred since then, we already know that's sadly not the case.

Since September 22, @dcfireems has tweeted more about the fire chief's weight and pictures of the mayor with McGruff the Crime Dog than the information it was known for prior to September 1. That's a shame. A valuable service is gone.

Meanwhile, Piringer has been moved to work for the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, where he will work on publicizing things like ceremonial documents.

Because Pete Piringer was busting his butt, he got busted down a notch (contrary to what Lon Walls would like to have us believe). Instead of other agencies stepping up their game to try to match his, we instead get the lowest common denominator. It's depressing to think that might be official policy from the executive branch.

Members of the Gray administration have essentially declared that those who perform above and beyond the call of duty will be punished for their hard work. If Mayor Gray himself does not see this for the "buck stops here" situation that this is, we can only assume he condones such thinking. If I were an ambitious employee looking to make my name as a civil servant, I certainly would look somewhere besides the District of Columbia to ply my trade.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

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