Washington’s Metro — The Costs of Carelessness (WWG implementation series #4)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how  a combination of public entrepreneurship and  active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Then followed an accelerating downward spiral of deteriorating performance in the management of both financial and safety systems:

  • A 2008 internal audit report raised the red flag on poor controls. Richard Sarles (general manager from 2010 to end-2014) reported that “Metro had poor financial controls when he arrived in 2010 and that he had been working to improve them”. (WP 6/7/15).
  • In 2009, two trains collided, killing nine people, and injuring 80. “What you’re finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there’s been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents,” said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board to a Washington Post team investigating the accident. “It really is disheartening.”
  • A 2014 audit by the Federal Transit Administration reported extensive safety concerns, including: understaffing in the central Metro train control center (only 34 of 54 authorized positions were filled; those in position enjoyed massive overtime payments); shortages in keeping maintenance materials in stock (so, for three months, replacement brake pads were cannibalized from out-of-service trains); and the non-repair of tunnel ventilation systems (two fans in Metros deepest tunnel location were out of operation for more than six months awaiting repair). It also found “extensive grant-related mismanagement that had gone on for several years”.
  • In January 2015, passengers were left stranded for a half-hour as their train and tunnel filled with smoke, and Metro officials were paralyzed with indecision as to what to do, resulting in one death.
  • The track defect that caused an August 2015 derailment (no one was injured this time) had been identified as an urgent problem in a safety inspection a month earlier, but with no follow-up. Metro’s chief safety officer resigned a month later.

Underlying these performance shortfalls were weaknesses in governance. Four jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; the states of Maryland and Virginia; and the Federal government) plus multiple sub-jurisdictions all have oversight responsibility for Metro, and are allocated seats on the Metro board of directors. Governance by multiple principals is messy; but it mirrors the spatial geography of Washington’s capital city. However, the consequence has been that none of the jurisdictions has taken a broad strategic view of the organization’s challenge.

Board members focused disproportionately on narrower concerns that are of interest to their constituents: where bus stops would be located; operating and closing times; caps on fee increases in the face of revenue shortfalls. Financial oversight also has been shortsighted. In response to the 2014 audit findings of shortfalls in Metro’s financial management, the FTA imposed new layers of restrictions on Metro’s access to federal funds. Punishing a system in the midst of a downward spiral for its continuing shortfalls might offer some satisfaction for ideologically-inclined politicians – but it also is an almost certain recipe for accelerating the decline.

What, then, is to be done? In the short-to-medium-term there is room for optimism that things will turn around. The attention of the Board (and the areas’ politicians) is there. A new CEO has been appointed. The immediate task, though formidable, seems clear: rebuild confidence in the operation – and renew its mandate and finances.

But how to ensure that the cycle described above – rising confidence, de facto autonomy, and then a slide into dysfunction — doesn’t repeat itself? Key, I would argue, is to look again at how we think about the boundary between the spheres of bureaucracy, of politics, and of civil society. Our standard narrative is Weberian, and extols the virtues of an ‘insulated’ bureaucracy. However, as the experience of the latter 1990s onwards underscores, a lack of insulation from pressure for performance has hardly been Metro’s problem.

The past two years have seen a rise in public focus on Metro.  Coverage by Washington’s media has been forthright, detailed. Metro’s riders, too, have increasingly been on the case. A variety of activist groups of Metro riders have been formed. In October 2015 these came together to form the Washington Metro Riders Union. Viewed through the lens of bureaucratic insulation, journalism, social media and civic activism might seem to be noise in the system. But, as Daniel Carpenter has highlighted, high-performing American public sector organizations took root

“…. not at the expense of democratic participation but in a symbiotic relationship with it….….grounded in multiple networks through which agency entrepreneurs can build program coalitions around the policies they favor….. At their strongest, these ties cut across the established lines of class, partisanship and ideology…and enable officials to ground their agency’s reputation in a broader embedment in society.…. The [contemporary] challenge of American statebuilding may be to reengage state bureaucracies with the very civic organizations and social networks in which they once flourished.”

Robert Putnam makes a similar point in his classic 2000 book, Bowling Alone. “American democracy”, he argued:

 “….evolved historically in an environment unusually rich in social capital….. A politics without face-to-face socializing and organizing….would be heard as a muddle of disembodied voices….. Just as one cannot restart a heart with one’s remote control, one cannot jump-start citizenship without direct, face-to-face participation. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.”

Encouragingly, in his first day on the job, Metro’s newly appointed General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, went on a listening tour among stakeholders – including a commitment to meet with the Riders Union. Is it really too much to hope that in America’s capital city, a city where more words are spoken in praise of democracy than almost anywhere else on earth, public discourse need not be a toxic battleground – but that instead an activated media and citizenry could become an integral part of the fabric of active, effective governance?