We need the idealistic vision that a better world is possible and the pragmatic reality of how to make changes work starting in the world we have right now. A major challenge is how to keep your eyes on the former while deep in the weeds of the latter. I tried to address this by practicing accountability.
In 2005, I called my mother to tell her that I planned to go to graduate school in City Planning. Her exact response was, “How are you going to make sure you don’t sell out and become a liberal?” I don’t remember my response, but I understood what she meant. She was warning against become a professional whose decisions were driven by making a salary, instead by making structural change. (I like to joke wanting to make structural change is why I went on to get a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering.)
I figured out early on working inside an agency that I needed to regularly talk to outside organizers. I needed their input on what work to prioritize and which battles to fight to improve equity. I knew that as an upper middle-class white person my experience limits my knowledge of the most pressing issues and that priorities should be based on the needs of the most impacted. So I looked to community organizations that had a grassroots base in low-income communities and communities of color. Luckily I could draw on previous relationships with organizers and the transit organizing already happening when I arrived in Boston.
The first project I picked up was piloting a transit pass for low-income youth. Youth and transit advocates had been organizing for the Youth Pass for seven years and had just won a pilot when I started. My role was to work with municipal and community partners and the agency’s technical team to design and implement the pilot program. We negotiated, we compromised, and together we found a way through all of the complexity to make a program that worked for youth participants, program administrators, the transit agency, and would provide useful research data. It was an excellent lesson for collaboratively solving complex problems and built my credibility as someone who could get projects done.
In a government agency that is very public facing, like a transit agency, it is easy to fall into the fortress mentality. You get publicly attacked all the time and often the criticism doesn’t include a nuanced understanding of the challenges the agency faces on a daily basis. Statements abound like ‘why doesn’t the [agency] just do X.’ You and your colleagues either laugh or cry at the over-simplistic idea of ‘just’ being able to change any one thing without due consideration of the domino effect that one change has on intertwined systems, teams, and services. A group defense mechanism in the face of many critiques is the tendency to pull up the proverbial draw-bridge to the fortress, which also filters out the reasonable and justified criticism.
I saw myself starting to get defensive and I knew that I had to actively tether myself to people outside of the agency to remind myself to listen. Again I tried to make sure I was hearing the voices of people who didn’t have same experience as most leaders of my agency and whose lives would be most impacted by our policy decisions. I made sure to put myself in situations where I would hear other voices by creating space in formal public engagement settings and by riding the transit system (and not just on social media). And I tried to listen with the intent of real change: changing myself, my decisions, and the organization.
At the same time I felt that to make meaningful change I had to remain grounded in a pragmatic view of what change seemed possible, on what time-frames, based on my understanding of the existing complexities (political and technical). However, there is a struggle between understanding the challenges of implementation and these challenges being used as an excuse for inaction. The practice of pragmatic empathy helps combat the fortress mentality and the inertia that pervades complex organizations.
Agencies often need outside actors to push them. And at the same time, I want the public to understand the very real challenges. Without understanding the complexity and true cost of change within public agencies, an unintended consequence of criticism plays into the narrative of government being incompetent, which undermines public support for government providing solutions.
Similarly, public agencies struggle with how to admit past mistakes or inequity caused by previous policy decisions. Honest accounting of the past is necessary for accountability, to rebuild trust with communities, and as important context as agencies work to increase equity. I think agencies, public stakeholders, and the media need to create the space for discussing the past in order to move forward. (Maybe more on this later, still thinking about it. There are definitely existing good examples to draw on.)
I started my work focused on accountability to the people the agency serves and spent four years developing policies and teams working on external equity. Then I expanded my focus to the internal working of the organization and realized that accountability also applies to the employees whose voices were not heard in the decision-making process. I had hired talented diverse teams, but now I knew I needed to actively support and create space for employees of color. Before I left I helped start a process for improving equity and inclusion internally. This work caused me to reflect on how my experience as an internal change-maker was shaped by my whiteness. There is still more I need to learn.
The dilemma of pragmatism, especially in middle management, is how much risk to take by speaking truth to power knowing that your work to accomplish other goals might be jeopardized. The counterfactual that someone worse could be in your position is always true. It is a constant balancing act to determine when to compromise and when to keep pushing past the point of comfort for the harder outcome. There is a strong tendency toward not rocking the boat now in order to get the next job with more power, but the question of what is enough power is rarely answered. I tried to remain true to myself by rooting my power in my principles, and not my position. And I knew some day I might have to leave.
Sadly my mother passed away a few weeks after I accepted the job at the MBTA. Her voice echoed through my decisions and I am pretty sure she would appreciate how much I have grown.
Making government work for everyone is not easy, regardless whether you are pushing for change from the outside or the inside. In my experience some of the same skills and analytical tools are useful.
I have advanced degrees in transportation, but it was my experience as an organizer that I drew on the most to figure out how to make change at the MBTA. As a child, I attended local government meetings with my mother and on the way home, she and I would analyze the political alliances we’d observed and debate about strategy. I began facilitating meetings to build group consensus when I was a teenager. In my 20s I was part of social movements and spent a lot of time critiquing tactics and considering how to be more effective at making lasting change. In graduate school I provided technical support to transit organizing in Atlanta.
Just like organizing for progressive change in general, change inside government agencies requires multicultural coalitions with clear objectives and the strategies and tactics to achieve them. That means change-makers have to address institutional and societal problems preventing inclusion and equity. Multicultural in this context also means understanding the cultures of departments and offices within the agency or across agencies. Meetings have to be planned with this in mind, and sometimes ‘translators’ are useful to help different departments communicate with each other more effectively.
The coalition part means that efforts need to be welcoming and inclusive of people with different skill sets and roles. The experience and knowledge of the person deep in the technical weeds or on the front-lines is critical and their participation is needed to create solutions. The sweet spot for middle management is having the ear of leadership and the trust of the workforce. I found that open communication and transparent decision-making was critical to gaining that trust. A more cynical version of coalition building is that dysfunctional agencies run on the favor economy so it helps to be helpful to a lot of people.
The clear objectives part means having goals that others can fully comprehend along with a plan to achieve it. It took some reflection to understand that people inside the agency often gravitated to me because I could articulate what I was trying to get done, why, and how they could help. A proficient manager can divide a big project into different tasks and an effective organizer has a strategy and tactics to achieve their goal.
My social movement thinking includes having an analysis of power and theory of change. Analyzing power includes identifying who has power, leverage points, and how to build your own power. Multicultural coalitions centered on people who historically have not had power, require building ‘power-with’ instead of using ‘power-over’ tactics. Power-with lifts everyone involved while power-over uses the existing systems of power rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy. Power-with principles help mediate the corrupting influence of power; the ends usually don’t justify the means.
My theory of change inside government agencies is that change usually requires both inside and outside collaboration. An idea or new priority might come from employees or the public, but it will require employees to make it work and to do so, they often need outside political support. (More on this collaboration in an upcoming post.)
Sometimes my objectives were shared by leadership, but more often than not I had to make them into priorities. I took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the governance structure of my agency (and every crisis) in order to push the changes I wanted to make. Key to this was figuring out how priorities were set and using my privilege and relationships to get on the agenda. And then never giving up regardless if the challenges were political or technical, one of the best things said about me when I left my job was that I had tactful relentlessness. Most of my projects or policy changes took years to achieve.
(After 4 years I realized that the vulnerabilities I was using were unsustainable for the agency and so I spent the next 2 years trying to fix them. This proved more difficult and gave me a lot to think about. So perhaps more later on the dilemma between making specific policy/program changes and changing the organization itself.)
In addition to organizing skills, I found it useful to think about the functions and roles within large complicated organizations. Through conversations with colleagues I came up with the three-sided spectrum of ideas people, details people, and process people. An organization needs a balance of all three types of thinking and often is lacking in ‘process’ people. Process people provide the connective tissue between silos and often do the translating I mentioned previously between and across the organization.
I was able to build a talented multidisciplinary team of process people who coordinated across departments and pushed projects up the hill of complexity. This gave us power in the organization because we were designing decision-making processes and we had the time and space to problem-solve collaboratively.
I know that I benefited from luck/good timing, leadership, and talented colleagues. But my experience and training as an organizer, who thinks about organizational dynamics, really helped me strategically play the cards I had and know which battles to fight when.
Part 1: The Need and the Challenge
For those of us who are committed to addressing climate change, dismantling white supremacy, and reducing economic inequality in the U.S. and who believe that government has a critical role, these have been a difficult few years, or decades. But we hold out hope in the election, at all levels of government, of change-makers with ambitious policy proposals. Clearly, the grassroots organizing in support of these proposals (and officials) needs to continue for them to be adopted, but from my vantage point as a (former) public employee, a similar amount of work is needed to actually implement these policies.
In school, we learned how a bill becomes a law (at least in a sanitized procedural sense). But few curricula cover what comes next: How does a law or a policy become enforceable regulations or take shape as a new program or service?
My sense is that many people perceive government agencies (the bureaucracy, not the politicians) as black boxes. This leads people to assume that every problem is the result of incompetence or lack of political will. In reality, government agencies are a collection of people managing technical systems, infrastructure, and business processes tenuously connected together through years of patchwork and, in all likelihood, under investment. The systems of systems create large amounts of complexity.
Because of the complexity, implementing a policy change or a new program can be just as difficult as getting a decision made. The challenges in making change could come from needing to modify an old technical system, connecting multiple systems together, getting decisions made across the silos within the organization, or unintended consequences that have a ripple effect across multiple systems and processes.
The challenges are often harder in the public sector because services need to be sustainable, scalable, and they should serve everyone, in many cases every day of the year. My former colleagues would tell you that I am obsessed with edge cases, and that is because, unlike the private sector, the role of government is to work for the people on the margins. Working for everyone means figuring out how to make government services accessible in all definitions of the word (people with disabilities, people without internet access, cash users, and on snow days). This requires far more work than aiming to serve the 85th percentile or a chosen targeted market.
Implementation requires people with the skills and commitment to the slow slog of making change deep in the machinery of government. Policy implementation requires creativity and building internal coalitions, and sometimes external partnerships, to find a way. The work usually isn’t particularly visible; and most public sector employees don’t have a public voice. While it is very rewarding to see something you did impacting lives at a large scale, often there is limited public understanding of the immense amount of work to achieve changes and criticism is very easy to find.
If we believe that government can and should solve problems, we need change-makers embedded in all levels of government. So this is my humble call for an expanding squad of public employees ready to laugh and cry their way through the complexity to lasting change.
In this week of rebirth of government in the U.S., I will post some reflections on skills, accountability, and collaboration from my six years of implementing change at the MBTA/MassDOT. For those unfamiliar with my work, I focused on changes to fare policy and programs, and service policy and pilots to increase equity. I welcome feedback on this blog or email at laurelintransit via gmail.com.
Public transit is in crisis, but this moment is an opportunity to rebuild our transit networks to address historic inequities in our transportation infrastructure. When transit ridership dropped significantly across the United States in March, the remaining ridership revealed exact when and where our most dependent riders need to travel. As expected there was significant overlap with the communities of color most impacted by COVID. The uprising for racial justice in the summer of 2020 makes it more imperative that the recovery address past injustices.
Right now public transit agencies in the US are addressing decreased capacity due to social distancing, decrease revenue, and the elevated need to provide access for essential workers. Even with additional federal financial intervention, most agencies will have to make some service cuts and potentially face long term revenue shortfalls. How those cuts are done and how service is restored as riders return will be critical to the equity of public transit and US cities.
COVID could have long-lasting impacts on travel patterns. Higher rates of telework could reduce peak trips. We need changes in how transit service is designed and delivered with a focus on serving all trips, not just peak work trips. Full-time transit riders, especially service workers, need service at different times of day, on the weekends, and to different locations. This makes all day frequency, especially on bus, more important as telework potentially reshapes white collar commuting patterns.
This is a moment with potential for large structural change. Given the scale of the crisis, we have the chance to fix the foundation of public transit networks and to be better equipped to respond to whatever travel pattern changes COVID might bring and to encourage a return to transit. But this will require agencies and traditional transportation advocates to change their usual responses. The conversation shouldn’t be about whether or not to cut service, instead it should focus on how to best serve the needs of the moment and the future. Some service might need to be scaled back due to lack of demand and in order to increase resources elsewhere in the network.
A small peek inside my brain
The normal goal of a commute trip is to minimize total time. But if you are bicyclist you are also concerned with conserving energy or retaining momentum. Since traffic signals are not coordinated for bicycle speeds (or at all) I have developed a system of adjusting my riding speed between each signal to minimize time stopped.
What I call the bicycle game started with counting the number of times I put my feet down, but evolved into a serious data collection effort. Everyday I record the total trip time, riding time, average riding speed, start time, and distance.
In my attempt to optimize my commute I consider three main indicator variables:
– total time,
– percent of total time stopped, and
– average riding kph.
I also compare three riding strategies:
– baseline (just riding)
– timing (trying to not stop), and
– speed (biking as fast as possible)
The following graphs compare each of the indicators for each strategy.
Percent of Time Stopped compared to Total Time
Average Kilometers per Hour compared to Total Time
Average Kilometers per Hour compared to Percent Time Stopped
While more data is needed, it is clear that while the timing game has produced the best individual results (shortest time and an almost zero stopped time commute) it has a large variance. So either I am not that good at it or there are too many factors out of my control (start time doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact). Riding fast is the most reliable method to minimize total time, but it results in a lot of wasted energy. Some combination of speed and timing is the most optimal solution, but it might be almost impossible to reliably replicate due to all of the outside factors.