Part 3: Accountability Inside Government Agencies

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.

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