Transit Governance Part 2: The MBTA FMCB

Since the Massachusetts legislature is considering the next governance board for the MBTA, I thought I would post a reflection from my front row seat at the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) for 5.5 years.

For the uninitiated the FMCB is a volunteer five member board who were all appointed by Governor Baker to oversee the MBTA. Over the course of almost six years there have been eight members; three members have served the entire time. The Board met three (sometimes four) times a month for almost five years and now meets twice a month. And meetings generally last from 4-5 hours.

I officially started at the MBTA in December 2014 before it started snowing and the agency was still under the MassDOT Board. After the Governor’s panel recommendation, I remember the staff conversations about the wisdom of creating a new board. When the FMCB started I became a key staff member doing presentations. Based on my experience, the transparency, scope, and power structure are all worth reflection.

The number and detail of the topics the Board took up and the sheer amount of time in public session made the FMCB an experiment in transparency in transit governance. It exposed the public or anyone with the ability to sit through long meetings (and later live-streams) to details of running a transit agency that usually are handled internally.

The frequency of meetings keeps the MBTA in the news every week and front of mind as the agency worked to recover from a number of crises. The meetings created a space for public input and Board members are generally more available to advocates than other members of MBTA or MassDOT leadership. The Board strives for consensus and it appears that members want to have an open debate on hard issues.    

In an idealized sense, public policy decisions are made by applying community values to the best information available on costs, benefits, and tradeoffs. Especially in complex organizations like transit agencies, expert staff are needed to provide the best information to a decision-making body (Board, Chief Executive, elected officials) which applies the community values.

However, given the power dynamics and the public nature of the FMCB meetings, staff subject matter experts didn’t always feel like they could speak freely about the complexity or unintended consequences of Board decisions. During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid. Sometimes the Secretary or General Manager (GM) would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either.  

I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.  

One consideration is what level of detail the Board should operate at. One of the things that the FMCB did is bring to the Board many decisions or discussions that previously would have ended with the GM. There are clearly policy decisions that should happen by a Board in public (like fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning). But once you get past those items that require votes, it is hard to know where to stop. The downside of too large a Board scope isn’t just staff unable to speak freely, but also the number of Board meetings to cover all the material.  

For the first four years of the FMCB, the Board met three to four times a month requiring a significant amount of executive time preparing for meetings. As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a Board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM. When I talked to peers at other agencies they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their Board meeting that often.   

The external safety panel found that the frequent Board meetings had a ‘detrimental effect’ on the agency. Preparing for Board meetings replaced regular senior staff meetings, with a focus on the Board’s agenda instead of issues that were raised up internally. There are a lot of mundane and important issues, like safety, that transit professionals deal with on a daily basis that require executive, but not necessarily Board, attention.  

A lot of this boils down to what is the role of the Board compared to the General Manager and Secretary of Transportation. It often felt like all three were playing similar political roles, instead of complementary roles, without a clear power structure. In practice this meant that sometimes the strategic energy of leadership was spent trying to position each other, instead of jointly positioning the agency outward or forward.

The FMCB diminished the role of the GM, not just by setting the agenda, but also with staff. Under the MassDOT Board, the GM and the Secretary were the main conduits of information to the Board outside formal staff presentations. The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the Board and staff. I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or Secretary directly to Board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.   

The muddled power structure creates access for some new ideas, but based on relationships not the merit of the ideas. It was difficult for staff to understand the priorities when they got different feedback from multiple leaders, which creates frustration and wastes time and effort. If an organization is going to use a hierarchical power structure than the structure should be clear to all involved.

I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds.

In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire. It makes sense for the Board to be the site of public policy decision-making by applying the community values to the staff expertise marshaled by the GM. There should be clear roles and responsibilities between the GM, Board, and Secretary for the benefit of the staff and the public.

Having the Board operating at a higher level would scale back the number of meetings. This could create a better balance for executive attention to issues that come externally (from the public and Board) and that come up through the ranks internally. In order to make sure this doesn’t diminish the important transparency the FMCB provided, the MBTA would need to use other methods for leadership to explain themselves and engage with the public.

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