The right policy tool for the problem

Ideally transit agencies should not have to be in the position of directly alleviating income inequality. They should play a supporting role by getting people to opportunities; federal and state policies like taxes, minimum wage and benefits laws, and guaranteed income programs should be addressing the outrageous inequality and poverty in the US.

If poverty was addressed in other areas of public policy, then transportation policy could focus on using pricing to shift behavior to address congestion and emissions. The US should have high quality transit at a low to no cost to users to make it competitive, and be partially funded by making the cost of driving reflect its true social cost. But unfortunately we are far from this reality, so transit agencies are often in the position of trying to solve multiple policy problems with limited tools.

Means-testing is at the center of progressive public policy- just usually we think about it as income (individual and corporate) taxes. But transit agencies don’t have the power to levy income taxes. So means-tested fares are one of the few tools they have to raise revenue in a progressive manner (value capture is another idea often discussed).

Multi-modal agencies like the MBTA use mode as a proxy for income in their fare policy with lower bus fares and higher commuter rail fares. But this can be a self-fulfilling cycle reinforcing the existing usage of bus by low-income riders and exclusion of low-income people on commuter/regional rail. It has become a greater concern with the suburbanization of poverty. (Addressing housing affordability is critical, but again one that many transit agencies have limited control over.)

Free transit for all and means-tested fares are popular policy ideas for addressing transit affordability, but let’s continue to remember the root cause of the problem is policies that create vast income inequality. How equitable either idea is in part depends on where the lost fare revenue will come from. For example, replacing all fare revenue with sales tax revenue is likely more regressive than means-tested fare system where higher income riders pay fares. All calls for free or means-tested fares should be associated with a funding source that ensures low-income people aren’t just paying in a different form (and additional funding to increase service since people’s time is also a cost!).

The mix of funding sources for every major transit agency in the country is different. In 2019, the MBTA reported a 44.6% farebox recovery ratio to the National Transit Database while the Los Angeles Metro reported 14.6%. The differences are both local funding sources, rider demographics, and types of services offered. LA Metro doesn’t run the regional rail while the MBTA does.

This means that a one-size fits all policy at the transit agency level isn’t possible. From a funding perspective what works in LA, won’t necessarily work or be equitable in Boston. However, the affordability arguments for free fares or means-testing are universal. The farebox recovery ratio is meaningless to a rider trying to make ends meet every day in LA or Boston or anywhere in-between. And whether a person has to ride a bus or a train to get from A to B (and who operates it) also doesn’t matter.

To me this is a clear indication of the need for federal policies to address both income inequality and public transit funding. Transit agencies only survived COVID because the federal government passed three rounds of emergency funding (totaling ~$70 billion). But this was the first major federal funding for transit operations (not capital) since it was cut by President Reagan in the 1980s.  A return to regular federal transit operating assistance, funded by a progressive (and true cost of driving) source, could allow agencies to increase service and either lower fares or implement means-tested fares.  

A weedy postscript on fares and federal tax policy

A side note on fares and federal policy

Deep in the weeds of the MBTA’s fare revenue there was a golden egg

There is another way that the federal government subsidizes transit and that is through the pre-tax deduction for transit fares (and parking at transit lots). While this benefit primarily goes to individuals who work in higher paying jobs whose employers participate in these types of programs, transit agencies benefit as well.  I only know the details at the MBTA, and it is worth exploring the COVID impacts and thinking about what changes are needed.

Before COVID the MBTA’s corporate pass program was the golden egg of fare revenue. People could only sign up for monthly passes on a reoccurring basis and the cost was subsidized by the pre-tax payment and often by employers. This allowed the MBTA to set higher commuter rail pass prices. It also meant that often high income riders bought passes for which they didn’t take the number of trips required to break-even at the sticker price. The MBTA got revenue from passes without having to provide all of the capacity they could have represented.

This was equity enhancing only because the MBTA has a weekly bus/subway pass that is roughly ¼ of the monthly to maintain pass access for low-income riders not in the corporate program. And because the agency could use the corporate pass revenue to fund service for the bus/subway pass users riding more than the breakeven point. So commuters (really the federal government and employers) were subsidizing everyday riders.

The COVID pandemic likely killed this golden goose for the MBTA. First, many people turned off their transit payroll deductions during the pandemic and will have to be convinced to resign up. And second, it is likely that some continued remote work will make the monthly pass less attractive, even with the pre-tax benefits. It is also possible that large employers will reduce their subsidies for transit (please don’t).

This means even as ridership returns fare revenue could lag behind, thus creating a structural problem if there isn’t a new source of sustainable operating funds.  This new source of funds should also be equity enhancing, not higher fares on the remaining riders.

Clearly the MBTA, and other transit agencies previously reliant on pass revenue, have to rethink their fare structures over the next few years, including different products in their corporate programs (will require technology upgrades). It will also be important to make federal and employer transit benefits more available for lower wage workers in industries where remote work isn’t an option.    

I would be curious to hear from folks with knowledge of other agencies’ fare mix if there are similar or different concerns about how fare revenue will return. Do people have suggestions about how to make sure the federal transit pre-tax policy remains a useful tool for transit agencies?

The future is shared transport

The pandemic might have changed some things, but I think mostly it revealed or exacerbated existing conditions. So far it has not fundamentally changed my view of the future of transportation. Three key realities remain true. One, we have to reduce emissions from transportation to address climate change and air quality. Two, we have a limited amount of public space for mobility and increasing demand for it. (The pandemic intensified the demand with more deliveries and public outdoor space for dining, recreation, and non-motorized transport.) Three, our transportation system is unequal, unsafe and inefficient in both funding and how public space is allocated and enforced. (This past year further illuminated the inequity and violence around enforcement in public space and expanded my definition of safety.)

Maybe because I was a math major in college, when faced with multiple problems I like to find the intersection of their solution sets. In this case, the use, space allocation, and funding for systems of shared transport is clearly in the intersection of all three problems.  While the space and emissions benefits of shared transport are fairly clear, shared transport is also important as a place for social integration. I believe it is critical for a multiracial democracy to have places where people safely share space with people from different backgrounds.

Over the past decade my thinking about shared transport expanded. In part because I spent several years living and traveling in the Global South and saw a variety of shared transport systems that have been around for a very long time. And as new technology (e.g. electric scooters) and the ability to book fares on smartphones has created new shared mobility opportunities (and a new place for competition to take place).  

As I left my research role in Santiago, Chile I wrote a paper about shifting regulatory frameworks for transportation (presented at Transportation Research Board 2017).  My premise is that transport can be framed on two axes: the spectrum of how collective/shared the vehicles are, and the role of the state in providing the service (publicness). This graphic could be updated, but the idea is still useful.

As the graphic shows, shared transport ranges from bicycle sharing to trains that can carry thousands.  We need many types of shared mobility to match different land uses, demand levels, and personal preferences. There is no one size fits all regardless of who is operating the service. (I want to start thinking about how urban freight/deliveries fit in.)

Given the intersection of problems we need to shift trips from private motorized vehicles to shared vehicles (and non-motorized modes). The important policy questions are often around what is the role of the state in regulating, funding, and operating each service to achieve this goal and provide equitable access. The graphic illustrates there is an increase in publicness as sharing capacity increases. This is due to the need for large capital investment that lends itself to a public monopoly, but public ownership exists across the sharing spectrum.

I don’t know exactly what the mix of public and privately operated shared transport services will be in the future (or how Autonomous Vehicles will manifest), but regardless of that future it will be essential to have a digital platform that provides users with information about costs, in both time and money for any given trip, and books fares. Many tech companies have figured this out and are trying to be the platform. But it is critical that the platform be owned by the public sector.

Public control is necessary to ensure fair competition, facilitate equitable access, and achieve public policy goals. The digital platform is essentially the marketplace for shared transportation and, especially if there are private operators, the site of competition by giving consumers (comparable) information. The public sector can set the rules for access to the platform, like ADA accessible vehicles or providing service in low-income communities.   

A digital information and ticketing platform also provides the mechanism for government subsidy for transportation, either for equity goals or incentives to shift behavior to shared trips. Subsidy could be applied at the trip level, for types of services, or for individuals. Even if some public transit service is free, a platform allows public subsidy for low-income people to make trips where and when high capacity public transit service doesn’t make sense. For example, free transfers to bike sharing controlled by a different entity or a subsidized taxi trip late at night.

Another key reason for public ownership of the platform is to ensure access for cash users as the trend toward smartphone and contactless payments continue. Cash use is needed for under-banked people and privacy reasons. The platform has to be attached to an easy way for people to add cash to accounts that can be used to pay for all forms of transportation.

The MBTA Fare Transformation project is designed to be the foundation of a public platform. After integrating all of the MBTA services together, the plan is to bring in other services and develop joint fare products. The retail and fare vending machine network will provide access to cash users not only to the MBTA, but potentially to other shared mobility options. If all goes according to plan, it is a good example of a public agency acting proactively to protect the public good in the future.

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.

Transit Governance Part 1: Advocacy Relationship

In my quest to encourage transit agency and advocate collaboration to increase transit equity, I need to take a moment to talk about transit governance.

Who does a public transit agency work for? The idealistic answer is the public. But the real-politik answer is important to the relationship between transit advocates and an agency. This answer lies in the intersection of where the agency’s funding comes from and who appoints the leadership (Board and Chief Executive). Another way to ask this question is what elected officials should be held accountable for a transit agency’s performance or decisions.

Governance structures for transit agencies vary across the US and often get very complicated. There is utility in having the funding source directly connected to the governance board. There are arguments for making an agency clearly the responsibility of a single elected official or elected body so that accountability is easier. But both can limit the representation and lived experiences on the board (which should be addressed).

Understanding the governance structure is critical for advocates to know where the decision-making power lies and how to direct their advocacy. And it is also important to understanding what role advocates need to play and what role the transit agency can play in making change.

In my personal experience most transit professionals are in their jobs because they want to improve public transit. It is a mission-driven organization and the stress is too great to stay if you don’t care. So in all likelihood transit advocates share some common goals with the workforce and middle management of the agency. I believe pushing change forward requires inside/outside collaboration. Governance defines how that collaboration can work because it determines the roles of the different players in making change.

How the agency can advocate for itself depends on the governance model. My personal experience is in Boston (working for the MBTA) and in Atlanta (as an advocate for MARTA). In Massachusetts the MBTA works for the Governor and the majority of the (non-fare) funding comes from the state. When I lived in Atlanta MARTA was funded by the City of Atlanta and two surrounding counties and the Board was appointed by those jurisdictions (and some seats by the state).

MARTA was able to advocate for itself at the state legislature (see photos in this post) and work directly with community groups to support more funding. But it didn’t get any operating funds from the state of Georgia (due to racism, but that is a story for another day). The MBTA is functionally part of state government, so is unable to advocate for itself as an entity separate from the rest of the administration. But it does get state funding. I worked with the same General Manager in both places so know the difference isn’t solely about leadership.   

This means in a region like Boston, one of the main roles for advocates is to speak-up for the transit agency in a way that the agency can’t. Asking the MBTA leadership to go against the position of the Governor (whoever it is) is like asking someone to publicly contradict their boss. It is tempting, but not really a recipe for success. This might be frustrating for staff and advocates, but it is the existing reality.

Regardless of the governance, advocates should hold the agency accountable for the decisions that are in their control and push (or change) the relevant elected officials on decisions that are out of the agency’s control. And at the end of the day advocates are always playing a supporting role, it is the transit agency that has to implement any changes and have the trust of the public to spend public funds.

Advocates, your role is to push transit agencies into the stars we need them to be! This can be hard to remember when you are trying to get your voice heard and secure funding for your organization, or if it feels like you are fighting the bureaucracy. But you are a supporting character with the goal of organizing yourself out of being necessary. Understanding your role within the existing governance structure (or trying to change it) is critical to helping the transit agency shine brighter.

(Agency staff, if you missed it, check out my posts about accountability and movement building inside.)

Transit is a dependent and independent variable

The federal American Rescue Plan will allow transit agencies to fill their budget holes for the short-term to keep running service as the country starts the recovery from the pandemic. But transit advocates shouldn’t declare victory yet; the long-term funding problem isn’t solved and restoring service isn’t as simple as it sounds. 

The pace of returning service varies across transit agencies in part because agencies have been running different levels of their pre-COVID service throughout the pandemic. Different levels are likely due to the percent of pre-COVID service at peak, pandemic ridership, funding, and employee availability. 

  • The MBTA announced that they are budgeting for full bus and rapid transit service in FY22 (which starts July 1) and working to restore some service sooner. They are currently operating 86% of service.
  • The San Francisco MTA said the federal funding buys time, but it’s essential to find new sources of ongoing operating funds to move beyond 85% service restoration by January 2022. Service is currently at 70%.
  • LA Metro has been running 80% of pre-COVID service and promised full bus service restoration by September 2021.
  • King County Metro in Seattle is running about 85% of service now and their 2021-22 adopted budget funds a return to pre-COVID service levels by the end of 2022. They are planning a significant increase in September 2021.

A key logistical challenge to restoring service will be hiring and training operators. Before COVID many transit agencies were struggling to hire bus operators, there are normal attrition rates of operators even without the additional stress of working through a pandemic, and likely most agencies slowed or stopped their training programs for financial and safety reasons. 

Having the funds to run service is not the same as knowing what service to run. Transit service is both a dependent and independent variable in travel patterns. Frequent service is needed to get people to come back to transit, but agencies don’t know yet how travel patterns have changed independent of their service levels. This means that, even with service restored, the service distribution is likely going to have to change over the next few years as our communities recover from COVID.  

It is also important to remember that many transit agencies set lower crowding standards and shifted their service to respond to ridership. So getting back to 100% of pre-COVID service doesn’t mean all pre-COVID service, unless that additional service on routes serving essential workers is cut back. For the MBTA, as an example, this might mean that they should aim for over 100% of pre-COVID bus service and remain at less than 100% on ferry and commuter rail.    

Service changes are hard, but necessary to align service with demand. So let’s all commit right now that we know there will need to be service changes over the next few years and that agencies and communities can work through them collaboratively.  

These changes are also likely going to align in some cases with agencies running out of the third allotment of federal funding. Especially if fare revenue doesn’t completely recover, agencies are going to need new sustainable and progressive sources of funding. Without new funding there will likely have to be service cuts; even with new sources of funding service changes will likely mean some reductions in service where demand hasn’t returned.

We should pivot from the discussion of restoring pre-COVID service to envisioning what data, processes, and trust we will need to get sustainable funding sources and to rebuild more equitable transit networks.

‘More equitable’ than before COVID

Before I left the MBTA I made a powerpoint slide (one of hundreds I made over 6 years) for my last Board presentation and on it I wrote, “ Our commitment is that service at the end of the recovery will be more equitable than before COVID”. At the MBTA Board meeting this week the General Manager reaffirmed this commitment.

Hopefully other transit agencies are also currently making this commitment, or being pushed to make this commitment. The Biden Administration is putting transportation central in their equity agenda.  The additional federal funds for transit as part of the American Rescue Plan should stave off service cuts for the short-term, but that doesn’t guarantee service will be ‘more equitable.’ All of this begs the question, what is ‘more equitable’ and how should it be decided, measured, and implemented?

The existing official measure of equity for transit service is a Title VI (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) equity analysis. The current (2012) Federal Transit Administration Title VI circular sets a process for performing an analysis that measures the equity of changes off the current conditions. This, unfortunately, assumes that the current conditions are equitable. To make service ‘more equitable’, we (agencies and the community) need to acknowledge the ways that the existing service (pre-COVID) is inequitable. This accounting of past, and current, inequitable policies and practices is necessary to build trust between agencies and communities, and to establish the real baseline off which to measure equity improvements.   

Researchers, advocates, and transit agencies have been working for years to develop new ways to measure equity that better approximate equity in access (transportation’s central function). There are numerous versions of access to opportunity measures that, for example, look at the number of destinations people in different neighborhoods can reach in a time budget. The MBTA is working on a competitiveness measure that is based off the idea that transit users should have a trip that is ‘competitive’ with car users making the same trip (adding the component of trip quality).  

After equity is defined and measured, the results of the analysis have to be translated into changes to the transit network (in space) and levels of service (in time) within the very real context of an operating budget, vehicle, and labor constraints. The MBTA already made equity positive changes to respond to different ridership levels by route during the pandemic. There are more than 20 bus routes with more service than before the pandemic to meet social distancing crowding standards. It would be ‘more equitable’ to keep all or some of this additional service on these routes serving low-income communities of color after the need for social distancing recedes. However, that means the MBTA will need to keep other bus routes running with less service, shift funds from other modes, or receive additional operating resources above those needed to replace their lost fare revenue for the considerable future.  (And, of course, work with cities to keep prioritizing buses on streets to make service more efficient.)

Even with the additional federal funds, there are necessary (and hard) decisions facing transit agencies on how to rebuild. More equitable also means decision-making using a collaborative process. Now is the time for realistic conversations between transit riders, advocates, and agencies about how to account for the past, define and measure equity, and make service changes.

Please join me (or let me join you) in making these conversations happen1. Putting all of the service back exactly how it was before COVID is not equitable. To respond to the overlapping crises of public health, economic inequality, and racial injustice we have to rebuild our transit networks as a foundation for a more equitable recovery.

1 If you actually look at the powerpoint slide in question you will see I suggested a simple metric for ‘more equitable’ as measured by percent of service hours serving minority and low-income populations. It is a starting place for a conversation.

Part 5: Building Power-with from the Outside

In Part 4, I discussed some ideas for agency insiders to democratize their technical power and value experiential knowledge. In my theory of change, organizers outside are critical to changing government agencies’ policies and practices. Often people on the inside need political support from the outside to push change. And more importantly, most priorities for changes should come from impacted communities.   

I decided to study transportation after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia without a car. One afternoon during my rail to bus transfer, I met members of a grassroots transit riders’ group passing out fliers at a MARTA station. They were in my neighborhood organizing riders to make the transit system work better for them. I went to their next meeting and for the next five years I would use what I was learning in grad school to provide technical support to Atlanta organizations with low-income, of color, and disabled leaders organizing transit riders and workers. I also became a person who transit insiders called when they needed something said they couldn’t say publicly themselves without risk. I supported a joint day of action in 2010 organized by the transit agency, the employee union, and a transit advocate organization (all groups led by Black women) that successfully pressured the Georgia legislature to make a needed change to save transit service levels.        

  • Large red X painted on a side of a MARTA car
  • Red X painted on the side of a MARTA bus
  • Rally on the upper level of MARTA 5 Points station
  • People marching to Georgia State Capitol Building
  • Crowd of people hold MARTA Breeze cards in center of Georgia State House
  • Rider at a table filling out a sign-up form

A convergence of leadership, governance structure, and historical moment led to such public collaboration at this high level of an agency. However, the central tenet remains constant: change-makers inside and outside of the agency building power-with each other. In power-with change making, developing a common understanding of the role each plays in the partnership is necessary to achieve the shared goal. 

In her book The Purpose of Power, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, defines organizing as building relationships so that together you can build power to change the conditions hurting your community. She makes sure to point out that a condition of success is changing the relationships of power so that it is held by many instead of few (pg 56). I call power held by many ‘power-with’ and power held by few ‘power-over’. (Terms I picked up in a Women’s Studies class as an undergraduate.)

I have observed how effectively building relationships with people inside government agencies can help outside organizers push change. Internal change-makers can provide information that is hidden, sometimes on purpose, from the outside; can explain the complexity around problems; and can identify leverage or decision points. Insiders can do the creative problem-solving internally to find a way to implement changes. They can champion changes sought by communities.

The challenge is how to build those relationships using power-with tactics within the overall power-over system that internal change-makers work in. The circumstances vary on how much internal change-makers can build power internally. They are working in a system where others have power-over them. Sometimes insiders are putting their livelihood at risk when they collaborate with outside organizers, so relationships require trust.

This is not to let people in the public sector, especially in leadership positions, off the hook, but to say that we need the creative tension of accountability and support. Using this tension to make change requires understanding the role that individuals play in bureaucracies. Decisions are made by individuals in the context of systems and political structures. Individuals in systems need to be held accountable for the decisions within their purview and must be supported so they can take risks.

Instead of criticizing individuals (or organizations) for not making decisions they don’t have the power alone to make, outside organizers should work to build the conditions where, either that individual has that power (political cover), or that power is more widely held. Identifying where in the system decisions can be made, and illuminating what or who is preventing those decisions, allows organizers to hold government to account while maintaining trust in the institutions of government that are working within the existing system of power. (A corollary to this principle is that trying to hold institutions to account for decisions they can’t make, or positions they can’t take, can undermine those institutions in the eyes of the public.)

Accountability is two-sided. Internal change-makers should also be asking what makes their potential outside partners accountable and to whom. In transportation there tend to be advocate organizations that have experiential expertise and those that specialize in technical expertise. The authority of organizations with experiential expertise comes from their legitimacy with the communities they represent. For organizations based on technical expertise there is a tendency to base their legitimacy on the power of their ideas. However, this can set up a power-over dynamic where the argument becomes about whose ideas are better, instead of how to collaboratively make change based on shared goals.

Organizers with access to power can use the tools of power-over to try to force change, but that comes at a cost and does not build relationships. No matter who uses power-over techniques they still replicate the systems of inequality, even if organizers ‘win’ in the short-term. In my personal experience, organizations that are rooted in communities historically without power and led by women and people of color are well-versed in power-with tactics. I assume this is due to their lack of access to power-over decision-makers, and because people who have had power wielded over them are less likely to replicate these tactics. The movement to create a better world is practicing the world we want.

I wish that the public didn’t have to organize themselves to change how government operates and treats them. Government should exist to solve problems and improve the lives of everyone. But we have to start with the reality of the power-over world we live in. Making sustained change will require dedicated organizers inside and outside of government working collaboratively to build power-with each other in large and small ways.

Part 4: Building Power-with from the Inside

As I mentioned in Part 2 my theory of change at government agencies is that usually it requires people inside and outside agencies working collaboratively or at least pushing in the same direction. A key contribution from people inside is working to democratize their power.

The first book I checked out of the library after quitting my job (and had time to read again) was Max Weber’s The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. I wanted to go back to the theory on the functioning of bureaucracy and its role. Weber postulates that bureaucratic administration gets its power from technical knowledge and they increase their power by acquiring additional knowledge specific to the functioning of their office (what I called complexity).  

I hope, especially after the last 10 months of the COVID pandemic, we can agree on the value of experts in government. The complexity is real and it requires technical knowledge to implement programs and services and maintain infrastructure that works for the public. But the greater the complexity, the greater the potential for an unaccountable or inaccessible government. To counter this concentration of power, governments need to make technical information more widely available and to value experiential as well as technical knowledge in decision-making. 

Open data is one way that bureaucracies are sharing some of their technical power with people outside. It is a transparency tool that allows people to do their own analysis. But, I do have to point out that data rarely tells the entire story of the complexity. Data alone isn’t information and can be misinterpreted (by insiders or outsiders). So in addition to open data, we need data literacy tools that can help people engage in policy decision-making on the same terms.

My hypothesis is that a collaboration between internal data experts and outside stakeholders is most likely to produce tools that help the public engage in (or even challenge) the technical basis of policy decisions. (Please share any examples you know of.) It can be hard to translate the complexity and the messiness of data for multiple audiences. For one project (more about accountability than decision-making) my team created a dashboard that used a layered approach so people could keep drilling down if they wanted more detail. We also created a data blog so we could tell the stories behind the data, explain past mistakes, and provide examples of the ambiguity in data analysis.        

One of the reasons why I love working in transportation is that I have no problem talking to strangers, or rather, they have no problem talking to me. I just mention my job and everyone has an opinion about what needs to change. Everyone experiences transportation in a way that is more clear-cut than how we experience, for example, health care in this country. This doesn’t make transportation policy simple, but everyday experiences make it more accessible to everyone.  

The lived experiences of the public are needed to turn data into knowledge. Policy decision-making should integrate technical and experiential knowledge. In a practical sense, this means getting public input throughout the data analysis or technical phases of a project or policy decision (instead of at the end). In a principled sense, this means valuing the public’s experiential knowledge, especially from people whose voices are not well represented inside the agency or at the decision-making table, as important as technical knowledge. Valuing experiential knowledge requires stretching beyond any stated principle of equity in decision-making to operationalizing this principle in ongoing relationships with communities. It is more complicated in practice than most technical analysis, but rarely is given adequate resources.

Taking steps to open data and lift up experiential knowledge can be very challenging for insiders who get their power from their technical expertise. Within complicated organizations controlling access to information, to the public or other employees, is one way the few retain power-over the many. By sharing information and integrating technical and experiential knowledge, agency insiders can build power-with outside partners to make change.   

(Side note, a great example of how technical and experiential knowledge clashed and then combined to make better health care policy comes from the relationship between Dr. Fauci and AIDS activists in the late 1980s.)

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.