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Citizen Engagement

Washington’s Metro — the costs of carelessness

Brian Levy's picture

This is the second post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post reveals how multiple layers of government and inattention to quality controls leads to deterioration in performance.

June 22, 2009 WMATA Collision
June 22, 2009 accident on Metro's Red Line
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.

Citizen engagement quiz!

Alice Lloyd's picture

Government works best when citizens are directly engaged in policymaking & public service delivery.  This month we’ve been highlighting the importance of government responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry. 
Think you know about citizen engagement?  Take our quiz based on some of our most recent blogs and find out!  And let us know how you did by sharing your score on twitter @wbg_gov!
Want to know more? Enroll for free in World Bank course on Citizen Engagement which starts on February 1 to learn how you could help improve public services.

How am I doing? A new daily scorecard will soon let Boston’s mayor know

Alice Lloyd's picture
City of Boston skyline. Photo credit: Mattias Rosenkranz

2016.  A new year and a new emphasis on data-driven performance for local government.  Cities are accelerating at a fast pace to put data to use. Not just to understand what’s happening on the street level, also to improve service delivery systems.
Until recently, Boston’s Department of public works kept track of jobs on paper. And there was no efficient system to track what jobs were done and what needed to be done.
But that has changed.

When the emperor reaches out to the citizen, that’s new

Julia Oliver's picture

If you want a passport in Pakistan, you wait in line – possibly for hours. You might get to the passport office at the crack of dawn to avoid the queue. The process might be unclear, and there might be people – “agents” – waiting outside the office, offering to help: “For a few hundred rupees, I can fast-track your application.”
The government of Pakistan is trying to fix these problems, including the requests for bribes, rude treatment, and inefficient processing. Their approach is simple and creative and made possible because there are an estimated 123 million mobile phone users in the South Asian nation – about 64 percent of the population, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
Beginning this fall, staff at each of the passport office’s 95 locations began collecting the cell phone numbers of all passport applicants. Shortly after each visit, the central headquarters sends the applicant a text message: “Did you face any problem or did someone ask you for money?”

From citizen feedback to inclusive institutions: 10 lessons

Soren Gigler's picture
Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Over the last couple of years a small team of us have worked on an initiative to incorporate the regular, systematic feedback of citizens into the design and execution of World Bank programs. I would like to share some of our experiences working together with governments, civil society organizations and citizens in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa on this citizen engagement initiative.

First, citizen engagement is not new. For instance, the early work by Robert Chambers, “The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal and Michael Cernea’s “Putting People First” date from 1980s and early 90s and were quite inspirational for many of us who have worked issues of gathering and acting on citizen feedback.
At the same time, something important has changed. There has been an increasing demand by civil society and citizens to have a greater say in public decision-making, and a desire among many governments to be more inclusive and responsive to citizens’ needs. Also, the rise of innovations in technology has provided citizens with new and unprecedented opportunities to directly engage policy makers and demonstrated the potential to facilitate “Closing the Feedback Loop” between citizen and governments.

Building trust in the government one text at a time

Jana Kunicova's picture
English translation of the text message.
English translation of the text message that the government sends to citizens to in an attempt to prevent corruption.

Albanian citizens who recently received treatment at a state-run hospital are likely to receive a text message that reads something like this: “Hi, I am Bledi Cuci, Minister of State responsible for anti-corruption. Our records indicate that you recently received care in a state hospital.

Could you kindly tell me if you were asked to pay a bribe? Reply is free. Thank you for your time.

The SMS campaign, supported by The World Bank and implemented by the Ministry of State for Local Issues and Anti-Corruption, was launched on March 9, 2015.

As of early June, it has reached more than 33,500 citizens in a country of three million. About 20 percent have responded, reporting many service delivery problems.

The doctors are always late and the corruption continues as always. Without giving away money, no one takes care of you,” read one response. Others complain of lack of cleanliness or the absence of medicines: “No, they didn't ask for bribe, but we had to buy the drugs outside of the hospital because they didn't have any.” 

Rebuilding trust in governments through Open Contracting

Luis Vélez Pretelt's picture

Building trust between citizens and governments is crucial to successfully address, in a collaborative and engaged manner, many of the issues that affect the everyday lives of citizens, like corruption, government inefficiency and lack of service delivery.

Recent data, however, has shown that trust between citizens and governments ranks low.

In fact the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer stated that the number of “truster countries” are at an all-time low, reflecting a general decline of people’s trust in institutions of governments, NGOs, business and media.

Building trusted institutions in fragile and conflict-affected countries

Catherine Anderson's picture
Photo: UN Photo/Bernardino Suares

In late 2011, as part of our Institutions Taking Root (ITR) series, my colleagues and I visited some of the most remote villages in Timor-Leste to seek feedback from citizens on the performance of the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MSS).
The responses of citizens we met on the trip – many of whom were living on less than $1.25 per day and scarcely had any interaction with government – were intriguing.

How can we leverage innovations and MOOCs for citizen engagement?

Abha Joshi-Ghani's picture

Imagine a group of researchers, students, civil society organizations, development practitioners and professors from the London School of Economics all gathered together for a lively event to discuss the first World Bank MOOC on Citizen Engagement.

Thoughts on citizen engagement as a game changer for development

Jeff Thindwa's picture

As we enter the last week of the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on Citizen Engagement— developed here at the Bank in partnership with London School of Economics, Overseas Development Institute, Participedia and CIVICUS— let’s explore the central question posed in the course: Is Citizen Engagement a Game Changer for Development?

In a blog following the London MOOC event, Duncan Edwards argued the need to think hard about the approaches we adopt in advancing citizen engagement to address development challenges.