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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.

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?”

Quote of the Week: John Adams

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

- John Adams, the second president of the United States (1797–1801), and, before that, the first vice president of the United States (1789-1797). Adams was a statesman, diplomat, philosopher, and leading advocate of American independence.

Rich Countries, Poor People: Will Africa’s commodity boom benefit the poor?

Anand Rajaram's picture

Travelling across Africa these days you are likely to run into increasing numbers of mining, oil, and gas industry personnel engaged in exploration, drilling, and extraction across the continent. Although commodity prices are moderating, the discoveries being made in Africa offer the real prospect of significant revenue to many cash-poor, aid-dependent governments in the decade ahead. If you care about development, the question is whether these revenues will catalyze broad economic development and whether they will benefit the poor in Africa.

Getting the remittance system right for Africa?

Soheyla Mahmoudi's picture

The remittances sent home every year by the African Diaspora should create a doorway to still greater opportunities, and the key to this door is financial access. While remittances do impact the living standards of beneficiaries directly, the banks that pay out the remittances month after month should offer recipient families a basic financial package including savings accounts, payment services and small loans for microenterprise.  This should facilitate growth from current levels of remittances saved and invested.  Leveraging of remittances through financial inclusion is certain to increase their development potential.

Catalyzing Open Government in Afghanistan: Focusing on Poverty Reduction and Shared Prosperity

Gazbiah Rahaman's picture

What does open data and development mean for Afghanistan?

Last November, the first open data mission revealed Afghans’ interest and commitment to foster knowledge sharing, collaboration and openness for a broader and targeted engagement in Afghanistan. In my blog, Afghanistan’s First Open Data Dialogue Delivers, I described my first-hand experience on Afghans enthusiasm about improving data dissemination, national dialogue and partnership between users and producers of statistics, and the drive for more effective aid and technical assistance through better coordination and alignment to the agreed National Statistical Plans.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

iRevolution
The Geography of Twitter: Mapping the Global Heartbeat

"My colleague Kalev Leetaru recently co-authored this comprehensive study on the various sources and accuracies of geographic information on Twitter. This is the first detailed study of its kind. The detailed analysis, which runs some 50-pages long, has important implications vis-a-vis the use of social media in emergency management and humanitarian response. Should you not have the time to analyze the comprehensive study, this blog post highlights the most important and relevant findings.

Kalev et al. analyzed 1.5 billion tweets (collected from the Twitter Decahose via GNIP) between October 23 and November 30th, 2012. This came to 14.3 billion words posted by 35% of all active users at the time. Note that 2.9% of the world’s population are active Twitter users and that 87% of all tweets ever posted since the launch of Twitter in 2006 were posted in the past 24 months alone. On average, Kalev and company found that the lowest number of tweets posted per hour is one million; the highest is 2 million. In addition, almost 50% of all tweets are posted by 5% of users. (Click on images to enlarge)."  READ MORE

Until Subnational Debt Do Us Part

Otaviano Canuto's picture

Decentralization in many countries has given subnational governments certain spending responsibilities, revenue-raising authority, and the capacity to incur debt. Furthermore, rapid urbanization in developing countries is requiring large-scale infrastructure financing to help absorb influxes of rural populations. Not surprisingly, the subnational debt market in some developing countries has been going through a notable transformation.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

TechCrunch
Meet The $35 Tablet That Could Connect The World

“TechCrunch just got its hands on the new Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci, the super-cheap tablet that will attempt to connect every student in India to the Internet. Educators have long hoped that cheap computing devices could bridge the global information divide, but previous attempts have been dogged by disappointing performance, lack of Internet access, and financial barriers. The latest version of India’s $35 tablet comes equipped with WiFi and has an optional upgrade ($64) of a cellular Internet package of $2/month for 2 GB of data (roughly 25 emails, 25 websites, 2 minutes of streaming video, and 15 minutes of voice chat a day). More importantly, it is expected to launch this month in India with the government’s commitment to connect even the most remote areas to the Internet. The impact of a successful rollout is difficult to overestimate: rural schools that have been connected to the Internet show immediate and tremendous gains.”  READ MORE

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Trust Law
Corruption in water sector increases hunger risk – experts

“Stamping out corruption in the water sector is crucial to boosting global food production as world population growth increases pressure on water supplies, according to experts meeting at World Water Week in Stockholm.

Corruption in the water sector is already a major problem for farmers and it’s likely to get worse as competition for water increases, a joint statement released by the Water Integrity Network (WIN), Transparency Internationaland the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) Water Governance Facility at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.

Governments, businesses and civil society must work together to improve transparency in the water sector, and introduce better checks and balances to counter corruption and nepotism, the statement said.”  READ MORE 


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