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Governance

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.

World Development Report 2016: “The internet unites people; its governance divides nations”

Sina Odugbemi's picture
© John Stanmeyer/National Geographic Creative. Used with the permission of John Stanmeyer/National Geographic Creative. Further permission required for reuse.The World Development Report (WDR) 2016, a World Bank Group Flagship Report, is titled Digital Dividends. At 330 pages, it is a big piece of work, and it is an Aladdin’s Cave of information gems, brilliant analysis, and the fulfilled promise of a thorough-going education on its chosen subject.

According to the press statement announcing the report, the…
 

…report says that while the internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies are spreading rapidly throughout the developing world, the anticipated digital dividends of higher growth, more jobs, and better public services have fallen short of expectations, and 60 percent of the world’s population remains excluded from the ever-expanding digital economy. According to the new ‘World Development Report 2016:  Digital Dividends,’ authored by Co-Directors, Deepak Mishra and Uwe Deichmann and team, the benefits of rapid digital expansion have been skewed towards the wealthy, skilled, and influential around the world, who are better positioned to take advantage of the new technologies. In addition, though the number of internet users worldwide has more than tripled since 2005, four billion people still lack access to the internet.

In what follows, I am going to discuss a small part of the report that I am particularly interested in. And that is the vexed subject of internet governance. As we all know by now, the dream of the founders of the internet was that it would be a libertarian paradise and a virtual monument to a transcendent cosmopolitanism: a truly free and borderless world. Sadly, all kinds of companies and governments are turning the internet into something else entirely.  How to govern the internet is now a bone of discord.

Shining some light on public procurement in India

Shanker Lal's picture
 Photo: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

In large, developing countries the government spends much of its budget on social safety net programs and building infrastructure, which involves procuring goods and services. But the ways in which these goods and services are purchased – the procurement process – can sometimes be inefficient and opaque to citizens. The procurement data is not easy to find or easy to understand; the policies are not always clear. In short, taxpayers often don’t know how their money is being spent.

In India, with help from the World Bank, there’s a promising initiative that is trying to address this problem, which is fundamentally one of transparency and accountability in government. But it is entering a critical new phase, in which it will need to become more self-sufficient and wean itself off of the initial World Bank seed funding.

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.
 

Transparency, efficiency and quality in infrastructure projects is only a ‘click’ away

Christophe Dossarps's picture
Also available in: 日本語

Transparency. Efficiency. Quality. If you work with infrastructure projects, as I do, these are words you will hear all the time. Unfortunately, these concepts are familiar to us because so many projects lack them – often realized during a “lessons learned” recap of what not to do next time.

But with the new International Infrastructure Support System (IISS) - a digital platform that supports project preparation -achieving transparency, efficiency and quality in infrastructure PPPs, and traditional procurement, is within our reach.  I’ve been involved in IISS’s development for last six years and I’m inspired by this platform’spotential to transform the way infrastructure projects are prepared, financed and delivered.  Through it, we will be able to deliver more quality-infrastructure faster and improve people’s quality of life across the globe.
 
An Introducation of International Infrastructure Support System - Video produced by the Sustainable Infrastructure Foundation

 

The Great Gatsby government discourse — carelessness and its consequences

Brian Levy's picture

This is 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 focuses on the importance of engaged democratic debate and the rhetorical traps that can derail political discussions.

morning dressI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how we talk about government. So, spurred on in part by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I’ve decided to write a few United States-centric blog posts on the subject (though I’ll stay away entirely from chauvinistic slurs, or comments about ‘walls’ or ‘roads to serfdom’).

Somehow, in the area of governance, our usual ways of measuring (and honoring) human endeavor don’t seem to  apply. Ordinarily, working and playing in teams teaches us how to master the challenges of  co-operative, collective achievement — which can be way, way harder than striving alone. Governing is a quintessentially collective endeavor, especially in democracies.  Yet all too often  the discourse (and not only by nameless plutocrat presidential candidates…..)  is resonant  of   F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people…..  They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In a series of complementary blog posts — on Washington’s Metro on Obamacare;, and on South Africa’s public sector — I explore some consequences of our carelessness in the way we speak about the public sector.  Here I focus on the underlying logic of the conversation. A good place to begin is with the analysis of institutions.

The great institutional economist, Douglass North, defined institutions formally as “humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction”. (‘Rules of the game’ is his classic, informal definition.) Another Nobel-prize-winning economist, Oliver Williamson, built on North’s definition. “Governance”, Williamson suggested, “is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains”.   Crafting governance arrangements for the public sector is hard – much harder, Williamson emphasizes, than governing a private firm. Yet, somehow, seduced by high-sounding bromides, we  trivialize the challenge. We gloss over the complexities, imply that what is extraordinarily difficult should be straightforward, and end up fueling disappointment and despair. The result is the pervasive distrust of government evident across much of the industrialized world.

Accelerating economic growth and job creation in Bangladesh

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
Instructor and Students at the Bangladesh Korea Technical Training Center, Chittagong
Instructor and Students at the Bangladesh Korea Technical Training Center, Chittagong.
Credit: Mahfuzul Hasan Bhuiyan

Bangladesh has a major opportunity to address one of its most pressing development challenges: creating 20 million new jobs over the next decade.  And the trade agenda will be a centerpiece of any strategy that seeks to address this challenge.
 
Join me for a Facebook Q/A chat on January 28 to discuss this and other findings from the recently released report Toward New Sources of Competitiveness in Bangladesh co-authored with Mariem Mezghenni Malouche.
 
Below are some 4 highlights from the report, which we will be discussing. I look forward to your questions and a vibrant discussion!
 

  1. Bangladesh will need to expand its linkages with neighboring countries such as China and India as well as other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.  Not only are these very large markets, they are also potential sources of greater foreign direct investment.  What are the critical steps that will allow this to happen?  How can the recently signed Motor Vehicles Agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal help?  What are the barriers to Bangladesh’s venturing into new markets?

  2. Bangladesh will need to gradually diversify its export base into new product areas while also strengthening its position as the second-largest garment producer in the world (after China).  Our report explores the critical challenges that could allow this to happen.  In your view, what challenges lie ahead if Bangladesh tries to diversify its exports?  Can you name some prospective industries (for diversification)? What will be the role of foreign direct investment in this diversification?  What kind of reforms are needed to attract more domestic as well as foreign direct investment?

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