Photo by Unsuck DC Metro on Flickr.

Online critics of WMATA like Unsuck DC Metro and FixWMATA have shone valuable light on Metro failings and built pressure for change. But online shaming can only do so much to change an agency. I hope they will take the next step and get involved in actually trying to push for reform.

Throwing barbs at WMATA from behind a keyboard is a lot easier than getting to know the good people at WMATA and trying to understand the root causes of problems, like underfunding, management failures, or union work rules. But that’s the only way to really advocate for fixes.

Today’s City Paper cover story profiles the WMATA’s new social media team, Dan Stessel and Brian Anderson, and their quest to reform the agency’s reputation for being cranky toward customers and obstructionist with reporters and bloggers.

A large section of the article discusses WMATA’s prominent online critics:

Broken rail-car air conditioners have been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the rabid persistence of an IT whiz known on Twitter as @fixwmata. The 32-year-old Atlanta native, who asked not to be named because he insists the story shouldn’t be about him, began riding Metro last April.

Over the summer, he noticed complaints about hot subway cars on Twitter and decided to put his analytical skills to good use. He created what’s known as the #hotcar list, a crowdsourced database tracking rail cars with broken AC.

At first FixWMATA got no response from Metro. Then, Dan Stessel showed up, and started communicating back, which FixWMATA loved at first. But then, Stessel couldn’t give him details of which air conditioners were being repaired.

FixWMATA, who has about 1,300 followers on Twitter, isn’t buying it. And now he believes that the rosy media coverage of Metro’s latest PR effort is harmful. He called the Post “an advertising arm of WMATA” when the paper covered Stessel’s social media frenzy last month.

“Not having a response from Metro last year actually worked out a little bit better,” he says. “Because Metro last year also wasn’t really talking to the media. So we had the media on our side last year, and we had a lot of reports—both on TV and on the Web—from journalists interested in what’s going on.”

He’s not the only one who thinks the local media have fallen for Metro’s tricks. The journalist behind the Unsuck DC Metro blog—complaint central for disgruntled riders since 2009—calls Stessel’s effort “Band-Aids on the public image” for a reactive agency that lacks accountability. He thinks Metro’s campaign is better than nothing but doesn’t address the malaise he says afflicts the agency’s middle management.

“People do seem to respond to Dan saying, if somebody tweets, ‘Oh, this car’s hot,’ Dan tweets back, ‘We’re on it’ or ‘We’re checking it out. We’ll check it out tonight,’” says Unsuck, who also asked to remain anonymous, because he says he’s received threats from Metro employees. “That seems to convince some people that they really are. You decide for yourself if they really are. I know they’re not.”

What does FixWMATA mean by “our side”? Is it the side of fixing things? Because there are a lot of people at Metro who also want to fix things, though there are also folks who stand in the way. Or is “our side” those who just want to throw barbs at WMATA, no matter what?

For a long time after the 2009 crash and even to this day, there are those on Twitter who periodically call for just “blowing up” the whole Metro system, whatever that means.

I disagree with FixWMATA’s view of the change in the press. To me, the press went through a period of overly sensationalistic “gotcha” reporting. Ann Scott Tyson’s coverage at the Post, in particular, made a large headline out of any piece of data that put Metro in a negative light, regardless of whether there was a larger context.

That had the disappointing effect of making some WMATA employees even more reluctant to talk to anyone about anything, a trend that has thankfully started to reverse with Stessel and his bosses, Lynn Bowersox and Barbara Richardson. Yet when anyone praises these tentative steps toward openness, some claim that it’s “advertising.”

One of the biggest pieces of context is that Metro has been drastically underfunded for years and treated as a political football. It still is, like when House Republicans tried to cut its repair funding and Bob McDonnell stonewalled for months about asking his party colleagues not to destroy Metro.

Unsuck wrote, “As many long-time readers may know, Unsuck lived in Japan a while back. My experience with Japanese mass transit is a major reason I am so critical of Metro.” One thing they do in Japan is they actually have money to maintain their mass transit and build more lines.

Underfunding doesn’t excuse bad practices, but we need to understand the root of a problem in order to fix it, and not just heap the blame on those most visible.

John Hendel sums it up on TBD:

The contrarian view is that Metro is a perpetual screw-up — that the trains are always late, that the communication efforts are hardly ever enough and are often off-base or obtuse, that the system deteriorates, that the reform efforts are maddening, that the idea of “strategy” at Jackson Graham is the equivalent of a fairy-tale myth. The attacks are often biting, caustic, and frustrated, and the intense bitterness that characterizes some of the jibes lacks as much realistic perspective as constant Metro cheerleading.

What we need to do to fix WMATA for real is to tease apart those problems which just stem from insufficient funding, and those which come from actual bad management practices, bad employee behavior, problematic union work rules, or other non-funding problems.

Take the hotcars. What is really going on? How often do these units break? How quickly do they get fixed? Does management really know when they’re out? For that matter, how much should Metro prioritize fixing them over fixing escalators or replacing “track modules,” the signal components that allowed the 2009 Red Line crash?

Looking through the capital priorities list and discussing tradeoffs is a lot less sexy and doesn’t fit in 140 characters, but it’s far more vital to the task of actually fixing WMATA.

In other words, if you were Richard Sarles, what would you do? Lining everyone up against a wall and shooting them, which some people on Twitter suggest, does not fix the problem, by the way.

Nor is WMATA management a monolith. From far enough away, it looks that way. But get closer, and you discover a wide range of quality among the executives. Same for the individual employees.

Public pressure is good, but also can be bad. If an agency feels little pressure, there’s not enough impetus for change. But too much criticism, and it just demoralizes the good people. I found it frustrating enough to work inside a large, sometimes-bureaucratic organization (Google) where the press constantly showered praise, much deserved, some not. I have to have enormous respect for those change agents who stick it out inside the organization and fight hard to make things better despite working for an organization that garners such vitriol.

Get to know those change agents, and they’ll tell you they’re frustrated too. They have coworkers who play politics instead of focusing on what to do. They have employees who aren’t productive, take up budget, but can’t be removed. They have an organizational culture that resists change. They don’t have enough money to do much. They get shot down by their own board. Local jurisdictions fight their ideas. Local elected officials criticize any move they make. Bloggers and tweeters have endless nitpicks.

When I started criticizing WMATA, I went to a board meeting, and Jim Graham said, hey, why don’t you be on the Riders’ Advisory Council. The RAC has a certain ability to ask staff to make presentations on detailed topics that a random person can’t necessarily get, and to ask questions of staff.

Being on the RAC hasn’t magically fixed everything, but it helped me push for open data, and more importantly, get to know the good people at WMATA so that I could help them bring about even more change. It’s slow, and maddeningly frustrating, but that’s how change usually happens.

It would be great to have FixWMATA and Unsuck on the RAC. There’s a vacancy in DC right now, and likely one coming up in Maryland; plus, every year 1/3 of the members come up for renomination. I don’t really buy that FixWMATA needs to be anonymous to make the conversation not about him, or Unsuck because of threats (Unsuck also was anonymous from the start as well, and also said it was to keep the conversation from being about him).

If they want to really fix WMATA, it’s time to come out from behind the keyboard and start engaging directly with the agency. Join the RAC; I’ll lobby hard for either to get appointed and would welcome having their energy to delve into problems. Try to figure out what’s really wrong, deep down, instead of just what outcome is problematic. Then we can all lobby for whatever changes are necessary, whether it’s funding, management fixes, labor work rule changes, or a combination of all of those.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.