Deep hole and sky image from Shutterstock.

George Hawkins, who runs DC Water, the water and sewer authority, has some suggestions for digging WMATA out of the huge hole it’s found itself in. And they’re right on.

In a blog post, Hawkins writes, “In many ways, DC Water was in a very similar predicament when I started in 2009. It was the Authority’s nadir for a myriad of reasons but chief among it was that we had broken the public’s trust.”

From 2001-2004, DC’s water had unsafe levels of lead, but officials downplayed the importance, fired at least one person who reported the problem to the EPA, and didn’t properly inform city leaders.

Some of that sounds quite familiar. Until recently, WMATA continually downplayed the long-term budget dangers

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and didn’t admit there weren’t as many trains running as promised. Safety issues, like radios not working in tunnels, were kept concealed until an actual fatality led to an investigation.

It’s important to recognize that Metro is still far safer than driving, and the public health risk from the lead actually imperiled more people than any Metro safety issue has. Still, WMATA made many of the same mistakes. Hawkins says:

Government agencies in general and service providers like DC Water and WMATA in particular are facing a crisis. Infrastructure across our country is failing whether it’s pipes, roads or rail. It is incumbent upon us to find new ways of doing business for our own survival. As systems crumble, the subsequent decline in service erodes public confidence. Faltering public trust then creates a vicious feedback loop — less patience, less support, declining performance, worse service and then more of the same. Does this sound familiar?

When confronting huge challenges we need the public to understand the scope of the work ahead, to be patient while we do it, and to help fund the needed improvements — even when the cost may be high and improvements will take time. This is nearly impossible when public trust is broken.

“If we made a mistake, we own it. We don’t hide.”

What does Hawkins suggest doing about it? His best suggestions for Metro involve communication.

Like Gabe Klein, he believes that open and frequent communication is vital. When agencies keep information locked up and try to tightly control all of the interactions between the public and the agency, it doesn’t build confidence and doesn’t help the agency achieve its mission.

I’m a believer in “No news is not good news.” A customer doesn’t just see or hear from us when there’s a problem. We take every opportunity to engage our customers and to tell them our story and the value that we provide seamlessly and invisibly every. single. day. I’m still surprised by the number of people in DC who know that the median age of our water pipes is 79 years old!

Our rebranding isn’t just a slick logo. It’s the substantive work behind that logo that matters most. Once we got our customers’ attention, we made sure to listen when they spoke. It may sound obvious but I think this is where public agencies fall short. If we made a mistake, we own it. Then we fix it. We don’t hide from them. We’re not where we need to be just yet. We can still do better but without acknowledging that, how else will we improve?

Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of attitude from WMATA? It’s starting to come out, actually, at least from presentations from folks like WMATA CFO Dennis Anosike.

Our approach is to adopt an honest straightforward response to every water main break or flood — and engage the public in their neighborhoods to explain what is happening, why it happened, and what we are doing to get better.

The perception during the lead crisis of the 2000’s is that DC WASA was not forthcoming about the problem, its extent or the steps needed to protect the public. Today, if we even feel there may be a problem with our drinking water that might cause a risk to public health, we call the alert, notify everyone using every available communication channel, including walking door-to-door.

And Hawkins doesn’t downplay the importance of safety, either. He says DC Water puts safety first, and not only that, safety and service are not mutually exclusive. He writes, “Enterprises that are good at safety are better at customer service, better at quality control, and have better morale. Improving safety helps improve every other performance measure for an enterprise.”

Photo by Patty on Flickr.

“Be completely transparent”

How does that translate to WMATA? Hawkins closes with a recommendation:

Once [a turnaround] plan is developed at WMATA, I would encourage them to be completely transparent. Share all the elements of the program with the public — assessment documents, plans, strategies, reports, accomplishments, problems — EVERYTHING. Make it visible, highlight what needs be done, highlight what resources are needed, and then document how the enterprise is relentlessly charging forward to get it done.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers and every organization is different. DC Water had a huge mountain to climb, and we know we are only as good as what we do tomorrow — and must continue to improve. Certainly, WMATA faces unique challenges and has a lot of hard work ahead of it. It needs to replace old trains, old tracks, perhaps add a tunnel — and all of that will require a massive investment in dollars and patience from their customers.

If they expect that to happen, they should prioritize their riders. That means talking to their customers and more importantly, listening to their thoughts, concerns and priorities. I’m sure WMATA’s riders will help craft one heckuva mission statement.

Hawkins has many other management suggestions in his blog post.

Hawkins for WMATA GM?

Listen to riders — who’d have thought of that? I have to say … if the WMATA board does not have George Hawkins on their short list for General Manager candidates, it sure should.

Though my fear is that Hawkins saying this actually means the opposite, that he’s not interested or not being considered. Because if he were, would he feel free to speak openly?

There are definitely people on the WMATA Board who think that all decisions need to be made among a small group of insiders, behind closed doors, without the messiness of public debate. They wouldn’t want to hear any outside input on their decision. Those people are well-intentioned but are contributing to WMATA’s problems. We can only hope they will be willing to hire a General Manager who takes a more open view.

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.