We won’t know for some time whether WMATA’s new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, will be able to fix the agency’s many problems. But he seems to be off to a good start even before he officially starts the job.
To get Metro on a stable path, Wiedefeld and other leaders at WMATA will need to address safety, finance, maintenance, communication, and much more. That won’t all happen overnight, and fixing some problems will require help from local and federal governments. Therefore, he’s going to need the support of riders, residents, local officials, members of Congress, federal regulators, and more.
WMATA has historically not been good at building bridges with people outside its walls. Too often, the message was “leave us alone, give us some money, and we’ll fix things,” a sentiment which rings hollow at any time but particularly after revelations this year that things weren’t getting fixed very well after all. And, it turned out, WMATA almost hired someone who chafed at the level of public scrutiny that unceasingly accompanies this job.
Wiedefeld embraces it. He doesn’t officially start until Monday, but he has already started meeting with people to understand what needs to change at WMATA. He’s met with members of Congress and given press interviews. He sat down with leaders of the WMATA Riders’ Union and agreed to attend a public forum.
“Paul Wiedefeld has already shown that he the initiative and interest in the immense challenge of reforming WMATA in the short time he’s been named to the job by reaching out to advocates and riders,” said Ashley Robbins, the chair of the WMATA Riders’ Union. “He called us before he was officially voted in by the board and wants to be engaged with the rider community going forward.”
On Friday, he also sat down to speak with me.
“Not sweeping stuff under the rug”
“We can’t pretend our problems away,” he said, in a refreshing change in tone from some in the past. “We’re not sweeping stuff under the rug.” Too often before, people in some divisions at WMATA kept problems quiet, hoping they could fix them before anyone else found out, and the agency as a whole would similarly keep problems from the public. That prevented bad press only until the problem became too acute to ignore, at which time riders and local leaders felt even more betrayed by the cover-up.
Wiedefeld is intent on changing this, though he acknowledged that bringing this attitude to the entire agency will be a challenge. Just some pronouncements at the top won’t end decades of culture of not sharing bad news with superiors or the public. But he plans to push each department to think about how it can support others’ goals and avoid “tunnel vision” of doing things the way they’ve always been done just because.
He’s not going to come in swinging an axe, but also said some executives, if they’re not on board with this approach, may need to go elsewhere. He made an analogy to an architect who, when Wiedefeld ran BWI airport, refused to design a ticket counter for electronic ticketing that was radically different from the traditional counter layout. That architect is not at the airport any longer.
The wrench-turners know more than we do
One more group Wiedefeld will be listening to is the front-line employees. “The gentleman or woman turning the wrench: They know a heck of a lot more and it’s amazing what you can find out by listening, walking, and talking,” he said. “The perception is that they don’t, but that’s not true.”
Riders sometimes vent frustration at the employee who has a bad attitude, and certainly, Wiedefeld said, “every organization has knuckleheads.” But he argued that most other workers are themselves getting frustrated at those colleagues and at bad conditions. As another analogy, he referred to an experience while he was running the Maryland MTA. Bus drivers were frustrated because the rest areas at the ends of the bus stops had no toilet paper. “If you worked in an office, would you go into a restroom like that?” he asked, rhetorically. And then, why would we “expect [the bus drivers] to turn around and have a smiling face?”
“Don’t underestimate what an organization can do if you get buy-in up and down the line,” he said. About trends toward “bashing” public sector and unionized employees, “that’s total baloney.”
There are still big problems
Certainly, listening is not everything. Just understanding everyone’s points of view won’t cure the financial gap; WMATA will very quickly face trade-offs between higher fares, lower service, more money from local governments, or compensation for employees. WMATA isn’t able to adequately maintain its railcars to get the number running that are supposed to be, and listening won’t make new ones arrive faster from the manufacturer.
But while listening isn’t everything, to paraphrase Red Symons, not listening is nothing. Good communication inside the agency will help Wiedefeld know what he needs to work to fix (and who he needs to hire to do it); good communication outside the agency will help build goodwill from riders, local leaders, and federal officials to help him succeed.
Communicating is also one thing he can do right away. He knows that it might “drive some staff nuts” for him to talk with everyone, but every big organization has people who think their best value is to stop the flow of information, to channel all communication through a rigid process to ensure it’s fully sanitized. That doesn’t make organizations effective. Wiedefeld isn’t afraid to speak with advocates, or the press, or riders, or Congress. That frankness is just what WMATA needs right now.
“I am impressed and optimistic about what the future has to hold for WMATA with Paul at its helm,” said Robbins. “If he maintains the openness that he’s already shown and the gusto with which he’s hit the ground running, I believe that we will see a very different agency in five years, and one that we will all be proud of.”
Knowing that he can’t solve all of the big problems at once, he also has been asking for quick steps he can take to make a difference. I suggested a few. What do you think he could do, realistically and in the short run? Post your ideas in the comments — he’ll be listening.