Photo by Billy V on Flickr.

Besides appointing members who actually show up to meetings and ride transit, the WMATA Board can start fixing the authority’s problems by spending more time on high-level policies and performance metrics instead of trying to decide every individual small issue.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Board has been that they micromanage the agency. Ironically, one of the other criticisms of the Board is that they weren’t sufficiently aware of details, like the safety problems that existed prior to the June 2009 Red Line crash.

So which is it? Should the Board stick their fingers into every little thing, or be more hands-off? Many people say the Board should be more like a “corporate board.” But a corporate board wouldn’t be monitoring details. If Greyhound were to have a big safety problem, people don’t ask why the Greyhound Board of Directors didn’t personally know about the problems. Honestly, few people know who’s on the Greyhound Board of Directors anyway.

But with WMATA, people vociferiously disputed our argument that we shouldn’t blame the Board. They should have made sure to know, people said. Hang them all, others said. Change has to start at the top, said Debbie Hersman, the chair of the NTSB. The Board has to be paying more attention to safety.

On the other hand, when the Board spends a lot of time on an issue, they get some amount of ridicule. They spent three meetings discussing what to do about the SmarTrips going negative. People didn’t laud them for being so thorough; they called it an embarrassment, which is definitely how it sounded for those listening to the meeting.

What should the hapless Board members do? Scrutinize more or less? Delegate more, or less?

The RAC believes the answer is in choosing how they spend their time. The Board should be very involved. But they should be involved at a high level. Instead of asking why this bus was rerouted or that sign appeared in a station, set goals, and ask the General Manager to meet those goals. Spend most of the time talking about what are the right metrics, and how the authority is performing against those metrics.

Take the escalators. This has quickly become the most visible sign of Metro’s dysfunction. Yet despite a number of Board meetings discussing the issue and some consultant reports, we still don’t know what to expect or how things will get fixed.

At the most recent Board meeting on escalators, members spent most of the time talking about signs informing people about outages, or complaining about individual escalators that are out. Nobody asked the key questions. What is our escalator reliability today? (It was in the Vital Signs report.) Is this correctly measuring what we want to measure? (As it turned out, not quite, since it was not counting brief unplanned outages.) And most of all, what reliability rate can staff promise with the current level of resources, or what could they achieve with greater resources?

A corporate Board of Directors generally doesn’t second-guess every product launch, pricing decision, or the color of boxes for products. Or, as Mort Downey put it in one of the sessions, they don’t “try to hit at pitches as they come in.” Instead, such a board sets goals and expects the company’s head to get the job done or get fired.

Next time an issue like the escalators comes up, the WMATA Board needs to ask a few simple questions: What is the long-term goal? What is an achievable and measurable performance target? And what does the General Manager need to reach that target?

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.