Photo by Auntie P on Flickr.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its long-awaited report on WMATA governance this morning. The report concludes that the board lacks clarity about where its role begins and ends, but rejects some of the drastic structural changes that have been proposed, instead arguing the board can and should fix problems itself.

An ambiguous definition of the board’s role was a common theme in both the Riders’ Advisory Council and Board of Trade reports. The board has been accused of micromanaging operations rather than focusing on policy and high-level issues.

The GAO report agreed, and recommends the board clarify its responsibilities as well as conduct regular self-assessments. Fortunately, the board is already doing much of that.

A governance committee, ably led by Mary Hynes of Arlington, has formulated bylaws and procedures for the board which better define its role. This year, after most members turned over and the reports came out criticizing past board actions, the board has indeed started focusing effectively on the high-level decisions that it needs to make to keep Metro running smoothly.

The GAO report says, “These draft bylaws represent a good first step toward addressing some of the concerns discussed in this report but will need to be adopted and then effectively implemented to achieve their desired effect.” The report also criticizes past boards for doing a poor job of strategic planning, suggesting the board develop a better plan and then commit to implementing it.

The executives and DOTs of DC, Maryland, and Virginia were waiting to see the GAO report before moving ahead further on structural changes. The Board of Trade report last year suggested removing alternates, giving the governors one extra appointment of their own, creating an added “super-board” above the current board to supervise the board, and changing the jurisdictional veto.

The Riders’ Advisory Council, on the other hand, argued that these changes were unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Its report argued that the problems could be fixed by doing a better job appointing members and by the members developing better policies around these issues. (Disclosure: I was the principal author of the RAC report.)

The GAO took a similar stance to the RAC’s report. They wrote:

Our analysis, however, indicates that most of the recommended changes have trade-offs—there are both benefits and drawbacks to them. We compared the various recommendations to leading governance practices, approaches taken by other transit agencies, and the views of board members and stakeholders. Board members and stakeholders indicated that proposed changes to the board’s structure and processes—such as eliminating alternate board members, changing the size of the board, or eliminating the jurisdictional veto—have trade-offs, and we did not find consistent support among leading governance practices or other transit agencies that these changes would improve governance.

The [Board of Trade/COG] Governance Task Force recommended that the signatories and the appointing authorities form a WMATA Governance Commission to make improvements to the authority’s governance structure and hold the board accountable for its performance. ... Such a commission was viewed by some stakeholders we spoke with as redundant because it would be comprised of most of the same membership that is responsible for appointing the board of directors.

The GAO paid special attention to the federal government’s involvement, which includes the General Services Administration appointing a set of federal members. The GAO says that GSA lacks clear procedures for selecting and appointing these members. The GSA replied that while it’s true it doesn’t have formal procedures, it doesn’t think that’s interfered with selecting qualified candidates.

Moving forward, this report confirms what’s become increasingly clear: WMATA can be fixed without rearranging the organizational structure. Doing that could fix some problems but create others, and would ultimately be a distraction from the work of actually governing better.

Already, we’ve seen tremendous progress. The NTSB feels safety is improving. Communication has taken huge steps forward with WMATA now tweeting and generally using two-way communication. The board passed a budget that avoided service cuts and without any major acrimony. Local jurisdictions stepped up with needed funding.

Now, we should let the current board and management keep making the strides they have. The executives and DOTs should let this issue rest.

Governor McDonnell did succeed in using the frustration over Metro to let him take away some power from Northern Virginia, giving him a direct appointment to the board who will likely replace Mary Hynes entirely or move her to an alternate position and bump Jeff McKay. Either way, that will be a big loss for Virginian interests, since both have effectively represented their constituents. The legislature should reverse this hasty decision before the appointments are made or renewed at the end of the year.