The United States has long had private success and public failure – not just the sense of private affluence and public squalor, in which household income is high but the state of public services lags, but also in that the private sector is more productive than the public sector. American politicians generally recognize this and often propose programs to use private-sector methods to revitalize the public sector – including infrastructure.
As a rule, existing proposals are failures, such as anything with Elon Musk’s name on it, or when moderate governors like Charlie Baker put some second-rate managers like Luis Ramirez in charge of public transportation agencies. Nonetheless, a program for leveraging private-sector expertise to improve public transportation could be fruitful if politicians aimed at long-term management rather than at favorable short-term press.
Much of what I’m going to propose is an extension of what I blogged last year about the value of outside advice. But here it’s not about domain knowledge, since the American private sector knows little of how to run public transportation well, but rather about more general management principles.
Done is better than good
I encountered the aphorism that done is better than good in the context of video game development. In gamedev, multi-year delays are routine since projects commonly expand in scope or have to adapt to changing circumstances. In the 1990s, Starcraft notoriously was delayed from 1996 to 1998, at a time when one-year development cycles were normal – and then in the 2000s both Starcraft 2 and Duke Nukem Forever took longer than a decade, the latter spending 14 years in development. In such an environment, a culture has to develop that puts an emphasis on finishing something even if some compromises on features are needed.
I genuinely don’t know to what extent other industries use this maxim when projects are delayed. I was told of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in which everything gets delayed by months or years as everything has many layers of committee review, and when I asked if the organization had heard of the maxim, my source said “lolno.” I know that TransitMatters can take months to edit a document that I can produce in a day as a blog post, and judging by the delays to FRA reform, originally slated for 2015 but only finalized about a year ago, this is also true of public planning.
Making sure things are done on a timely schedule is critical. This isn’t even about delays in construction so much as about planning and engineering. Managers should learn to cut features when in a crunch, to require teams to prioritize, and to avoid the endless layers of design by committee that lengthen the process without improving results.
State regulations, too, should aim at reducing red tape. American government at all levels uses delays as a substitute for rule of law, with federal and state regulations that require layers of mandatory review. The standard approach for achieving any social purpose is to add yet another layer, even if the delays cause more problems than they solve. For example, there are mandatory reviews of disparate impact lengthening the planning process, even though implementing public transportation improvement faster would have a positive impact on racial minorities as they ride at much higher rates than whites (and not just in the US).
Project management is an expertise that transfers well between different industries. Thus, a successful private-sector manager can transition to overseeing a complex public infrastructure project. The special aspects of the American public sector, such as high union density, are not that unusual from the perspective of a general-purpose American manager, who may well spend time running companies in traditionally unionized industries.
Boston provides a negative as well as a positive example: the Green Line Extension saw ballooning costs due to poor project management, as the MBTA had no person experienced in the supervision of such a large program of construction. But as soon as the MBTA restarted the project with an outside project manager with ample experience, it managed to cut the headline budget from $3 billion to $2.3 billion; moreover, about half the current cost is sunk from the line’s previous iteration, so going forward the cost is barely $1 billion. This is a very high cost for such a short light rail line, but the factor of three difference with the previous estimate suggests that performing the normal oversight and management could save other expensive American infrastructure projects large sums of money.
Hiring and promotion
There are three types of people: people who have never worked in any large hierarchical company, people who work at human resources, and people who loathe human resources from the bottom of their hearts.
Nonetheless, there are HR departments and there are HR departments. The worst horror stories I have heard about hiring come from the American public sector. They are worse than the worst I have seen in the private sector, like when Hyperloop One assured me they had the visa covered when I asked about it in March 2017 when the Trump administration had just revoked the visa category I was to use, and then when the company wanted to hire me in April it discovered the remaining visa category had a deadline that had passed 2 weeks before. In the public sector, there are positions that remain unfilled for years.
A catalog of problems that afflict hiring at transit agencies in New York and Boston, and presumably in the American public sector in general, includes all of the following:
- Onerous checks and long turnaround times. The best applicants will find a private-sector job in 1-2 months while the transit agency takes 6-12 months to go through the process. This affects line positions such as driving a bus as well as office work and managerial positions.
- General indifference within HR to applicants. A Boston resident was offered a job at the MTA that required residence within New York City; as the potential hire had a partner who worked in Albany, they proposed that they should live in Poughkeepsie and the MTA hire would commute by Metro-North. HR required them to file forms stating their exact address in Poughkeepsie, never mind that they still needed to find an apartment in the area and had no reason to do so without a written job offer. The applicant was unhired and the position remained unfilled for years.
- Periodic hiring freezes instituted by politicians and senior managers who wish to look prudent. Critical departments may remain understaffed, contributing to overstaffing elsewhere through inefficiency, which then provides political justification for keeping the hiring freeze.
- Uncompetitive salaries. Starting salaries at planning positions are well below what university graduates with comparable skills can fetch in the private sector. They’re balanced by high pension payouts, but first, the overall level of benefits is very competitive with generic white-collar offices but not with tech with its ample stock options, and second, your typical highly-motivated recent graduate wants a salary now and not a pension in 30 years.
- An outdated hiring process. For example, there is no dialogue with how tech companies hire employees, that is the whiteboarding system of technical interviews. The MBTA gave up on this entirely and outsourced its tech to a subsidiary that is shielded away from the rest of the org chart and run as a standard tech company.
The promotion process suffers from some of the same problems. It is outdated, based on the rigid hierarchies of postwar office work, with a tinge of the Japanese salaryman system except without the strict demands the company makes of the employee. A smart 30-year-old will take decades to be in a position to make serious decisions, even if the 55-year-old manager is detached from any new idea from the last generation and is in effect providing no value to the agency.
One additional problem with promotion is known as collision. This is when union agreements based on seniority result in a situation in which promoting an employee would reduce their salary, as they would trade many years of experience at a line position with extra pay for seniority for a higher-level position with no prior experience. The agencies are aware of this problem and have attempted to fix it, and I have heard complaints from union sources, namely Tim Lasker of OPEIU Local 453. I stress that this is the case because it’s common among some reformers on the center and right to blame unions for problems with pension cliffs and collisions, and yet the unions themselves understand that there are problems with both; the real blame should go to management, especially politicians, who refuse to back one-time investments into hiring more people or raising salaries where appropriate.
American business culture
My impression of American business culture is that it is extremely practical and anti-theory. German engineering firms like hiring people with advanced degrees in engineering; at the time of the American bailout of GM and Ford, VW was run by a CEO who had a Ph.D. in engineering and had worked in the auto industry or at suppliers ever since graduating. American firms like hiring people with management experience.
This limits the suitability of the American private sector to public transportation in several ways. The most important is that without theory, American business culture is heavily based on the idea that weak firms just die out and strong firms grow. Turnarounds exist, but a huge fraction of turnaround experts are selling snake oil, and with good connections the snake oil peddlers manage to get appointed to turn around transit agencies. Moreover, because American business culture denigrates foreign best practices, its managers are ill-positioned for an industry where little innovation exists in the US and the most important thing for Americans to do is learn to imitate Europe and East Asia.
The benefits of the private sector are then most pronounced in areas where there is genuine industry-independent management expertise. In those areas, American business absolutely shines; a good rule of thumb to remember is that with completely dysfunctional health care, infrastructure, construction, and education, the US still manages to have labor productivity on a par with the richest European countries and better than anything in Asia, so purely by averaging things out, the rest of the economy must be doing well.
Thus, project management is a core strength in which it is both useful and imperative for the American public sector to learn from private-sector success. The issues of hiring, mentoring, promoting, and firing workers are a core strength as well. Transit agencies have to transition to a model in which jobs are not sinecures, and instead of steep pension cliffs, workers get paid well now and can quit or be let go after a number of years without having to start from zero at their next job.
Finally, the culture of delays must give way to a culture of working quickly, which means knowing when cutting corners is feasible and when it isn’t even at the cost of slowing down the process. Spain achieves low infrastructure construction costs in part by setting its regulations as well as internal oversight and procurement to maximize the speed of decisions: key decisions may be made in a single day, environmental reviews take two months rather than years, and contractors are judged in part by how quickly they can construct a project, on the theory that delays create more opportunities for cost overruns.
None of this is flashy. The most applicable parts of high American private-sector productivity are the most boring. This is less about heroic entrepreneurs, who as a rule have no place in the transportation industry, and more about experienced managers, who as a rule are never written about in the business press unless they’re about to be indicted for embezzlement. Just as the latter have built up a high-performance business culture over the generations, so can they build high-performance state capacity if the politicians let them and give them the resources they need. All it takes is political conscientiousness and more macro- than micromanagement.