An ex-staffer’s perspective on T governance

Laurel Paget-Seekins spent six years at the MBTA, rising through the ranks to assistant general manager for policy before she left at the end of last year to become a fellow at the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations. She was considered one of the T’s top employees and often made presentations to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which makes her recent blog musings on the T’s governance structure illuminating.

The control board was established after the transit authority’s snowmageddon collapse of 2015. Previously, the T had been overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board – a largely hands-off group of overseers known for listening politely and doing what they are told. The control board is much more hands-on, although it wouldn’t be characterized as independent. All the key players – the five board members, the secretary of transportation, and the T general manager – are appointed directly or indirectly by the governor, so consensus is prized and differences tend to be muted.

Still, the control board is very good at bringing transportation policy out of the backroom and into the light. And on those rare occasions when policy is actually debated, the board provides a glimpse at how the sausage is made. With the control board set to expire in June, it’s unclear what, if anything, will replace it. 

Paget-Seekins offers a staffer’s perspective. In her blog post, she said the board should play an important role on major policy decisions, such as fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning. But she said all too often the board delves into lower-tier issues, which tend to take up a lot of staff time and undercut the authority of the general manager, who normally would have made those decisions. The divided power structure – Paget-Seekins calls it “muddled”— creates a confused chain of command while allowing staff members like herself to do some freelancing.

“The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the board and staff,” Paget-Seekins said. “I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or secretary directly to board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.”

For Paget-Seekins, policy-making in public is good in theory but often difficult in practice. “During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid,” she said. “Sometimes the secretary or general manager would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either. I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.”

The control board meetings were also a time sink. “As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM,” Paget-Seekins said. “When I talked to peers at other agencies, they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their board meeting that often.”

Paget-Seekins also thinks the GM’s role needs to change. “I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds. In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire.”

For the record, Beverly Scott is the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies. The GMs that followed her on an acting, interim, or permanent basis were Frank DePaola, Brian Shortsleeve, Luis Manuel Ramirez, and Steve Poftak.




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