The MBTA’s snow job: Lack of accountability

Amid endless discussion about the MBTA’s damnable inattention to maintenance and its indulgent over expansion, accountability has not been mentioned as one of the causes of the T’s meltdown. Lack of accountability may in fact be the organization’s biggest weakness.

A raw fact of life is that the public sector is awfully good at ducking accountability. It’s no wonder then that people feel increasingly distrustful of political institutions. And the governor has now created the obligatory commission to assess the MBTA’s problems and make recommendations for fixing them, a Sisyphean task to be sure. One can only hope they will address the question of why this essential, non-discretionary service has consistently failed to be accountable to its customers.

In the meantime, thousands of disgusted customers are demanding refunds for a service that was not rendered. They want the MBTA held accountable for failing to keep their promise to provide the safe and reliable service that, to many, is just as basic as access to water, education and health care.

At the heart of accountability is a promise that obligates you to a course of action. When you are paid for a product or service, you are accountable for delivering it. If you don’t fulfill your promise, you are expected to take responsibility for failing to deliver on it and expected to compensate the other party. This creates a modicum of credibility; a promise made is a promise kept.

Sure, the MBTA board of directors is not responsible for creating private gains, their quasi-public structure means the MBTA has no owners to whom the board is primarily accountable. But they are accountable to taxpayers and customers for creating societal benefits and satisfying the promises made to their multiple constituencies.

If board members are confused about how and why they should be making good on this promise, the new commission should figure it out for them. Commission members should also keep in mind that they cannot expect the MBTA board of directors to perform surgery on themselves. The commission would be wise to recall Einstein’s words that you can’t fix today’s problems with the folks who created the problems in the first place.

One obvious imperative for the nice people on the MBTA board is to acknowledge their failure to deliver a basic service. The stewards at the MBTA can’t make up for lost wages and all the other collateral damage done to the average Joe and Jane. But if they are serious about customer service and want to be viewed as legitimate, they should move at the speed of light and provide customers with refunds for the services those customers haven’t received. What’s to discuss? Just do it.

Even better still, going forward, a money-back guarantee would make public transportation much more attractive to customers and also be the acid test for accountability. And why not a money-back guarantee, it is routinely used by successful private firms that distribute goods and services though the marketplace.

Of course, this principle can only be implemented after Hercules has cleaned out the Augean stables at the MBTA. To expect anything less is to be as amateurish as the folks who are currently in charge.

originally published: February 28, 2015

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