Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thursday's talk with Joshua Schank: Promising with concern?

Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of listening to Joshua Schanck, Metro's first Chief Innnovation Officer, explain how he would use his new post to improve the way business is conducted at a transit agency that is currently grappling with a slump in ridership.

As the head of the "Office of Extraordinary Innovation" (created last spring), Schanck portrayed the emerging division as an "incubator" for innovation at Metro, that would solicit input from outside the transit bureaucracy. 

Through an "Unsolicited Proposal" policy, Schanck promised that the office would accept proposals from any group or individual for public transit improvement in the region. Schanck additionally hinted that a series of upcoming outreach events would allow Metro a broader conduit to solicit the public's opinion and experience.   

Moreover, the office would assist Metro in implementing new pilot projects and public-private partnerships  (P3), including an anticipatory hint that the latter would be used to help construct a "major infrastructure project." 

Schanck's emphasis on outreach is certainly a step in the right direction (as long as a NIMBY hijacking is averted): past service cuts and operational features (e.g. fabric seating) show that Metro planners and decision-makers aren't always on the same page as riders (as I have discussed before). I don't have the same enthusiasm for the public-private partnership idea, but whatever might help speed up Metro's woefully slow project construction timetables should be supported.

And yet, although Schanck's vision sounded hopeful, his talk also raised questions as to the extent to which his office could actually affect systematic change.

In the course of his talk, Schanck openly pointed to the fact that a conservative bureaucacy in Metro seeks to impede more radical change.

Afterwards, during the Q-and-A session, Schanck mentioned in one of his answers (to a question about regional agency fragmentation) that Metro's own bureaucracy is fragmented and discoordinated enough that it need to be put in shape. This hardly sounds like an entity that could affect radical change.

That fragmentation was on display when an audience member voiced a complaint about Metro's procurement policies. Schanck claimed not to know about procurement, stating something to the effect that Metro is a huge organization and it was in the hands of a different agency.

I let out a little sigh. What was I to expect? 

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