Public Transportation:

Washington Metro Could Benefit from Clarified Board Roles and Responsibilities, Improved Strategic Planning

GAO-11-660: Published: Jun 30, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2011.

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The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) public rail transit and bus systems are vital to the national capital region. However, the 35-year-old rail system has experienced safety and reliability problems, including fatal accidents. A 16-member board of directors governs WMATA, setting policies and providing oversight. Recent reports have noted weaknesses in WMATA's governance structure and recommended changing it. GAO assessed WMATA's governance in terms of the board's roles and responsibilities, oversight, and strategic planning. To do so, GAO compiled leading practices from previous GAO work on public and private sector governance, non-GAO transit governance studies, and strategic planning standards; then compared WMATA's approach to those practices. GAO also spoke with six transit agencies selected based on board composition and ridership, among other things.

Although some requirements and guidance for board roles and responsibilities are provided in the WMATA compact and board procedures, WMATA board members, officials, and other stakeholders have reported that sometimes the board focuses on management's day-to-day responsibilities rather than higher level board responsibilities such as oversight and strategic planning. This focus may have resulted from, for example, inadequate delineation and documentation of the board's responsibilities as well as inadequate communication among board members. In addition, while leading governance practices state that effective transit boards monitor the effectiveness of the board's organization, structure, and functioning through a regular board selfassessment, WMATA's board does not do so. As a result, the board lacks a key mechanism for regular, ongoing measurement of its performance. In April 2011, the board released draft bylaws that clarify the roles and responsibilities for the board and propose that the board chair coordinate a board selfevaluation. 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 board's oversight role is supported by the board's committee structure, which provides a communication channel for information to reach the board. Past board practices such as infrequent meetings of the Audit and Investigations Subcommittee and the lack of routine briefings on outside safety recommendations may have impaired the ability of the board to use information about areas in need of improvement regarding the operations and finances of the agency. However, given the variety in other transit agencies' practices and the lack of clear criteria on how often audit committees should meet, there is no clear standard against which to measure WMATA's practices. The board's draft bylaws propose changes to the organization of the board's committee structure. WMATA has developed elements of strategic planning over the past 4 years, but the agency's board and management could enhance their strategic focus and long-term planning processes to improve performance. WMATA acknowledged several failed past efforts at strategic planning. WMATA officials said that prior attempts failed due to a lack of management support, employee buy-in, and specific actions to execute the plans; and a focus on tactical versus strategic decision making. WMATA management has developed several elements of strategic planning, such as a mission statement, goals, objectives, and strategies. However, the agency's strategic planning process could benefit from more board and stakeholder involvement, internal and external environmental assessments, longer time frames, program evaluations, and updated performance metrics. In June 2011, the board launched an effort to overhaul its strategic planning process. GAO recommends among other things that the WMATA board of directors follow through with its efforts to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the board; conduct a regular self-assessment of the board's effectiveness; and improve its strategic planning process by actions such as increasing the board's involvement in the process and updating the agency's performance metrics. WMATA reviewed a draft of this report and noted that it has taken recent actions that begin to address some issues covered in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) public rail transit and bus systems are vital to the national capital region. However, the rail system has experienced safety and reliability problems, including fatal accidents. A 16-member board of directors governs WMATA, setting policies and providing oversight. Recent reports have noted weaknesses in WMATA's governance structure and recommended changing it. In 2011, GAO found that some requirements and guidance for board roles and responsibilities were provided in the WMATA compact and board procedures. However, WMATA board members, officials, and other stakeholders have reported that sometimes the board focuses on management's day-to-day responsibilities rather than higher level board responsibilities such as oversight and strategic planning. This focus may have resulted from, for example, inadequate delineation and documentation of the board's responsibilities as well as inadequate communication among board members. GAO recommended that as WMATA took steps to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the board and management in its draft bylaws, it needs to ensure that a clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of each are adopted and effectively implemented. In 2015, GAO confirmed that WMATA's Board adopted Bylaws that, according to the WMATA Board, are intended as a stable source of governing principles, by establishing the roles and responsibilities of the Board of Directors and Board Chair, a more effective relationship between the Board and the General Manager/Chief Executive Officer (GM/CEO), a commitment to the broadest possible communication with customers and all stakeholders, a method to limit jurisdictional vetoes and a new and more efficient Committee structure. These bylaws address a clear delineation between board members and the GM/CEO and include a section on the relationship between the Board and GM/CEO. These enhancements to the WMATA bylaws will help ensure that the Board works through established channels and better oversee the strategic direction of the transit agency.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the strategic focus of WMATA's board and improve the agency's performance, the board of directors working with the GM/CEO should ensure that a clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of each are adopted and effectively implemented as WMATA takes steps to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the board and management in its draft bylaws.

    Agency Affected: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Board of Directors

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) public rail transit and bus systems are vital to the national capital region. However, the rail system has experienced safety and reliability problems, including fatal accidents. A 16-member board of directors governs WMATA, setting policies and providing oversight. Recent reports have noted weaknesses in WMATA's governance structure and recommended changing it. In 2011, GAO found that WMATA has developed elements of strategic planning over the past 4 years, but the agency's board and management could enhance their strategic focus and long-term planning processes to improve performance. WMATA experience problems because its: Board's roles and responsibilities are too broad and not clearly defined; its performance metrics and targets are out of date and the board has not been fully involved in assessing the metrics and their criteria; internal and external environmental factors that could significantly affect the achievement of the agency's goals and objectives are not clearly assessed; program evaluations are not conducted on a regular basis or uniformly across the agency; and strategic planning efforts do not clearly establish a long-term, multiyear outlook and do not include a schedule for updating or revising the agency's strategic goals. Therefore, GAO recommended that WMATA improve its strategic planning process by (1) defining and documenting roles for the board, management, and stakeholders in strategic planning; (2) ensuring that the strategic plan is sufficiently long term; (3) ensuring that board-approved strategic goals and objectives are linked to updated performance measures; (4) including internal and external assessments and program evaluations; and (5) reviewing the strategic plan on a regular basis and updating it as needed. In June 2013, the WMATA Board adopted "Momentum" that applies to the agency's strategic plan effective 2013 thru 2025, which implements GAO's recommendation. The plan's features include, among other things, vision and guidance for decision making, priorities for near- and long-term action, and discussion of performance measures. These features should enhance WMATA's strategic focus and long-term planning process to better position the agency to meet its future challenges.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the strategic focus of WMATA's board and improve the agency's performance, the board of directors working with the GM/CEO should improve the agency's strategic planning process by (1) defining and documenting roles for the board, management, and stakeholders in strategic planning; (2) ensuring that the strategic plan is sufficiently long term; (3) ensuring that board-approved strategic goals and objectives are linked to updated performance measures; (4) including internal and external assessments and program evaluations; and (5) reviewing the strategic plan on a regular basis and updating it as needed.

    Agency Affected: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Board of Directors

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) public rail transit and bus systems are vital to the national capital region. However, the rail system has experienced safety and reliability problems, including fatal accidents. A 16-member board of directors governs WMATA, setting policies and providing oversight. In 2011, GAO found that the WMATA board was not actively conducting self-assessments. As a result, the board lacks a key mechanism for regular, ongoing measurement of its performance. According to leading governance practices, effective transit boards monitor their progress on an annual basis and conduct a thorough self-assessment every 3 to 5 years. Therefore, GAO recommended that the WMATA Board begin conducting self-evaluations. In 2015, GAO confirmed that in accordance with its revised bylaws, The WMATA Board now performs an annual self-evaluation. The WMATA Board approved self-evaluation reports for calendar years 2013 and 2014. These assessments evaluate of the transit system's performance and the effectiveness of the board's organization, structure, and functioning, and its impact on performance. This feedback for the Board should enhance WMATA's strategic focus and long-term planning process to better position the agency to meet its future challenges.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the strategic focus of WMATA's board and improve the agency's performance, the board of directors working with the GM/CEO should conduct a regular assessment of the board's performance, including elements such as an evaluation of the effectiveness of the board's organization, structure, and functioning, and its impact on performance.

    Agency Affected: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Board of Directors

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) public rail transit and bus systems are vital to the national capital region. However, the rail system has experienced safety and reliability problems, including fatal accidents. A 16-member board of directors governs WMATA, setting policies and providing oversight. Recent reports have noted weaknesses in WMATA's governance structure and recommended changing it. In August 2009, the WMATA Board of Directors expanded to include two members and two alternates representing the federal government. In 2011, GAO reported that the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for selecting federal representatives to the WMATA board, had only minimal qualifications for possible candidates. These minimal qualifications do not follow leading governance practices that call for linking the composition and skill set of a board to the entity's particular challenges and strategic vision. In 2015, GSA developed a comprehensive plan to address the recommendation. This comprehensive plan includes specific criteria for identifying and screening candidates to select members of the WMATA Board of Directors. The plan also identifies a process for candidate search, nomination, and selection. These actions will help ensure that federal representatives to the WMATA board will meet specific criteria, including specific experience that would add value to a transit board.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should document specific criteria for identifying and selecting candidates to represent the federal government on WMATA's board.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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