Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 33: Future of Infrastructure: Be Nimble to Succeed

Episode 33 guest speaker, Rana Amin

Future of Infrastructure: Be Nimble to Succeed

with Ratna Amin

Ratna Amin discusses how civic organizations are pushing governments to get transit infrastructure right – and the complexity of defining success.

Episode 33: Future of Infrastructure: Be Nimble to Succeed

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Ratna Amin, Project Director for the City Administrator Office at the City of Oakland joined us to discuss how civic organizations are pushing governments to get transit infrastructure right – and the complexity of defining success.

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Be Nimble to Succeed

Ratna Amin, Project Director for the City Administrator Office at the City of Oakland joined us to discuss how civic organizations are pushing governments to get transit infrastructure right – and the complexity of defining success.

Working locally

Ratna Amin is the Project Director for the City Administrator Office in Oakland, California. She’s also a Board Chair at Transit Center. She was drawn to her line of work because of how interesting and complex transportation can be.

“In transportation, you get this mix of social issues, technical issues and big projects, really big scale. And I’ve been kind of trying to find my place in that field, honestly, for a while. A lot of people think I have this really fascinating and unique career, and that’s true. I have moved around, trying to find the sweet spot, and I had worked as a Chief of Staff in the city of Oakland, where we touched all kinds of projects. and I was the Transportation Director at Spur, which was a leading nonprofit in the Bay Area, working on urban policy and urban planning. I decided, after I left there, that operations is where the future is at. I had the opportunity to be a principal with Deutsche Bahn Engineering and Consulting, an affiliate of the German Railways, which is a massive 300,000 or 400,000 person global organization. It was an incredible experience.”

Amin added, “And I am now back at Oakland City Hall because I want to be local. I want to work locally, and I’m really interested in leadership and some assets of governance, and how we bring design and bring foresight and better process into government and decision making.”

Shaping the future of infrastructure

“I can’t understate the importance of civic organizations, especially in this moment. and wherever you are listening to this, there probably is one or many, many civic organizations, non-profits, advocacy groups. It could be a single person, it could be a huge organization that are shaping the future of your city or infrastructure. The way I describe these organizations is that they’re kind of the scale of change. They are people scaled, which means that if somebody has a better idea, somebody notices something is going wrong, we can actually act on it and bring up that conversation, and say, hey, have you thought about this, or, hey, it would be better if you do this, or, hey, in another city they figured out a way to pick up trash faster. Why don’t we try that here?”

Amin continued, “And unfortunately, institutions can’t bring up new conversations very easily. It’s an extremely formal process. Things have to be legislated. You need agreement. Staff, the career staff tend to need to be conservative and timid, or they could lose their job if they disrupt a process with a change and so, these outside groups have to be the leaders of change and have that opportunity.”

Amin says the need for change is stronger than ever right now as the existing systems no longer work in the ways they should: “A lot of our systems were built for another era where the climate was stable, where it was okay to leave out some populations, where there’s a lot more open space to just pave. But we have to change how we make decisions, how we spend money, who’s at the table, a lot of changes. So, you’re going to need that outside business group or advocacy group to lead that change, to lead the conversation and show up, literally show up.”

Basic services matter the most

Tech companies like Facebook and Google have grown extremely fast over the last decade and when they move to a new city or open a new office, their presence and their employees can have a big impact on the existing environment. That’s where folks like Ratna Amin come in.

“Traffic got incredibly bad. Businesses are saying, what is wrong? I want my people to take transit. Where’s the transit? So, we had the opportunity to partner with Stanford University, with several of the tech employers and other civic institutions to create a Caltrain Corridor vision plan. Caltrain is the rail line through this quarter. It’s existed for over 150 years, but was not delivering what it could. It’s moving a certain number of people each day, but why couldn’t this train move more people up and down the corridor through these cities?”

“We developed the vision plan that was, in the end, a document, but also a lot of shared conversations that has now turned into a business plan. Now that train runs far more frequently every day. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed down ridership, but the – but the fundamentals of that railroad are so much better. And so, what we have done is take something that already existed, this railroad, as a civic group and say, let’s invest in this and make it work for today. And now, that institution and the other civic partners are carrying that idea forward and continuing to fund change, continuing to be at the table as partners,” Amin explained.

How to be a nimble institution

“Scoping up a project and evaluating success is complicated. It can get overly complex. You can add all kinds of KPIs and measures and metrics, and then no one really knows what’s going on, actually, except the insiders. I would say you can look at this transit line and are people riding it? Are the people riding it have a good, safe experience? Is it actually helping them get where they want to go? We can look at what the customers are experiencing to know if we are successful. We also need to see if the institutions are successful through the change.”

Amin had this example to share for how to best attain impact and evaluate the success of a project.

“I’m really pleased with what has unfolded at this particular institution [Stanford University] because when COVID hit, we stopped and did some scenario planning, actually. The executive team said, yeah, let’s do this process where we can look at a lot of possible futures far beyond this pandemic. Nobody knew how long the pandemic would go on for. As a result, the institution is nimble. It’s ready for multiple possibilities. Like, if job growth does not come back, if the riders don’t come back, we’re a little bit more prepared. We’ve rehearsed that future.”

Amin added, “And so, adaptability, having some fundamentals in place, but then the ability to scale up and down on the service, scale up and down on funding is really critical in this day and age. I would say that’s a measure of success. Are you nimble for what’s happening next or when the next crisis hits? Will everything fall apart and will you have to go back to the drawing board? I don’t think we want that. I don’t think we have time for that.”

The growth mindset

Unfortunately, that openness that Amin considers a measure of success, isn’t readily available in every organization. It isn’t always typical of government institutions either.

“Being open to saying you were wrong or we didn’t see that coming is hard for organizations. There’s something called the official future and most organizations feel they have to stick with the official future, the one on paper, the one we said we are funding. This is particularly common in an infrastructure where projects take so long. We’re building this, we’re building this even though everyone in the room knows that it’s probably not the right project anymore.”

Amin continued, “And this is where I’m really excited about the role of civic organizations, because they have the space to be honest. I wish more people in the system had space to be honest and forthcoming and say what’s on their mind. We are still humans and say, like, I don’t think this makes sense anymore. and listen, if you revisit the plan, we’ll still support you. We all support a revised plan. We’re going to come together and say thank you for taking another look at that. Maybe it doesn’t need to be so big anymore. Maybe, you know, it needs to go faster or slower, whatever the case may be.”

“Let’s revisit things because we’re at a kind of dangerous moment that if we spend billions of dollars on the wrong projects, we are both wasting our precious talent and resources, but we’re missing out on what we might actually be needing to serve people on the ground, whether it is clean water, simply more bus service, or a little bit more safety. Today’s needs are more known, and we should meet them.”

Today’s operational problems

Amin’s team at Transit Center has been doing advocacy work centered around buses and local transit systems, with the goal of confronting workforce challenges. Or it to put it more plainly, they’re trying to solve their operator shortage. 

“We have a bus operator shortage across the country. These are the people who drive buses and trains as well and all kinds of transit. We have huge shortages of operators and maintenance workers, so we can’t put out service today. For example, in Los Angeles, they developed a great new plan, next generation network over the next 25 years to get buses within 10 minutes of every Angelino. Meanwhile, they’ve had to cut service by 12% not because of funding, not because of the pandemic exactly, but because there are 3,300 operators working today, but they need 600 more to put all of the service out.”

A similar problem is happening with San Francisco’s Muni system which is currently around 1,200 employees short.

“This was kind of a foreseeable problem, but it’s hit in a huge wave because of the pandemic, because of opportunities in the private sector and commercial driving that were somewhat foreseeable, but have grown at a really fast scale. And the pay isn’t good enough. Some of these bus operators are starting at $18 an hour and maybe working at night in split shifts, having to commute to their jobs and concerned with their safety.  So, if we’re excited about building new infrastructure and improving our cities, we’ve got to look at what’s actually happening on the ground and solving today’s problems, like the workforce issue.”

What are we going to do now?

“I’m really excited about the research that Transit Center has done around bus operator needs and what we need to do is actually bring the operators to the table and talk about their experience. This sounds so obvious, but we actually don’t do it.” 

Amin says there’s a class system in a lot of these fields, where the people at the top are making decisions for others despite having comfortable salaries and working from home.

She continued, “I’m not trying to criticize anybody. This is a system we have, and I’m one of those fortunate people who can work from home a lot at my computer. and then you have folks on the ground who are doing the building, who are doing the driving, who are doing the cleaning, the maintenance. And we need to ask ourselves if the people who are actually delivering the service are part of the decision making themselves. Also, you have labor unions at work here, and even within a labor union, do you have the folks who are doing the work at the table who are the new employees at the table?”

“I was on BART yesterday and saw an ad from AC Transit to recruit bus operators, advertising that they have gyms and that they can help enhance the health of their employees. That was really exciting for me to see because it showed that the agency is actually connecting with the needs of its employees and seeing if it can meet them at work, and then actually communicating that back out to the world.”

To find out more:

Learn more about Transit Center’s work

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