Governance: The European Union and Translink model

December 17, 2014

It could be odd to compare a supra national organization to a local transit agency, but have a close look

The European Union organization
We just synthesize below the bodies and mechanisms to generate European laws:

EuropeanGovernance

European Union laws are proposed only by the commission, which is appointed by the European governments. (*) since 2014 the European parliament needs to approve the appointment of the Commission president.

The Commission is the main executive European body, but it is also the body drafting laws. A specificity of the EU legislative bodies (The “Council” and the European Parliament), is that they don’t have legislative initiative right: they can only approve/disapprove bill of law proposed by the commission.

The reason

The European Union framers idea was to avoid a too political European Union, and to have a more technical one to go above the different parochial (nationalist) interests toward the greater good. One has too remember that this structure has been built on the ruins of an Europe devastated by 2 world wars, and include countries of very different size (from Luxembourg to France).

The drawback

It is on of the reason why the Commission is often presented by the medias and local European governments, as a undemocratic/unelected body vested with too much power and not enough control. It is an easy scapegoat for all the local angst,and local governments make very good use of it. The areas of competence of the European Union vs the states are not well defined either (many are shared), so it also helps to fuel confusion.

The Commission has a relative small budget, and by the nature of the Europe itself, language barriers…, has little way to defend itself.

The Practice
Obviously, in practice, the thing work much differently:

The state governments jealous to preserve their influence, tend to appoint relatively transparent commissioners

The Commission will not put forward bill of law without having insurance to have approval of the council, since it is not in its interest to work for nothing, and obviously all laws are approved by representative bodies, and need to get “super majority” at the council (council of state government representatives)

The Translink organization

It looks like it:

The Translink governance: the mayors council appoints the Translink board of directors, and basically need to approve all the Translink management choice, including executive remunerations

Beside the bicameralism, Not too much difference with the European Union in term of responsability and accountability…

The reason

There are not much different of the ones presiding to the EU governance structure: a too parochial and politic Mayors Council. Local interests were taking precedence over the greater good and was putting the regional transit on a wrecking course. The wreckage occurred with the Canada line which the council of Mayors initially refused to approve, (and then later made sure it was built to a cost vs meet objective)

The Province needed to step in, what it did, and reorganized Translink, to strip down the Mayors of political nuisance power on Transit matter. The framer idea, was to have an apolitical body able to submit plan, conceived for the greater good, with all choice technically motivated rather than satisfying political expedient

Elected representatives (The mayors council) of course still need to approve the major decisions, especially Transit fare increase, tax increase, major investment, budget increase…in short: Translink is still fully accountable to the Mayors council

In Practice

The Mayors council never really accepted this type of organization, and quickly painted Translink as a undemocratic/unelected body vested with too much power. The board of directors, they themselves appoint, doesn’t escape to the finger pointing: A pure exercise at deflecting popular angst has been unfolding since 2004

Translink which has not the popular legitimacy to defend itself is put in a weak position: Strong voices usually disappear quickly (Michael Shiffer, Thomas Pendergraast… all left, after a brief but remarked interlude at Translink).

The appointed directors, as competent as they could be, seem to be chosen essentially for their ability at sitting passively in meeting and avoiding the medias. So it really looks like the council of Mayors has spent many effort to transform Translink as a puppet of their own, they can deflect angst on it.

However, virtually all Translink management choices, including its CEO compensation,are approved by the Mayors council. Plan and choice presented by Translink are obviously drafted to get the mayors council adhesion:

  • The Mayors express displeasure at the Burnaby Gondola: Translink put it on the shelve in despite of a positive business case which could have improved the Translink financial sheet
  • The Mayors want to reduce the property tax, without warning: Translink comply with it and put an alternative plan (remember, it is normally up to Translink to put forward such proposal, potentially devastating for its operation, not the Mayors!)

The June 2014 Translink restructuring

In despite of the above, and recognition that the Translink governance is a good model working better than its Canadian peers, the Regional Mayors ares still discontent of lacking some power: A slight restructuring has happened last June, providing more power and money to the mayors. They essentially inherited of all the competency the Translink commissioner used to enjoy (including a specific budget to exercise it).
They can also sit on the Board of directors, what does Richard Walton. A controversed step because as said the Burnaby Mayor Corrigan, the fear is that “What’s going to happen is the mayors’ council is going to be blamed for each and every thing that happens at TransLink.”!…and a reason why they had declined previous similar offers

However, the new legislation, explicitly mentions the need for Translink to consult the Mayors council to draft its plan (what was obviously a common practice required to work toward its endorsement before). The Province seems to have stood firm, to keep Translink as the body putting plan forward.

The referendum could have detracted a bit that, since the Mayors council has made sure to use their new gained authority to inprint its exclusive leadership on the 10 years plan: some implementation choice are more politically grounded that technically justified… However the very principle of the referendum is politicizing the issue, so the mayors can’t be blamed too much for that, since they have to sell the plan directly to the public in a very short time frame

“Why do we trash TransLink?” asked Gordon Price: A great part of the answer probably lie above, but another part of the answer is in the lack of clearly defined Translink responsibilities which pervade as a lack of accountability too:

Transportation responsibilities

The Transportation responsibilities can be described in 3 military terms; Strategy, tactic and operation; which can be illustrated as it:

The different layer of responsabilities

The different layer of responsabilities

  • The Strategy essentially defines the political goals to achieve. Transportation model, land use model, all contribute to this goal.
  • The Tactic essentially defines the mean used to achieve the strategic goal- It is at this stage line on the map are transformed in technical choices – It is essentially an implementation responsibility and that should also include the fare choice (level of subside is a political choice)
  • The Operations design the day to day operations. That is running the buses and trains,and try to run it in an efficient manner.

One of the main issue is that Translink is both an horizontal organization, overseeing transit and roads, but also a vertical one defining the strategy, the implementation, and running most of the operations, ( thru subsidiaries…but existing largely in name only).

That infers a large corporation, hence expensive to run, and probably create too much exposure for a single body:

  • A trouble on the Canada line will see angst directed at the Canada line management, the very discrete InTransit BC, not Translink
  • An operational problem on the skytrain will see angst directed at Translink and not BCRTC (The skytrain operator)


The public is probably right: the BCRTC president, Doug Kesley, was Translink COO few months ago, similar observation could be made with the CMBC management….lot of permeability between all the Translink subsidiary

A suggestion

There is no much fundamentally wrong with the Translink governance model: It is a good model shielding implementation and other important technical study and choice of political interference and still providing a good level of accountability, and there is no doubt that Translink critics, such as Jordan Bateman, benefit of this good level of accountability and transparency, however:

  • The board of directors relevance could be improved, with direct appointees by the Board of Trade, the Port authority, and other relevant organization recognized to have vested interest in the region transportation
  • For this reason, the Province should also be represented to the board of Directors
  • I could also welcome the appointment of some individual, such as Gordon Price or Jarret Walker

Translink responsabilities need to be redefined

It is clear enough that the “strategy” level is a political one: it shouldn’t be the role of Translink to define the Regional Transportation strategy: this thing needs to be defined by a body also overseeing other regional aspect, and mainly land use planing: Metro Vancouver is the natural forum for this

That said, it is clear also that implementing a Transportation strategy, which infer the choice of transportation mode and other technical matter, as well as overseeing operation, is a complex matter which need a sui generis body: That should be the main role of Translink. Because its role is to implement a strategy defined by Metro Vancouver, it is only natural to have Translink reporting to the Metro Vancouver board. a dedicated Mayors’ council on regional transportation is just a distraction, and an impediment to the good march of Transit and more generally transportation in the region

Operations should be clearly separated of Translink: Translink still should oversee its network operations, but not be directly involved in them: Each subsidiaries and contractors should provide an operational plan on a ~5 years term, meeting performance and objective defined by Translink. Translink then should audit its different operators.

Eventually, tendering part of the network operation, or some route on the model of the Shuttle buses, could be considered too.

Added on December 22, 2014
Interlude

Below is a video illustrating how the CEO of the Hong Kong Transit agency, MTRC, functioning as a corporation (including listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange) is treated by the Legislative Commission:

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One Response to “Governance: The European Union and Translink model”

  1. Stephen Rees Says:

    In the context of Translink you wrote “The framer idea, was to have an apolitical body able to submit plan, conceived for the greater good, with all choice technically motivated rather than satisfying political expedient”

    I have the greatest of difficulty with the notion of the current provincial government holding any idea “for the greater good”. None of their decision making is designed to benefit any greater good other than the neoliberal, political theory they have been dogmatically pursuing, ignoring all impacts on society. The only concern is with economic growth – which is actually now contrary to the Greater Good. All their policies are designed towards re-election, which means polling and a continued stream of financial support from a small number of extraordinarily wealthy individuals. Corporate welfare matters more than general welfare.

    The government has no difficulty at all reaching decisions on issues like transit expansion, Site C or even carbon tax – which is only used for one purpose (to replace income tax) and has not changed since it was introduced. I see no concern at all for “the greater good”. What I do see is a lot of spin, PR guff and a cynical disregard for the well being of the population and their environment propped up by a broken electoral system, which they cynically exploit.

    None of the major transportation choices made in this region since I have been here have been made on technical grounds. That was true before Translink was created, and continued uninterrupted subsequently. I was misled too, when I first came to Canada by thinking that NAFTA was similar to the European Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have always been confirmed by experience in my belief that more in politics can be explained by the cock-up theory than the conspiracy theory.


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