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Meeting with TransLink: Continuing the Community Conversation?

As I had mentioned previously, I met yesterday with TransLink. (If you’re curious, yes, I did ask whether our meeting was bloggable.) I met with the manager of public consultations, who I had spoken to prior to Transit Camp, and members of their marketing team. This meeting’s been in the planning since January, but availability kept us from having the meeting until now, three months after TransitCamp occurred. (Be forewarned, this is going to be a bit of a ramble.) This is part-recap, part-reflection, and part me saying now what I might have felt I didn’t say.

First off, some good news: TransLink is in the process of putting together a web services policy on their data, and they will make it available to third-party developers for use in developing applications. Nice. They’ve spoken to some local area developers (the folks who led the open data session at Transit Camp) to make sure that the license fits their needs as developers, because I’m certainly in no position to speak on that beyond the vaguest of BoingBoing-isms, and they’ve also collaborated with the TriMet folks in Portland, learning from their experiments in this space. This is awesomely cool news, which I’m sure at least some will be glad to hear about.

In fact, they had a lot of interesting stuff to share with me, some of which got my process-oriented organizational change fan all in a giddy, and some of which raised an internal or external eyebrow:

  • I ran the idea of having a corporate blogging policy by them. I can’t recall whether they had said it is in the works – I believe they had mentioned trying a couple out and having varying levels of success with them. Nevertheless, it’s needed. Ken Hardie’s out on Stephen Rees’ blog, but one of the employees with whom I spoke to comments anonymously when he feels like partaking. While I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, I feel that it constrains the conversation a bit for employees to have to feel like they’re doing it on the down-low. I also have no real experience or knowledge of how corporate best practices for blogging should come together or what works best. But I could point them to people who do have that experience, and maybe even know what they’re doing, if that’s what they need.
  • They mentioned iMove. I didn’t get to go very in-depth on that project, but I believe as an organization they are balancing when to put something out that’s workable and useful(i.e. has all the datasets secured) but putting it out early enough in order to get meaningful feedback from the public. I can see how this would be difficult for them, trying to emulate a lot of the companies that are doing what would be for a public sector agency, fairly risky things. At the same time, my personal, highly uneducated opinion, judging from what’s on the site already, is that it is a user experience disaster that most likely originated with muddy communication between project development teams, design and stakeholders (which refers to TransLink and the public both). And that they are still in the process of securing and properly implementing the data, which I don’t think is very clear in either the project description or the site itself.

    I think that’s why we haven’t heard anything about the open data-web services stuff that they are hatching, which brings me to my next point…

  • Visibility. It’s great to do neat stuff, but why doesn’t anyone ever know about it? The manager of public consultation insists that they are announcing the neat things that her department does, and I have no doubt that she is working very hard and I can definitely confirm that she is very committed to the idea of dialogue and giving the public a say. I think there are two challenges in this: one, that circumstances outside TransLink’s control have tarnished TransLink’s reputation in this respect (see: everything Kevin Falcon and the Provincial Government has done surrounding transit or transportation in the past year); and two, that they feel that their work is done once the dialogue has been held. I don’t think it has, or else we wouldn’t see comment threads like the one over at Langley Politics full of people insisting that they haven’t been heard by TransLink. Is the dialogue focusing on collaboration instead of compromise between interests? If so, I would think that the people who participate in that process would be the staunchest defenders of it. I don’t see that being the case right now.
  • Siloing. The public doesn’t know what all 8 subsidiaries of of TransLink without looking it up on the website. (It’s The Buzzer‘s contest question this month; between the two of us Richard and I could only name 6. I know, what kind of transit geeks are we?) But the fact that TransLink refers to things as being the jurisdiction of the subsidiaries, rather than working towards a unified brand presence and relationship that doesn’t necessitate detailed understanding of TransLink’s internal structure, is problematic to me. Transit is a unified experience. When I walk off the bus and onto the SkyTrain, I don’t think that I’ve entered the property of SkyTrain instead of Coast Mountain Bus Company; and I don’t think most people feel like they should have to care. TransLink’s internal structure isn’t our problem, unless it means that we end up telling a representative our problem and that problem doesn’t receive any response without us repeating the problem two or three times more.
  • I am but a pure n00b to organizational structure theory, so I don’t know how the siloing problem can be solved long-term or with regards to the upper management decision-making level. That said, I do know a little bit about something that helps employees get and keep in touch with each other and to learn more about what their roles are in the organization: incidentally, it’s social media! As I pointed out at the meeting yesterday, there are more than likely, invite-only Facebook groups being used by people in the organization in order to keep in touch with each other in their personal lives. (This, granted, was an anecdote I heard from Toronto, not TransLink, yet). As Anil Dash says, people are not different people at work and outside of work. This is perhaps a little harder to argue for people in front-line positions such bus drivers, who, get a bit of a break in their personal lives; but even then I can see some things starting to bleed through – cellphone or SMS use, anyone? And I think that any attempt to empower customers/users/publics must also be accompanied by things to empower employees – they are the primary interface to the community. What, I wonder, is the process of seeing their feedback be fed back into the way things are actually done?

    This is where TransLink’s “e-revolution” comes in. I understand that as a public agency, technology is not at the forefront of TransLink’s mind. There are huge training costs involved as organizational processes incorporate altered technological processes; the capacity to tell a good idea from a bad idea is not always there, especially since that requires being able to stay on top of what’s worked elsewhere and what has failed miserably. That said, I find myself agreeing with Paul’s comment on the e-revolution and simultaneously empathizing greatly with TransLink, mostly because I worked closely in my previous job with people who are closer in age to the people I met at TransLink yesterday than I am to Paul. They are also likely doing their best with limited management support who can’t tell a boondoggle from a necessity (see above re: iMove).

    I’m also quite cognizant that work-life balance questions are different for those who don’t sit in front of a computer for 12 hours a day. I would hate to see the social media suggestion being conflated with asking front line workers to devote some of their lives outside of work to their organization; and I can certainly grok that there are some who will never want anything to do with social media at all. But I also believe that the tools that people are using to help manage their personal lives are going to look increasingly more attractive as things to use for work, and definitely deserve a long, hard look. They are also going to be increasingly more accessible from mobile devices and will not necessitate sitting in front a computer to take on a ubiquitous character.

There’s a non-zero possibility that the people I met yesterday are reading this, putting their heads in their hands and adding my name to a black list on Metro Tower II as we speak. I’m learning this communicating respectfully thing myself. But in the spirit of the people I have spoken to – people who are frustrated with the way decision-making has shifted in the relationship between TransLink and the provincial government, who have seen their buses get more and more crowded, who have felt disempowered and frustrated with the existing consultation process – I found it hard not to bring some of this up yesterday, in the spirit of wanting to encourage a constructive discussion.

The truth is, I am one person – and nothing I’ve written about today is new in comparison to the range of topics discussed in the Vancouver Transit Camp wiki. I believe the staff when they say they are committed to wanting to participate in a meaningful, ongoing conversation with the community, and who want to know how Transit Camp can be a tool in starting that. I think they’ll need a bit of help through the first humps in learning what this conversation means for their own internal processes, for their corporate self-identity, and for their relationship with the public. I think the lesson that needs to be learned is that we, as members of the community, are all learning what the potential for this dialogue is. I think facilitating meaningful online dialogue is difficult, but not impossible, just as offline dialogue can be difficult. I think we all have a stake in seeing this be successful and a good process, and to make it be known outloud if it turns out that it isn’t. (As an aside, the Camp community should not be viewed as a cheerful, uncritical bunch. The Toronto folks are demonstrating their willingness to call bullshit when they see it, very creatively at times.)

The real challenge, I’ve always believed, is getting those higher up in the organization to understand the value of this. I think there’s still a great traditional of paternalistic decision-making in place that consults the public rather than making them collaborators. Is a social media strategy going to help with that? I am cautiously optimistic, but I’d feel a lot better about finding people who are already working in these organizations who agree with that. And I hope that’s what I’ve done.

I think this could be a great start. And hey, it could be worse, right?.


  1. Excellent post Karen. I look forward to the start of a new dialogue. I’ll see what I can do about holding off the black list :-)

    Posted March 19, 2008 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Ok, I have to admit that Cam from Translink (don’t know him, just read his comment) has definitely a sense of humor :D

    I think (this has been my experience in Canada, and in Vancouver, at least) that when organizations and/or institutions are blogged about, they tend to be receptive (of course, sometimes corporate readers of Stephen Rees might not agree with him, but …)

    I think your post is very respectful, and I also applaud you for bringing out some of the voices of the THOUSANDS of dis-satisfied, disgruntled, unhappy and otherwise upset PAYING customers of Translink.

    Dialogues have to be started, and you just did that. Now, the ball is on Translink’s court. Congrats on a fine job.

    Posted March 20, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  3. Very interesting meeting Karen. Rather regret not tagging along now. I too definitely think they need a blogging policy inhouse. Of course, they’ve got their own long term tech plans – it’ll be history that judges whether their course of action was the right one for the right time.

    Good to know they are working with Trimet and opening up their info.

    Now if only they could fix their horrid communications outside of TV and The Buzzer.

    Posted March 20, 2008 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

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