The transport ecosystem: in praise of reference group geeks

Public noise about public transport has waned from its #bustastrophe peak. But is anything really improving? Reference Groupie reports that – lucky for Wellington, some civic-minded citizens are helping – and having to work hard to keep the players honest.

Like any large undertaking in human society, public transport in Wellington has a bunch of people who’re closely involved with it, and far more who’re not.

For those who aren’t in that “in the tent” of that inner circle – like most of us, dear readers – all we can do between election years is call things out from “outside the tent”, and hope someone in there’s listening.

Who’s in the tent?

Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Public Transport team and their Sustainable Transport Committee have some very smart people on them. And some whose compass of ambition is oriented firmly in the direction of true North: the public good. But these same folks have also presided over some of the most visible collective embarrassments of local government and public services.

So it’s happily for us all that they’ve recently set up a Public Transport Reference Group. Call it “a big anteroom to the inner tent”.

Extra happily for us, there are people with rock-solid civic character who sit on it. They’re carefully and thoughtfully engaged, doing piles of readings and preparing material and feedback, constructively critiquing (and giving the odd well-aimed serve) to help get public transport better.

Reference groups, our saviours?

They’re no silver bullet, but reference group type initiatives are a good idea for any major undertaking.
Their design and execution need to be done very carefully, because you’re selecting a bunch of people to have more influence. And transparency is vitally important, otherwise you’ve got just another shadowy “Advisory group” AKA My Mates From [The Koru Lounge / My Home Town / Sector Who We’re Supposed To Regulate]. (See More Stuff below.)

Their Terms of Reference aren’t on the net, though their existence was part of the “look we’re improving!” briefing that Greater Wellington gave to another tense meeting of Parliament’s Transport Select Committee back in December.

What can they actually do?

Reference groups’ influence is constrained, of course; there’ll be a bit somewhere in their Terms of Reference about being “advisory” only, and not being able to talk independently to the media.

But these kinds of groups are a vital part of the decision-making ecosystem for any significant undertaking, because they can give decision-makers insight into what the actual public think.

This is important because while specialists and decision-makers know they must keep focus on the users, it’s really difficult and expensive to get a coherent signal from the ultimate users of public transport – The Real Live Wider Public. We often make a lot of noise, but it’s hard to distinguish noise from signal. And often we’re not making noise about stuff we actually care about the most.

Sure you can go out and ask us, but even mediocre public engagement costs a lot, and when you’re asking questions about complex stuff it’s a dubious investment anyway. On complex things like public transport service delivery, We The Public don’t have the patience to get our heads around much of the complexity, so it’s hard to have thoroughly-informed opinions. Especially when many of us are all out of patience thanks to our #bustastrophe experiences.

So it’s great that there are still-energised citizens out there, willing to roll their sleeves up and engage patiently and constructively with the inner-tent-dwellers on our collective behalf.

Soft influence

And another aspect of reference type groups is the opportunity to use some personal persuasion. The Inner Tent power-holders are, after all, human beings. So if you’re careful to maintain a reputation as someone who’s constructive and considered, there are opportunities.

It’s the compelling cases made in quick chats over the plate of budget muffins. The judicious email you can flick through to the Inner Tent people and know Mr/Ms Big Shot of the Inner Tent is likelier to read it – because you’re not just one of the thousands of outside-the-tent people firing their reckons at you on How You’re Terrible And Here’s How To Fix It.

So, spill already!

So what can we learn from the Inner and Outer Tents of GWRC’s public transport landscape? What are they finding out, and what change are they able to make?

Over the next few weeks we’ll have a few dispatches from inside the “outer tent.”

It’s worth noting that the meetings are attended by the media, so this is all technically stuff you could hear about anyway if it’s being reported. Some is, like the “we’ve got no drivers” update last week.

But system change isn’t normally good newsworthy stuff in today’s modern media age, so it’ll be here for you!

To whet your tastebuds, here’s the [1MB PDF] agenda for the last Sustainable Transport Committee meeting, and some responses to it that are sadly revealing of the state of affairs.

Note: thanks to Mike Mellor for permission to publish the commentary on the 20.2.19 meeting.

Further interesting stuff:

The value of things like reference groups: a nice summary (just read the first bits if you like, they’re good) from the Public Administration Select Committee of the UK House of Commons [875 KB PDF]

What’s significant enough to ask The Public about anyway? Significance policies [2MB PDF] are one way councils decide

Image credits:

  • Reference group: screen-grab from video by
  • Unhappy tent:

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