Josh Barro’s article in the February 10 issue of the New York Times, “To Save on Rail Lines, Market the Bus Line,” makes a point that many if not most of us would agree with: that, to quote from a 2009 FTA report, “Bus-based transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.” Josh makes another point that many of us might not agree with: “Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.” While Josh’s second point is certainly debatable, it’s pretty clear that public transportation authorities around the country could do a much better job of marketing their bus service.
So what does this have to do with your board? Of course, the primary mission of all public transportation boards is to govern, which essentially involves making decisions about such governing products as the annual operating plan and budget and making judgments based on such information as a quarterly financial report and operating performance data. By its very nature, governing is somewhat aloof work, requiring some distance from the welter of day-to-day affairs in order to attain the degree of objectivity that sound decisions and judgments require.
However, there’s nothing wrong with getting your board members involved in doing hands-on, non-governing work, such as helping to improve the image of your bus service. For one thing, image building is a tremendous challenge, and you need all the help you can get. For another, board members can strengthen the credibility of your image building efforts. Because they are for the most part unpaid volunteers who represent the public at large and key stakeholder organizations in your community, such as the mayor’s office and county commission, board members’ words tend to carry weight. That’s why an increasing number of authorities around the country are “booking” board members to speak in important forums in their communities, such as the monthly Rotary luncheon meetings. It’s not difficult to envision one of your board members making a powerful case for your new BRT line at a chamber of commerce luncheon – as a user-friendly, efficient, cost-effective service. And keep in mind that a spin-off benefit of board member involvement in the image building arena, beyond burnishing the image of your bus service, is the ego satisfaction that board members typically derive from their stints at the podium, which without question helps to cement the board-CEO partnership.
If you do choose to involve your board members in image building, however, you’ve got to make sure that such non-governing involvement: (1) is not allowed to interfere with the board’s preeminent responsibility: governing your authority; and (2) is well-supported so that board members actually do a bang-up job of representing your authority. That means, at a minimum, that you supply them with detailed speaking points, visual aids, and perhaps even an opportunity to rehearse.