U.S. public transportation agencies find themselves trying to do more with less—and the future prospects are uncertain. How can they make the most of what they have and succeed in difficult times?
“They need to have the courage to make the decisions necessary in order to be a high-performance organization,” said Mark Aesch, who oversaw a shift from deficit to surplus during his tenure as chief executive officer of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority (RGRTA) in Rochester, NY—a position from which he retired earlier this year.
“You don’t run five straight years of surpluses, cut fares as we have, or reduce your reliance on taxpayer dollars by 36 percent if you haven’t changed the culture substantially,” Aesch stressed. “You’ve got to change that culture all the way through. Quite honestly, I couldn’t have imagined that the public employee unions would feel comfortable enough to connect their performance to their pay. Yet here we are; we’ve done it.”
Aesch also is taking his message beyond RGRTA. He authored Driving Excellence, which describes the process through which employers and employees can become partners in creating positive results.
He is straightforward in his aims: “My goal is to try to transform public-sector management to get agencies to work at a higher level.”
“So many public agencies—transit systems, school systems, city governments—struggle to figure out how to make ends meet; my book offers the opportunity to help people perform at a higher level,” he said. “I think the message of the book is this process isn’t unique to a transit system by any stretch. While I’m very proud of what we’ve done, the message is that the way we’ve managed this is easily applicable to others that have the courage to make the decisions necessary to become a high-performance organization.”
He explained that his journey toward writing the book began in 2008, after RGRTA made the counterintuitive decision to reduce its fares. “People were really starting to pay attention; many systems were raising fares and these crazy people in Rochester were cutting them,” he said. “I knew my personal passion was to try to get higher-performance public sector management generally. I thought that writing a book would be the best vehicle for sharing these ideas.”
Driving Excellence has been a success since its publication, according to Aesch. The book placed at the top of Amazon.com’s list of new business releases and fourth among all leadership books. In addition, it was cited by CNN Money as one of the Top 5 Business Books You Can Use for 2011.
“With people regularly saying public agencies should be run more like a business, this ranking from CNN Money shows that people are now saying that businesses have a model to be run more like a public agency!” Aesch said.
“The book has a message far beyond public transportation,” he emphasized. “It’s about high-performance management. I’ve received a great response from private-sector leaders, so clearly it’s a message that runs through management generally.”
Following his retirement from RGRTA, Aesch founded a consulting company called Envisurage and joined Parsons Brinckerhoff as a senior advisor.
“I want to get inside transit systems, counties, and cities and help them with their strategy development and performance management systems,” he said. “Then they can build toward sustained success and achieve wonderful things without having to ask the taxpayers for more money.”