Rhode Island School of Design

Bureaucracy and democracy needs each other by Yunyao Gu

“Recent reconstruction programs for Providence RIPTA bus service have received funds around 74 million dollars from Rhode Island Government.” said by Greg Nordin, Director of Planning in RIPTA bus.

On February 4, 2019 5:00 PM, I attended the City Council Whole Regular Meeting, the topic of which is a presentation from RIPTA bus representatives: Amy Pettine,  Chief of Strategic Advancement;  Greg Nordin, Director of Planning and Barbara; Polichetti, Director of Public Affairs, Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

As the only attendee of general public, apart from a nice card pass, I received a pack of informative booklets, containing main service and programs happening inside RIPTA bus.

The RIPTA representatives were reporting RIPTA’s current services, projects, system improvements, new initiatives, and updates in the Greater Providence area. Generally, RIPTA is working on several projects ranging from major capital investment to service adjustment, all intended to facilitate the transit experience of passengers with diverse background.

Although the director of planning expressed his excitement, or more, self-enjoyment, about the promising future of these programs, officers still constantly pushed RIPTA representatives to show them potential pictures about the construction, specify the completing date of the plans and clarify their resolutions towards all kinds of phenomenon.

It was interesting to notice that clearly councilors are unsatisfied about the less transparent procedure and vague progress update. In this sense, debates around the bureaucratic response from RIPTA bus representatives made the atmosphere intense for many times.

Here are few debates around info transparency, inclusive involvement, and infrastructure facilitation:

First, contact of execution responsibilities. When asking “who to contact if I want to address issues”, the councilors were confused by RIPTA representatives answers, with only mentioning “email us”, “please email us and we’ll contact you…”, “see the contact on booklets” etc. Besides, in terms of info transparency, one of the councilors instantly searched the link on the booklet about Transit Master Plan and conveyed her confusion on how to navigate the resources and construction progress update. Obviously, 74 million dollars is not small amount of investment and it’s not fun to keep every story untold.

In my perspective, even though I am a general public and walk past Kennedy Plaza everyday , I did have no idea about the first ever state Transit Master Plan before entering this city council meeting…

Second, free bus and more free regular bus. There was a small debate around whether more free bus service should be added to regular routine lines. One black councilor showed her concern after being asked for her unusual quiet, regard to mobilize more black communities. However, RIPTA representative pointed out it depended on budget and whether citizens want a system that can work for them more or can potentially limit them more, which sounded like a philosophical paradox worth thinking about.

Third, student selling school ID caused bus-pass abuse. And director of RIPTA creatively resolved this issue with several approaches such as physical pass, phone built-in scan code, digital pass etc. to limit ability of abuses, which in some degree relieved the anxious talking tone inside the meeting.

Councilors still showed determination on democratic usage of funds and execution transparency are high concerned from all sides. Regardless of RIPTA representatives’ official response, councilors still actively expressed their concerned from all aspects, at all speed with their critical thinking ability, to either question the current progress, or push the inclusiveness inside the program, apart from simply achieving its transit facilitation.

This reminds me of few readings around unwritten rules of presidency. Similar to presidency, governmental bureaucracy is actually necessary, to serve a more regulated democracy. Because citizen demand for public services so that government want to formalize power for improved execution around serve and infrastructure, which doesn’t equal to bureaucrats’ desire for more resources and power.

The power of bureaucracy rests in its expertise and its professionalism. Undoubtedly, in a democratic large organization, elected and politically appointed top officials, no one cannot possibly be expected to have the expert knowledge in all policy areas, about all the department or agency where they serve.

On the one hand, we do need to reform the current system, for improved transparency of public infrastructure and service; but on the other hands, we still rely on bureaucracy supporting the reform. Since any organization larger than 50 or a 100 people can only operate as a bureaucracy. Microsoft, Walmart, the Trump organization, the Red Cross, they are bureaucracies too.

Supposing that government did reform the bureaucracy, it would be in the compensation of its highly qualified employees and in its personnel systems. As mentioned above, gaps between expert knowledge and department or agencies would only be exaggerated, since it clearly exists various distinctions among the top civil service and the top executive.

Bureaucracy does not play an extra-constitutional role, which means it won’t necessarily threaten or undermine democracy, even though some argue it does.

It is not mentioned in the Constitution but it plays exactly the role that bureaucracy should: supporting democracy despite the sometimes slows down the democratic reform.

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