It's Time to Move Beyond Conflict
On December 11, 2008, thirty rail industry and government leaders gathered in the US Capitol Building to discuss ways of improving coordination among rail transportation public- and private-sector stakeholders. I co-facilitated this five hour conversation with Barbara Gray, Director of Penn State University’s Center for Research in Conflict and Negotiation. In light of our government’s recent failed attempt to stimulate housing ownership through the private financial industry, I felt we needed to consider how the public and private sectors can collaborate more effectively and with more integrity.
Coordinating across industries, sectors, organizations, agencies, and indeed political parties requires collaboration, consensus-based decision-making processes, and respect. Our governing system, however, is structured to manage competing “factions” instead. Competition in the marketplace, competition for government attention, and competitive debate, rather than thoughtful deliberation, have all acted to stifle our collective ability to address the thornier issues of our day.
As a nation of competitors, can we now redraw our battle lines, so to speak? Can labor sit down productively with management, can railroads coordinate with the community, and can shippers collaborate with transportation providers? Can government partner with private industry, and most importantly, can we have all stakeholders’ input, not just the most powerful? Can we create new pathways for coordinating commercial activity and related public policy to better meet our national needs? If we can, we must confront the sophisticated task of creating new forums and new methods for all stakeholders to think, plan, and act productively. Vested-interest representatives, individually beseeching government for attention, stymie our collective intelligence, no matter how transparent we make that process.
”Preserving competition in the marketplace,” by itself, is an incomplete regulatory principle that must be augmented with thoughtful collaboration if we are to produce an optimal, sustainable transportation system. When we saw the need for paving muddy roads to and from the railroads in the early 20th century, we missed the opportunity to thoughtfully integrate the newly developing freight highway system with the highly developed rail system. The resulting competition in commerce and public policy triggered a disastrous shrinkage of the rail system, delivering a suboptimal transportation system, the costs of which we are only now beginning to face.
More than money is needed to improve our transportation system. Bridging the gaps in communication and coordination is paramount. There is no shortage of intelligence in the public or private sectors, but gathering and applying this intelligence faces institutional barriers and legal and regulatory prohibitions, born of a system based on competition and mistrust. Government, industry, and informed citizenry currently relate from an insufficient distance, interacting through commissions, hearings, studies, reports, and recommendations, when the keys to real results are agreements, commitments, and action plans. Our diverse group of December 11 participants provided valuable insight into these barriers, and did excellent work deliberating potential ways to address them.
We at OnTrackAmerica are not the only ones to take notice of these impediments to progress. The Federal Highway Administration's "Freight Story 2008" reads (with emphasis added), "Creative and ad hoc arrangements are often required through pooled fund studies and multi-state coalitions to plan and invest in freight corridors that span regions and even the continent, but there are few institutional arrangements that coordinate this activity." It goes on to say that "[M]ost solutions to freight problems require joint action by both public and private sectors. Financial, planning, and other institutional mechanisms for developing and implementing joint efforts have been limited, inhibiting effective measures to improve the performance and minimize the public costs of the freight transportation system."
Advancing beyond these "limited institutional mechanisms," we need to think and work together across a wider range of interests. Not only is it time to coordinate across transportation modes, it is time to coordinate among companies and facilities within modes. We can no longer afford the inefficiency of one port, for example, taking business away from another port when we need a port “system” that is maximally efficient as a whole. Our multi-faceted challenges and limited funding resources call for new ways to interact in business and government, whereby the power of collaboration sits effectively alongside the power of competition.