One day in late 1983, Bob Kiley and Dave Gunn took a trip to Coney Island. Kiley was the newly appointed head of New York’s huge Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which moves more than a third of the people in the United States who use public transportation. Gunn was the man Kiley was trying to convince that day to head the Transit Authority (TA), which runs New York City’s vast bus and subway system. Coney Island is the home of a large TA repair yard.

When Kiley and Gunn arrived, they didn’t see employees drinking, sleeping, or fixing private automobiles on government time—infractions cited in countless reports and investigations over the years. But they did notice workers stripping down the undercarriages of subway cars and rebuilding them with the same nuts and bolts and other components they had just taken out. Watching this, Kiley said later, was like undergoing a heart transplant only to wake up to discover that the doctor had put your old damaged heart back in place. I thought of it in more mundane terms—standing, sweating, in a motionless subway car and being told that the train would be delayed for an hour in the middle of a tunnel because of unexplained “mechanical difficulties.”

Part of the problem at Coney Island is that the repair shops can’t get the right tools and parts. The huge inventory system is only partly computerized and has a backlog a mile long. But Kiley and Gunn discovered something more fundamentally wrong: of 1,000 employees at the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week Coney Island facility, only one reported to TA management rather than to the union. One man to take responsibility. The result of that wasn’t hard to figure out. Kiley and Gunn learned that even if you included cars reassembled with worn-out parts, the yard would complete only 40 overhauls by the end of the year-28 percent of the yard’s modest objective.

In other words, “MTA management” had become an oxymoron. Of the 49,000 TA workers in 1983, 300 were accountable to management. The only way to get subways fixed at Coney Island and to save the system as a whole from complete deterioration, Kiley and Gunn concluded, was for them to be able to hire, fire, and promote high-level supervisors on the basis of their performance. And the only way to do that was to break the grip of the civil service.

Kamakazi Democrats

“They call it the merit system, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Kiley. “By squeezing out the evils of Boss Tweed they have squeezed out everything else—reduced everything to the lowest common denominator, which is a recipe for sleepiness.” Regular readers of this magazine will be familiar with that sentiment. The new twist is that Kiley and Gunn are not journalists or former bureaucrats with an idealistic notion of how to make government work better. They are men with long experience in mass transit, who learned their civil service lessons the hard way. Now they are betting their not inconsiderable reputations that a diagnosis at odds with a generation of liberalism and conventional notions of “merit” will help cure what ails New York’s subways.

Kiley and Gunn must have the most second guessed jobs in America. Every straphanger can tell them how to do it better, not to mention the unions; the newspapers; and Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, who are always at pains to point out that the MTA, and not they, bears responsibility for the system’s desperate condition. Each day brings a new “suicide mission,” as Gunn called the job before agreeing to take it. The Transit Workers Union (TWU) insists on arbitration on its new contract; the Reagan administration slashes mass transit grants; Congress subpoenas testimony about millions of federal dollars spent on faulty Grumman-built buses; the federal regulators scream about the hundreds of track fires discovered each month; citizens’ groups protest possible fare increases.

Kiley felt the added pressure of his predecessor’s legacy. Richard Ravitch had devoted most of his time to raising $8 billion to finance capital improvements. It was a last-ditch crusade to breathe life back into the subways; Kiley knew that without effective management the money would be flushed away. So despite all the problems confronting the system, and all the constituencies demanding attention, civil service reform became the principal objective of Kiley’s first year and the foundation upon which future improvements would be built.

Remarkably, by the end of their first year in office, Kiley and Gunn had accomplished most of what they sought—and had forged an accept able compromise on the rest. If the subways aren’t tangibly better, management is at least in a position where there is some hope of improvement. To win this fight, Kiley and Gunn had to convince a lot of other people that the old “merit” system wasn’t working. Maybe their example can help other state and local governments—not to mention the federal system—where civil service holds the same sway. If other agencies don’t heed the lesson of the MTA soon, they could end up looking like the Broadway Number 3.

Me? I Snip Wicks

Before laying out the civil service story, it’s only fair to mention that I’m basically a fan of the New York subway system. It often produces an unpleasant ride, particularly compared to Washington’s Metro, but you get used to it. While the rich and the faint-at-heart sit in their limousines and taxis (when they can get them), crawling uptown in excruciating midday traffic, the subway usually takes you exactly where you want to go, and faster. During the daytime it’s almost always the best way to get around the city, mainly because of its size. New York has 6,150 cars running on 230 miles of track. By comparison, Philadelphia, where Gunn ran the subway system, has 375 cars on 24 miles of track, and Boston’s MBTA, which Kiley headed in the mid-1970s, has 392 cars on 30 miles of track.

The problem is that because you expect the subway to get you there faster and cheaper—and you plan your schedule around it—the anger at not getting there on time is all the greater. Last year New York riders experienced 61,000 train delays, twice as many as ten years ago. Meanwhile, crime has corroded the system. The fear of being mugged haunts subway riders in a way completely unknown years ago. There were 14,001 felonies committed in 1984 (up from 948 in 1960). As crime has risen, ridership—particularly among the middle class—has dropped, which in turn has caused crime to rise faster (the fewer passengers in a station, the easier it is to rob someone). The Lexington line may seem crowded at rush hour, but parts of the system rattle around nearly empty. In 1946, the peak year (just before the fare doubled from a nickel), two billion passengers rode the subways; last year the number fell below one billion for the first time since 1917.

The complete story of the decline of the subways is a subject for a different article. But a few little-known developments hastened the process more than is generally realized. In 1968, the MTA established a pension plan that allows employees to retire at half pay after 20 years—just as in the military. As a result, by 1970, 70 percent of the skilled workers in the car maintenance department had decided to pack it in. These were the men—Irish mostly—whose families had built and maintained the system in this century. Almost overnight, they were gone, replaced by people who were paid better but knew less. Then, during New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, the MTA reduced maintenance manpower, although conductors, booth agents, and administrators were not cut. Between 1973 and 1979 the hours worked in the car maintenance department dropped by 33 percent; between 1974 and 1976, training hours were down 77 percent. The brand new R-44 trains went only 6,000 miles between breakdowns—far worse than the R-17s which had been in service for 26 years.

The Richard Ravitch administration of the early 1980s didn’t have time to worry about all that. It had its hands full raising money. But before leaving, the old regime did succeed in one management change that had far-reaching consequences. In April 1982 an arbitrator sided with the MTA and eliminated work quotas. Originally favored by management as a way to get workers to complete jobs in specified amounts of time—a certain track replacement, say, should take only five-and-a-half hours—the quotas evolved into an excuse for employees to spend their afternoons bowling. After the five-and-a-half hour job was completed, the workers would leave—for the day.

But eliminating work quotas was only a beginning. Kiley and Gunn had hundreds of other work rules to contend with. Flagmen are still paid time-and-a-half, for instance, to clean the lenses and trim the wicks of kerosene lamps, which haven’t been used underground for five years (why such 19th-century instruments were being used even then is beyond comprehension). Before getting to all of that, though, Kiley and Gunn had to tackle the more basic accountability issue. What good did it do to tell a man he couldn’t leave work in the middle of the day if you had no way of enforcing it?

The reason nothing could be enforced was that the supervisors throughout the system—the men responsible for productivity—owed their allegiance not to MTA management but to the Subway Surface Supervisors Association (SSSA) and other unions. Supervisors were promoted not on the basis of whether they met productivity goals but by competitive examination. Kiley and Gunn found that even the best tests cannot tell you anything about how well a manager performs his job.

And these tests are not the best. The exams, says MTA spokesman Art Perfall, are “either really silly stuff or the kind of technical material that has nothing at all to do with managing people!’ Question 13 on a test for one group of foremen asked: “The trains on the subway are run by (a) gasoline, (b) electricity, (c) diesel oil, (d) butane gas?” Question 21 asked, “In making a report of an accident on a stairway from the mezzanine to the street at a subway station, the LEAST important of the following items to include is the (a) date, (b) weather, (c) time of day, (d) number of steps in the stair. Another test included a floor plan of a one-story frame structure and a series of tricky questions about the measurements. About the closest any question that I saw came to trying to gauge management ability was one about how to handle the presence of “the grapevine!’ My favorite among the wrong answers was (c): “purposely feed incorrect information into the grapevine in order to discredit the system!’

Plan B: Create Titles

Kiley decided to fight his battle publicly. “Given a 30-year history of management out of control, it would have been utterly futile for me to come in as a rank outsider and say, ‘Why don’t we go in the back room and see what we can work out?’ ” he recalls. “God does not give us much time… There was no substitute for getting very public very early!’

In a February 1984 speech to the Association for a Better New York, Kiley announced that he would ask the mayor, the governor, and the legislature to let him begin restoring accountability. Without hearing any specifics, the State Public Employees Conference, which represents more than a million public sector employees, accused Kiley of union-baiting. But six weeks later the MTA went ahead and issued a three-point “Management Reform Program.”

The first and least controversial element was called “broad banding .” Under the existing system, TA employees interested in moving from hourly work into “management” advanced to the first supervisory level on the basis of the exams mentioned earlier. Kiley and Gunn proposed to keep that practice but scrap the exam for all further advancement. Promotion to the second level of supervision would be based instead on performance. If the supervisors didn’t succeed at higher level supervision, Kiley and Gunn sought to reserve the right to send them back down to the minors. This change required the approval only of the New York City Department of Personnel. Mayor Koch backed the idea, and it was quickly adopted.

The second part of the plan involved a standard bureaucratic maneuver: creating titles. Usually this is done so that bureaucrats can move into higher classifications (for example, to qualify for a bigger salary, a secretary convinces her boss to reclassify her as “public liaison specialist”). But Kiley created more than 1,100 new “superintendents” for a different reason: to give management more control. The TA would be able to reward ambition within the agency and hire more qualified people from the outside. More important, the new positions would be “noncompetitive,” a word that sounds bad but actually is good. Selection would be based on performance rather than on seniority or competitive examination. This change also was approved last year by the city, and, interestingly, by the state civil service commission. It helped that the members of the state civil service commission are political appointees rather than protected civil servants.

Mario the Meek

It was the third element of the reform proposal that caused the trouble. Kiley and Gunn wanted the state legislature to pass a law excluding supervisors and managers from collective bargaining, which is a polite way of saying that they wanted to put the supervisors union out of business. This was in many ways the most important part of the reform plan. How could 95 percent of the agency’s managers be union members? To Kiley and Gunn, it was nonsensical.

The unions went nuts. Not just the Subway Surface Supervisors Association—whose existence was threatened—but the huge Transit Workers Union, which represents the bulk of TA employees. TWU chief John Lawe said the real problem wasn’t unionized supervisors but flabby top management. Gunn had made the mistake of hiring several administrators from Philadelphia for salaries approaching six figures— twice what some had made before moving to New York. Gunn himself made $140,000; Kiley, $150,000. Lawe’s attack highlighted management’s failure to tighten its own belt while asking subordinates to sacrifice.

Also leading the resistance was the MTA’s inspector general, Sidney Schwartz, who previously had gotten himself in the papers almost every week with some report of malfeasance at a TA facility. Schwartz could not seem to grasp the importance of making supervisors accountable to management. He suggested that Kiley’s plan be reviewed by the State Public Employee Relations Board—the same board that had bestowed collective bargaining privileges on the supervisors union in the first place.

.Of course Kiley didn’t surrender. John Michaels, president of the SSSA, said later that Kiley’s ability to sell the three daily newspapers on his reform proposals was critical to the outcome. But Kiley also had to overcome a huge obstacle on this third proposal, and his name was Mario Cuomo. Cuomo’s own problem was spelled L-A-B-O-R. The governor vigilantly maintains good relations with public employee unions and apparently felt he had to draw the line somewhere on the MTA reforms. “When I first went to Cuomo and said we had very serious structural problems, he didn’t bat an eyelash, until decertification of the unions came up,” Kiley recalls. “He didn’t ever argue that a supervisor’s union was a good thing, but he wanted to see if we could work it out without legislation!”

For most of 1984 that didn’t seem like much of an option. Michaels considered the two sides “at war.” The SSSA wasn’t going to negotiate itself out of business; Kiley wasn’t going to give up on restructuring the agency, and Cuomo wasn’t going to risk antagonizing labor any more than he had to. But finally, in late summer, it became clear to Kiley that the realities of New York politics were such that he wasn’t going to get legislation. “I spent some time in Albany talking to the [assembly] leadership. They said, well take our cues on this one from the governor’ If we’d really tried to go for broke on it, it would have been very rancorous.” Shortly thereafter, Kiley ran into Michaels, then executive director of the SSSA, at an office retirement party and tentatively suggested that the two sides begin to talk directly, rather than through the governor’s labor mediator.

The early negotiations were not encouraging. “The first couple of meetings lasted 10 or 15 minutes,” Michaels recalls. “They essentially said, `Here’s a gun. Go ahead and commit suicide! ” But as time wore on, Thomas Hartnett, Cuomo’s mediator, began to sense that progress was possible. By some accounts, it began after the Mondale debacle in November, when Cuomo, suddenly a major national figure, may have realized it was time to put a little distance between himself and labor. “By Christmastime,” says one person familiar with the negotiations, “Hartnett was telling the unions they had to make, a deal” Hartnett’s team denies that. “Tom basically went in and saved the union’s bacon,” says his assistant, Ronald Tarwater.

In any event, as Michaels says, “I began to believe that Kiley was sincere, even though we have a different philosophy.” The real breakthrough came when negotiations shifted from union representation to work rules—particularly the so-called “pick-and-bid” system. Under pickand-bid, MTA management nominally had the power, as in any other workplace, to assign jobs. But in practice, the supervisors picked their own. If a foreman wanted to work at a site near his house, higher-ups had no power to transfer him across town to where he was more needed. If they did, he could file a grievance, and the MTA would probably lose.

The union’s willingness to abolish pick-and-bid paved the way for the rest of the agreement, which was signed in secret this past January. The MTA knew that its strongest card was the financial weakness of the SSSA, which was losing scores of members willing to take the risk of becoming higher-paid, faster-track, but “unprotected,” superintendents. In exchange for allowing 500 to 800 more supervisors to leave the union, the SSSA received an increase in the MTA’s annual contribution to the union’s health and welfare fund and a promise to pay union dues if membership fell too low. This assured the future of the union, but in a much smaller and less powerful form. About 1,800 of the TA’s 5,300 supervisors will soon be directly accountable to management, with more to come in the next few years.

“I’ll go to my retirement deeply convinced that unionized management is an anachronism,” says Kiley. “But we got the right to make assignments based on performance, and that is extremely important” It might also have paved the way for progress on other work rules in contract talks with the TWU, the huge hourly workers union. But Cuomo struck again. After the old contract expired March 31, he supported and signed legislation—over Kiley’s public objections—that imposed arbitration. It will be more difficult to eliminate practices such as kerosene lamp wicksnipping in the slogging arbitration process.

The Coney Island Treatment

The fact that TA brass will soon be able to hire, fire, and promote 1,800 managers instead of 300 isn’t going to transform the subways overnight. In fact, as the $8 billion rebuilding program gets underway, there will be even more delays and inconveniences. But the management reforms do provide some light at the end of the tunnel. At Coney Island, instead of one manager who reports to management, there are now 26—one for each shop. If they don’t meet their production goals, they may not be around next year to try again.

The changes also mean that Kiley and Gunn can proceed to outline system-wide goals on which they will be judged. The initial objectives are modest—eliminate graffiti on a third of all trains by the end of the year, install 50 new fire extinguishers—but these and dozens of others mark a start in the process of reversing the downward momentum of the system.

It will be a couple of years before the verdict is in on these civil service reforms. It might even turn out that the changes didn’t go far enough. But the beauty of the New York subway system as an example of the need for civil service reform is that it illustrates how thoroughly confused our notions of merit have become. Merit isn’t choosing answer (e), it’s making sure the car gets swept.

In the federal government, where the civil service reigns, the message hasn’t gotten through. Washington makes the MTA look like Tammany Hall. The group of 300 “noncompetitive” managers that Kiley and Gunn found so intolerably small would be shockingly large for many federal agencies. Perhaps the answer to making government work better—at all levels—is to show what happens when performance becomes the standard. Wait a couple of years, then begin a required package tour—Washington to Coney Island.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.