Episode 22: Confessions of a “Not Particularly Mild-Mannered Bureaucrat”

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From the private sector to the public sector, Gillian Gillett has found that her willingness to point out that the emperor has no clothes is an important tool to use to get the ball rolling on important issues like transportation, housing, and equity.

Check out The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit by Josh Cohen to learn more about ensuring access to transit for everyone. 

Episode Transcript

Cohen: We are so lucky to have folks like Gillian Gillett working in the public sector.  One way she’s been successful is finding the right balance between quick wins to build momentum and tackling substantial problems that have a big impact, making sure that the ladder of opportunity isn’t pulled up behind her.  Also, please note that we recorded this session with Gillian before the California State Senate appropriations chair held the bill, meaning that it will not be brought up for a vote in 2019 but will be eligible in 2020. Let’s go.  

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: My guest today, Gillian Gillett, has been the chair of the transportation policy board for research-and-education nonprofit SPUR.  She’s been the chief of staff for then San Francisco Supervisor and now California State Senator Scott Wiener, working on wage policy and planning issues.  She’s been the director of transportation policy for the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. And she is now the chair of Caltrain, which is the commuter rail line from San Francisco to Gilroy serving 65,000 riders a day.  Welcome to The Movement, Gillian.  You’ve been busy.  

Gillett: Thank you.  Well, yes, I’m busy.  And I’m a mom too, so—[LAUGHS]

Cohen: That adds more layers too.  Well, I want to get started with how you self-describe yourself on Twitter.  You label yourself as a, “not particularly mild-mannered bureaucrat.” I feel like there’s a lot there.  I want to dig into that a little bit. So tell me a little bit more about why you self-describe yourself that way?

Gillett: Well, there’s not a lot of space on your Twitter handle.  That’s part of it, but also I think that I feel a sense of urgency about a bunch of different project and policy areas.  And so I’m willing to be more blunt than I often seen amongst some of my colleagues in the public sector. And maybe that’s just because I come from the private sector.  

So I’m interested.  I’m less concerned about process—although I’m a process-modeler—than I am about content.  And I want to make sure that we start to address a bunch of the issues that have been unaddressed for a variety of political or patriarchal constraints.  And so I sometimes wind up being the person or regularly will end being the person in the meeting who points out that the emperor has no clothes.  

Cohen: Mm-hmm.  And I think that’s a super-powerful role to play and, I think, one that you’ve alluded to not a lot of people are doing.  How have you been influenced by that? It sounds like that’s kind of your nature.

Gillett: Well, you know, it’s tough doing this because you wind up being the messenger.  Right? So I’m often having to say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” I think in part my upbringing was very “children are meant to be seen and not heard,” you know, from that generation of people who were taught to not speak up.  And I’m also female, so that’s been my life experience. However, I learned that I have a knack for making observations that sometimes can shift things quite a bit.

And so I was fortunate enough to have some experiences that allowed me to follow-up on my observations and make change.  And particularly since I shifted to the public sector I guess I would say I’ve been really influenced by—I don’t know—like, three different people.  Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco was one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen, and it really opened my eyes to the power of the public sector and the willingness to sort of break down boundaries despite even national-level criticism after.  That was really inspiring. And here we are today. He was right. Right?

Cohen: Yeah.  

Gillett: I guess the other person would be Scott Wiener.  My former boss convinced me to move from the private sector to the public sector by saying that the public-policy issues are really important and people need to address them and one of those people should be me.  So he is persistent. He tries and tries again, and his message is people in public sector need to do step up and do really hard things because it’s our duty to give back.  

And then I guess the other person would be Jay Walder who I had the good fortune to meet while I was working on trying to figure out how to get a regional bikeshare program here in the Bay Area.  So Jay Walder has run Transport for London and MTR in Hong Kong and, I think, is now working on Hyperloop, but he reminded me that—and he was the general manager or the president of Motivate, which is a bikeshare company.  So he reminded me that I am a private-sector person, that most of my lived experience has been in the private sector and that I should bring that experience to bear in remembering that there are different pieces to the puzzle and that part of solving problems is not solving them within just within the context that you’re in but always remembering that there are other contexts and that often the partnership between the private and public sector can really unlock value for the public sector.  

I was so engaged in the public sector for the first few years, so that was a good wakeup call of like, “Oh, yeah.  You can bring all those sensibilities here too.” Just because we typically do things differently in the public sector doesn’t mean we have to, so—[LAUGHS]—go remind people that the emperor has no clothes.  

Cohen: Definitely.  So you mentioned kind of bridging the private sector and the public sector and specifically maybe the thinking in how they solve problems.  Can you give an example of something that you’re particularly proud of that you’ve worked on that has really benefitted from that?

Gillett: Well, I mean, I’m very proud of the regional bikeshare program that we did here.  I get a lot of flack for that still; there’s a lot of complaining that it’s an exclusive contract and competition is good.  I think that as bikeshare, particularly regional bikeshare that seeks to help people get to—you know, provide a first-and-last mile solution that helps people get to our transit systems is for the foreseeable future very much like transit if not actually transit.  And we don’t really think that there should be competition in transit, at least not in the traditional way. Right?  

Cohen: Right.

Gillett: We need to provide access to everybody; we’re a common carrier.  So I’m really proud of bringing together five cities for a shared goal, and then I’m really proud of bringing those five cities together with our MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and leveraging multiple public sources, public entities and sort of a private operator that was willing to partner with us to roll out our regional bikeshare program.  And there’s really nothing else like it. And we have the highest low-income membership of any of the bikeshare systems in the country, and we’re actively engaged in expanding the project and really trying to tackle the equity divide that exists in transportation. I’m pretty proud of that.  

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  And certainly some element of, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough” there, right?  I mean, you’re certainly making a lot of mobility accessible to a lot more people with that, even if you could look at it from 10,000 feet and say, “Oh, well, it’d be ideal if there was even more providers,” and so forth.  But at the very least you’re opening up a lot more mobility for a lot more people just from—

Gillett: That’s right.  And I think one of the other interesting opportunities there is that—so one of the things with the station-based bikeshare program that’s a sort of perennial problem that you have to solve is this issue of rebalancing.  And in a lot of American cities the central business district is in one part of the city and not other, so you get a lot of deadheading in bikes just as you do in transit. But because it’s a public-private partnership and there’s a software component to the bikeshare systems, Motivate worked on a gamification of rebalancing in order to encourage people if they wanted to participate in the gamification program to bring their bike not quite to where they wanted to go in order to help rebalance the system.  And then they would get a credit.  

So we made sure that the gamification program was rolled out to the entire membership, including the low-income member cohort.  And so something new that’s happening is that for many of the low-income members they have credits in certain cities due to gamification that exceeds the value of their original membership.  And that’s an extraordinary thing. And it really begs the question of, “Well, if they have this credit, what should we do with the credit next?” Like, perhaps we should integrate bikeshare with transit.  Perhaps they should get more discounts on transit or some other public benefit that literally helps build a ladder of opportunity by knitting together public and private opportunities.  

Cohen: Wow.  That’s a really good point.  I hadn’t heard that before about—I mean, I certainly knew about the gamification with the movement of the vehicles, the bikes, but I hadn’t heard about the credits.  And I love the idea of figuring out a way to use that in a better way instead of it just kind of just living there. It almost seems like it’s not maximizing its impact if it just lives within the bikeshare system, as opposed to kind of having that more of a mobility impact, which, you know, feels like it borrows elements of mobility as a service, which I think everyone is trying to move towards in varying steps and slogs as the case may be.  So that’s really interesting, and I like that approach. And you’re right; I think that’s a great way to kind of use the combination of the public and the private sector working together to advance these public mobility goals. And, I think, honestly we need a lot more of that.  

Gillett: Right.  I agree.  And but for the partnership we wouldn’t have it.  We probably wouldn’t be collecting the data in that way, and we probably wouldn’t have the data presented in a way that the people who are capable of doing something with it are provoked.

Cohen: Sure.  And then you also need the leadership willing to take the time to think about it critically in the way that you mentioned, which, you know, I’m sure there’s plenty of situations where they might look at that and just say, “Hey, X percent of these folks have credits,” and just kind of leave it at that.  But the mindset, whether that’s kind of where you are, or the particular larders don’t just accept that at face value. They say, “Wait a minute. What can we do with this to make this better for the community?” And I think that, to me, is the real win there, is because it’s a little bit more sustainable and long-term and it’s more like teaching someone how to fish than just the fishing.

Gillett: Well, yeah.  And it’s very interesting to me personally because I think that so many of our—you know, so many of the older ways have left so many people behind.  I mean, I think that you see the extraordinary disruption that’s happening in banking and in mobility too is really begging the question about how we help more people enter the banking system, become less underbanked.  Because just because the fact that they have fewer resources or that they qualify for existing resources in different ways doesn’t mean that they’re not customers. 

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  So in your roles—and you’ve had a wide variety—you’ve tackled a lot of the major issues that living in the Bay Area kind of make you confront—right—housing and transportation and wages and so forth.  And so you’ve already mentioned one skill that has been critical for you, obviously being the person that is willing to say the emperor has no clothes. But are there other skills that you have that have been critical for you as you’ve been in your variety of roles or ones that you’ve had to develop that have been critical as you’ve moved forward to be successful?

Gillett: You know, a critical thinker—critical thinking skills are ones that I was fortunate to be taught in college.  You know, I studied philosophy and physics, so I think I have learned to identify problems, you know, listen, listen, listen, listen, identify the problems, and then figure out how to break them down.  It’s the analytical skills of being able to take apart a problem to attack it in a systematic way that—you know, there are lots of people who are better at it than I am, but I’m good enough to get things done.  So that, I think, is the most valuable.  

Cohen: And certainly you mentioned before being a process modeler.  Take me just the next level down with what you mean by process modeling.

Gillett: Well, I think that it’s often my observation that what people say they’re doing, something else as they should be doing, and what they actually do are often three different things and that sometimes mapping those things out and showing people a picture of what they do in that way is very helpful and leads to conversation and leads to change.  So I’m often looking for places where people can liberate value and use that value to do some other tasks.  

One of the things that I did in the Bay Area while I was a consultant was e-statements.  And e-statements was a thing that we picked to attack because several entities wanted to become banks but didn’t have access to brick and mortar and therefore needed pay existing bank networks for ATM fees, so that would require a lot of cash.  And at the same time it was clear as the internet was moving forward that both customers and employees didn’t like handling paper.  

So it took a kind of observation of the problem and analytical skills to say, “Oh, well, this is a process that should be fixed.  Like, we could remove paper from a significant chunk of banking and make all kinds of people happy.” We could make the employees happy.  We could make the customers happy, and we could liberate a lot of value that could be deployed to do something else.

Cohen: And even that example of the rebalancing credits, I think, is another example of that.  It’s liberating that value from one and applying it in a different setting, so I think that’s another example of where you’ve been able to do that as well.

Gillett: Right.  I’m always trying to do something like that.  

Cohen: Yeah.  No. I mean, that, to me, is kind of the win.  Right? It’s one plus one equals three. 

Gillett: Right.

Cohen: And when you find those situations it always feels like magic.  Right? It’s arbitrage, right? But I think the only way you get that is, A, experimenting and trying things; B, doing that analysis and really trying to break that down; C, listening.  Obviously, I think sharing what you’re doing with others and then shutting your mouth and listening is a good part too. So I think all those elements that I think you’ve talked about so far, I think, are critical in that experience.

Gillett: Yeah.  I think that’s right.  And I think there’s a few other things that you definitely need if you really want to make change and you want to change processes.  I mean, you need cast-iron leadership from the top because making change is a bumpy thing, and observations can be wrong. You have to be willing to be wrong, and you really have to be willing to take some heat.  

And then you have to—there’s a skill in picking the right problem to solve first.  Like, oftentimes people are frustrated, as am I, and they start with too hard a problem.  And often times you actually need to start a little bit lower on the food chain, find the problem where everybody who is involved in it believes that absolutely anything would be better than the way it is today. 

Cohen: Hmm.

Gillett: And if you can find that problem and you can fix it, then the people, all the people that are involved with it become cheerleaders for the next thing.  

Cohen: Yeah, so that’s a really interesting perspective.  And, in fact, I was just at a conference, and I was listening to this gentlemen who was a division head in a major company share how he took an unorthodox approach to solving some of the problems in that department partly because—he could do that because the department was in such shambles.  Right? And so he really could make progress and everyone was super excited when he made progress because there was nowhere to go but up, and then that allowed him to attract more resources to solve more problems. And he kind of built a flywheel out of that. So I think there’s something to that.  

The flipside of that—and I’d love to get your perspective on this—is that I’ve heard before about trying to get those small wins, like just get those first wins.  And the challenge is that sometimes folks can get attracted or attached to the small wins and don’t lift their eyeline up to make sure they’re tackling the really big problems.  So it’s a fine line, I feel like, between having that big, hairy, audacious goal that you know you need to solve—and I think that’s similar to what Scott Wiener is doing with SB 50 now—and then also the much more nuanced and maybe a smaller problem but one that you know you can get leverage on and can move forward quickly.  How do you find that right balance there?  

Gillett: Well, for me, you know, I’m not fortunate enough to be Scott Wiener.  [LAUGHS] I’m not an elected official, so I am not able, I think, to take on personally those very large wins.  But I am motivated in the direction of moving forwards. Right? I think that I sort of intuitively understand that you often can’t really get to a bunch of the big wins unless you solve a bunch of the smaller ones.  Like, having the perfect policy that no agency can implement isn’t going to get you anywhere, so I’m comfortable in that regard.  

But I agree that this is why you want people to work in teams—right—and why it’s good that we’re social animals.  You want to get people to converse with one another and get the opportunity to see multiple perspectives. You know, it has been my experience that if you literally solve a bunch of small problems that are interrelated, that it does create momentum.  

Cohen: Was there some particular small wins that you felt were instrumental to some of your work, as you’ve kind of served the public sector for the last, I think, 15, 20 years?

Gillett: I’ll give you one of my favorite examples of something that had an outside influence.  So when I first started working for Scott as a chief of staff, some advocates came to us and wanted us to help with mobile foods.  So typically young people, younger people, and people of color tend to own food trucks compared to brick-and-mortar restaurants. So it was very difficult at the time to get a permit for a food truck in San Francisco.  

The supervisor and I both really like food-truck food, so I decided to go and work with the data and build a map of where food trucks were allowed and where food trucks weren’t allowed and blew the map up onto poster size and went around to the entire board of supervisors and all of their aides and pointed out, like, “You know, this benign activity is illegal in all of these places.  And this is where it’s legal in your district, and this is where it’s not legal in your district.” And just being able to see the impact of a law on a map at the time—this in 2011—nobody had ever seen that, really anybody do that here in San Francisco before. And so that just literally opened people’s eyes. Right? Like, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?  

Cohen: Yeah, that is a great example.  I love that. And basically I’m assuming that they were legal in certain parts and illegal based on the existing code.

Gillett: The older laws kind of represented a bias towards restaurants, but it’s very expensive to open a restaurant in San Francisco.  I mean, it’s not just that our housing is expensive here; our housing has been expensive here for a very long time, but our businesses and our tenant and our rents have been very expensive for a long time too.  So, you know, it’s hard to open a business in San Francisco, and it’s really hard to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It’s hard to get it permitted; it’s hard to keep it open. So ironically it was illegal—at the time it was illegal to have a taco truck in The Mission, which is, like—that’s crazy.  So there are different ways to smash the patriarchy.  

Cohen: Taco trucks is one way to start.

Gillett: A taco truck on every block.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: That’s wild.  So you kind of alluded to advocates just a second ago when you were talking about the mobile food trucks.  And I’m curious if you have any other perspectives on how advocates have helped you and elected officials work to make the hard decisions and sometimes even the controversial ones. 

Gillett: Advocates are really important, and working with advocates to help them identify the problems that need to be solved is really, really valuable work.  I have to say that we are blessed in the Bay Area to have advocates who not only have time and resources but also have technical skills. So I’m really struck by the YIMBY movement attacking with data and enthusiasm the fact that we’ve pulled up the ladder for so many people to not be able to live in places where they can work, is really extraordinary advocacy.  

And I think they really have changed the conversation.  They have really succeeded in getting a lot of people to recognize that we’re selfish.  But for them and certainly Scott Wiener with SB 50 is trying to support that movement with legislation, it’s remarkably different having conversations about housing in the Bay Area now.  And I wish them continued success. And I think in transportation there’s a somewhat similar movement, I think, happening or starting to happen. There’s a group called Seamless Bay Area that is really focused on the idea that we need networks, that we need to think about transportation as a system and not as a series of different applications and different transit operators, that they should all work together, and that the complexity under the hood should not be exhibited to the customer.  

It should be easier to pay for mobility, and it should be easier to plan it.  If you can plan your trip, then it’s obvious where transit operators are not providing good connections.  And that’s something that needs to be seen in order to be addressed. But that’s a complex message. And I don’t think that it can really get out there as easily as it can when you have a group of people running around on Twitter complaining about how long it took them to get some place.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Yeah.  No, it’s complex.  And I think that’s part of the reason why Uber and Lyft have been so successful, is because no matter where you are, at least in the U.S. and certainly in some other places, you don’t have to worry about, “Do I have the transit pass or not?”  You know that you can open up Uber and Lyft and that will provide a consistent—I’m using air quotes there, but consistent experience in a way that to this point so far public transit cannot.  

Gillett: Yeah, I think that’s right.  I mean, look. You know, Uber doesn’t exactly operate everywhere in the world, but they operate in a lot of places.  Right? If you have a smartphone and most Americans do—and, in fact, for some low-income populations in California at least the only way that they have access to the internet is through their mobile phones.  Right? Like, if you can’t communicate to people through their mobile phones, do you exist? And if you open the maps on your phones and you try to plan a trip, you will always be presented with an Uber and Lyft option, and it will tell you relatively how long it’s going to take and an estimate of how much it’s going to cost.  There’s a lot of transit being provisioned in California that doesn’t publish to a standard, and so therefore does it exist? I mean, that’s really—that needs to be fixed.

Cohen: Definitely.  You mentioned Mayor Newsom’s courageous decision a couple years ago with regards to gay and lesbians and marriage.  What else can we do to encourage more of those really tough decisions or curious decisions? Maybe tough is maybe not the right word, courageous decisions.  

Gillett: Look; I think it’s young people.  I think helping young people get together and voice their opinions and giving them a platform is the most important thing.  I think that the stark difference between older people who typically have more money and younger people at least in California, like, it’s shocking.  And I think that a lot of the advocacy and a lot of the traditional ways of talking about things by sort of older people—and I put myself in that camp.  I mean, I’m lucky enough to own my own home. I have children. I have a mortgage. But we often are advocating from a sense of entitlement that we aren’t actually entitled to.  

Cohen: Right.

Gillett: So I think using data and using advocacy to point out that a lot of the things that we thought were sort of givens before actually represent bias is the most important thing, and I see that—for my kids, my kids don’t want to learn how to drive.  I mean, my daughter did ultimately learn how to drive, but they don’t want to drive.  

Cohen: Yeah.

Gillett: That’s so different from the way that I was raised where driving was really a status symbol.  And I don’t have anything wrong with—you know, I don’t think that cars are evil; I just think that the balance is shifting particularly in cities and that that’s a really good thing, and we should make it easy for younger people not to drive because it actually—you know, cars occupy a lot of real estate in cities that could otherwise be occupied by housing and educational opportunities.  So we should encourage that.  

Cohen: Definitely.  Excellent. Well, Gillian, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about your role as a not particularly mild-mannered bureaucrat and how you’ve been able to use that strength to help a lot of folks in the Bay Area to have a better experience there.  And I appreciate your continued service to helping more people move around safely and equitably. And thank you again.  

Gillett: Come to San Francisco; ride a bike; see you around. 

Cohen: Awesome.  I appreciate it, Gillian.  

Gillett: Thank you.  Thank you very much.  

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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Check out The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit by Josh Cohen to learn more about ensuring access to transit for everyone.