Updated Feb. 11
The Steamship Authority board met Saturday for a special meeting held to review the last element of the HMS Consulting report — communications — which was held up for months. Via audio link from Seattle, HMS Consulting president John Sainsbury walked the board through a slideshow synopsis of the communications findings and recommendations.
Then after scant discussion, chairman Robert Jones advanced an agenda item pursuant to hiring HMS to the tune of $135,000 to help craft an implementation roadmap for the majority of its report, and the wheels came off the bus for New Bedford board member Moira Tierney.
Tierney said she was at a loss for why HMS would be allowed to bypass a competitive bid process, especially in light of the tardiness of the communications portion of the report.
“Quite frankly, this report today isn’t anything we didn’t already know,” Tierney said, “and we waited months and months and months for it.”
Tierney recommended sending out a formal RFP for help implementing the HMS report.
Former general counsel Steve Sayers, who remains an advisor to the SSA, especially in regard to the consultant’s report, defended securing HMS once more. He pointed out their rate, “which is less than $200 per hour,” is a bargain, and said it’s advantageous to use the deep knowledge of the SSA they now possess to act quickly to address the issues they’ve highlighted. He also said HMS agreed it would be a conflict for them to help facilitate safety management system (SMS) and quality management system (QMS) implementation per their report, and therefore those components should go out to bid.
Tierney didn’t buy into his arguments, and described securing HMS again as “duplicitous.” She further said the amount they would charge for new services is equivalent to the salary of one of the executives the SSA needs to hire. The SSA is currently down a treasurer/comptroller and a human resource director. And per a 4-0 vote Saturday, it will seek a director of health, safety, quality, and environmental protection (HSQE) and a director of marine operations, in accordance with recommendations put forth in the HMS report delivered in December.
Sayers affirmed his position with Tierney by saying normally he’s a strong advocate for RFPs, “but in this case HMS has given us specific recommendations, and they’ve also said that this process is to [explore] alternatives to those recommendations …” Sayers went on to say those alternatives could yield beneficial efficiencies.
“I don’t want someone down the road to say that HMS said one thing and that we went with another idea,” he said. “I’d rather have us all on board. I think this is a necessary exception to the normal, transparent RFP process you’re talking about.”
Vineyard board member Marc Hanover and Nantucket board member Robert Ranney supported tapping HMS once more. Each used the word “expeditious” to describe the utility of going straight to HMS.
Hanover said while he appreciated Tierney’s reservations, he believed management has no time to take another route, and he also believed quickness of action was paramount.
Chairman Robert Jones, Barnstable’s board representative, also supported a direct solicitation of HMS, counter to a stance he took at the previous month’s meeting in Falmouth, where he leveled criticism at the lateness of the communications portion of the report.
Asked about his change of position on HMS after the meeting, Jones said while he was “extremely ticked” at the delay in the communications report, the proposal HMS submitted on implementation strategies so impressed him, he became willing to overlook the tardy delivery.
Nothing her fellow board members or SSA management said could change Tierney’s opposition to hiring HMS. “I can’t support it,” she said.
The board went on to vote 3-1 to secure HMS for the job.
Later, when general manager Robert Davis brought forth an RFP package for consulting on SMS and QSM to be voted on, Tierney wanted no part of it. She had previously argued all consultation on the HMS report should be sent out in an RFP, as opposed to select portions. The vote was 3-0 with one abstention —Tierney.
When Jones opened the floor up to commentary, Dukes County commissioner Leon Brathwaite pressed Sainsbury on bus communications. “John, you did not look into the issues of the transportation system that’s on the ground — the buses that take the customers from the parking lot to the boat,” he said. “There’s been a number of instances there where there’s been overcrowding in the buses, and also the fact buses have not been timely enough getting people to the boat.”
Through his audio link, Sainsbury said some bus aspects were touched upon in the report, specifically “how passengers were able to identify which bus they were to get on and where the bus was going …”
But he admitted bus logistics didn’t make the report. “We did not look at, necessarily, dispatching of the buses,” he said.
In an interview with The Times after the meeting, Davis and spokesman Sean Driscoll said the Steamship Authority has met with some Tisbury officials in an effort to improve communications between the ferry line and the town’s first responder leaders.
Harbormaster John Crocker and Fire Chief John Schilling previously expressed concern they were not contacted by the SSA during the blackout of the MV Martha’s Vineyard on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day.
What the report says
The Steamship Authority released the independent review Friday, which shows that the ferry service is “too reactive in its communications,” and lacked a plan or the resources to implement one.
The report was discussed at a meeting at the SSA’s Hyannis terminal Saturday at 9 am. The Steamship Authority offered Vineyarders interested in going to the meeting a shuttle bus ride from Woods Hole to Hyannis and back.
The report comes more than a month after HMS Consulting released its top-to-bottom review of the Steamship Authority that called for sweeping changes. The only missing piece in that report was communications, which HMS outsourced.
The top-to-bottom review was ordered by the SSA’s board after a series of ferry fiascoes last spring, particularly in March, that included one serious mechanical failure that left passengers between Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole stranded at sea on St. Patrick’s Day into the early morning hours of March 18.
The report is critical of how the SSA informed its passengers of problems, saying that at times it was too much information and not timely enough. “An examination of the public communications process in which the public was notified regarding service disruptions (cancellations, delays, and schedule updates) revealed the potential for breakdowns in the communications chain when messaging the public,” the report states.
The report also suggests the SSA do a better job using technology, something that has been added in recent months with Twitter and Facebook posts.
“Communications technology that is common and available throughout the marketplace was not being utilized and integrated, resulting in an exclusion of some end users,” the report states. “For example, available technologies that were not fully utilized include text/SMS messaging, social media message sharing/linking. Other improvements regarding mobile applications and mobile-friendly websites that cater to specific audiences can be improved.”
And in perhaps the most damning portion of the report, the consultant criticizes the SSA for the signage — or lack of signs — at its facilities to direct and inform passengers.
“The lack of proper signage causes significant passenger confusion, or passengers who are simply uninformed,” the report states. “This results in passengers approaching front-line SSA employees at docks, ticketing terminals, and parking lots to answer basic questions. This adds to a poor guest experience, but also places unnecessary burden on employees and makes them less efficient. While personal interaction is a critical aspect of all front-line employees, appropriate signage can decrease the burden and frustration significantly.”
According to the report, a perceived lack of transparency was caused by some of the delays in communicating information to the public, and damaged the ferry service’s reputation. “Public confidence in the SSA has been eroded, and a perceived lack of transparency exists,” the report states. “Although no evidence emerged that the SSA actively withheld information from the public, it is clear that resources were primarily dedicated to understanding and resolving the operational issue at hand rather than communicating with the public in a timely manner. This was largely due to a poorly planned approach to public communication.”
The SSA’s communications problems were magnified at the time of last spring’s crisis. In some cases, the amount of detail was too much. “While this is admirable, in times of crisis it is not necessary to communicate that level of detail,” the report states. “What matters most are the facts that are pertinent to the traveling public at the time; what sailing has been canceled, when will service be restored (if reliably known), how are any safety concerns being addressed, and when the next public communication will be delivered.”
The communications report is just 29 pages, much shorter than the overall report released in December. But the report cuts to the core of what the public was upset about with the ferry breakdowns — a slow trickle of information, with reports of canceled ferries sometimes after the fact.
In the end, the consultant found that the SSA is working on or has already addressed issues. “It was the impression of the study team that the leadership at the SSA made every effort possible to achieve a high level of transparency with the general public, in some cases above and beyond what the team felt was necessary,” the report states.
“We are gratified to have the complete report produced by HMS Consulting, Glosten Associates, and Rigor Analytics in hand so we can continue to review and implement the recommendations contained in the report, a process that has already begun,” SSA general manager Robert Davis said in a press release. “The authority board, our port council, our senior management team, and all of our employees are united in our effort to improve our operations and service to the public, and communications is no less important an aspect of our performance than any other.”
The authority points to steps already taken to improve communications, including hiring a communications director, as well as establishing an operations and communications “nerve center” at the authority’s new headquarters in Falmouth.
A crisis management plan is being updated to establish a “clear and established chain of command and a plan to gather and disseminate information” for up-to-date and urgent situations, the release states.
Once again, Davis points out that there are likely costs associated with implementing some of the recommendations made by HMS, particularly because it calls for hiring additional staff.
“These are the first steps in a long process that is likely to carry significant costs, both financially and logistically,” Davis said in the release. “But these are necessary to help the Authority emerge from one of the most challenging periods in its history and regain its deserved reputation as the Lifeline to the Islands. The board, management, and staff are committed to embracing the recommendations proposed by HMS to improve the organization.”
George Brennan contributed to this report. Updated to add more detail from Saturday’s meeting. – Ed.