Why Are State DOTs So Afraid of Accountability?

Deron Lovaas is the federal transportation policy director for NRDC. A version of this article appeared on his blog this morning.

In this era of constrained resources, the country must move toward performance-based management and accountability for results in all sectors — including transportation. It’s a Culture of Consequences, in the words of the RAND think tank.  We need to use all the new tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure we get good bang from every buck.

Florida Transportation Chief Ananth Prasad has a message for U.S. DOT: When it comes to performance measures, we prefer the toothless kind. Photo: Joe Burbank, ##http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-10-16/business/os-talking-with-prasad-20111016_1_ananth-prasad-sunrail-wekiva-parkway##Orland Sentinel##

Tell that to state DOTs.

Ensuring that reforms are effective requires setting clear goals. A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center set out five goals for a sound transportation system: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety. If our transportation officials made sure every dollar they spent was in the service of those core goals, we would see immediate reforms.

In recent years performance management has become common practice in many fields, including education and medicine. And now it is coming to transportation. RAND found that tying performance to incentives is necessary to improve the performance of government bureaucracies. As RAND bluntly puts it, reformers should “make the rewards or penalties big enough to matter.”

So imagine my dismay when grantees of the national transportation program – state transportation departments – launched what appears to be a concerted campaign this week against accountability. Their target: one sentence in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly proposed strategic plan for 2014-2018.

Specifically, the state DOTs were up in arms about the modest bit of progress encapsulated in this line on page 28: “[DOTs will] Use the system performance information to drive programmatic and legislative linkages between system performance and Federal funding.” This is in the chapter about achieving a state of good repair, one of the two measures that DOT and states can most readily implement since they already collect a lot of data on it. (The other one is safety). Seems like a logical place to start connecting incentives to performance goals.

But the state DOTs weren’t having it. A flurry of seemingly coordinated responses started populating U.S. DOT’s website.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad posted the following “idea” on the DOT site: “Performance Measurement Must Not Be Linked To Funding.” Say what?

Prasad – who was recently anointed the leader of performance measurement for all state transportation bureaucracies – went on to say that “tying performance measurement to funding would prove to be counterproductive to MAP-21’s policy direction.”

A chorus of comments by a dozen other state transportation agencies echoed this tune on the DOT website. In remarkably uniform language, states claimed the idea of holding states accountable for performance through funding  “would penalize” them. A few affirm that this is the position of their association (the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO). Two state transportation bureaucracies (Delaware and Utah) claim that the “uniqueness of each State” makes comparison difficult, a claim echoed by North Carolina’s transportation agency in slightly different words.

RAND notes that one of the challenges of implementing new performance-based accountability systems is that stakeholders might push back. And how! I’m sure hospitals and schools similarly claimed they shouldn’t be compared because of “unique” circumstances, and yet they moved to a performance-driven program — despite the challenge it presented to agency culture.

Like it or not, the 21st century is a new age of accountability for government agencies at all levels, and that should include state DOTs. As a commenter tartly put it when reacting to Wyoming’s plea to de-link funding and performance, “We are in a period of constrained funding for all activities. If funding is not producing results, it should be sent elsewhere.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to measure performance and manage it by linking it to meaningful incentives. State DOTs putting up roadblocks on the path to accountability is the last thing hardworking American taxpayers need.

  • Anonymous

    When I read an article like this, I ask: what’s in it for transportation reform? What’s in it for bike/ped/transit advocates? I don’t see much.

    What the author doesn’t tell you is that for the most part, performance measurement of complex systems is out of reach of government agencies at the state level. These agencies simply don’t have the resources, the expertise or the manpower to measure the impact of their policies on goals like “economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety.”

    Rather, agencies measure what they can count easily and control directly. So instead of monitoring difficult, but vital measures, like whether transportation policies are being coordinated with land use, reducing pollution, and reducing obesity, they measure the throughput of intersections or the number of lane-miles paved in a year. Which, if you tie it to funding, leads to money for ramps and widenings. And perpetuates the status quo.

  • Not sure how you can assert this. Just how much staff do you think they need? I used to work for state government. DOTs are well-stocked with staff. NC DOT alone has more than 14,000 people on staff, and Florida is twice as large population-wise. In many cases each of these agencies has thousands of people on staff.

    I agree that metrics and goals need to be well-defined for outcomes to be improvements on the status quo, but there is zero capacity constraint on getting performance management right in the case of these huge state bureaucracies.

    Best,

    Deron

  • Anonymous

    Deron,

    Appreciate the reply! I also used to work for state government. My experience was that, contrary to stereotype, everyone on staff already has an important job to do, and in an era of shrinking government, it’s difficult to ask them to take on extra tasks. How many of those 14,000 staffers (which, in NC’s case, I wonder how many are facing layoffs under the current regime) have the education or the resources to be able to do sophisticated performance monitoring? Not many, I’d warrant.

    My larger point is that the monitoring we truly need to evaluate progress toward those big goals and force a transformation in DOT culture is very complex. It requires sophisticated modeling and the collection of new kinds of data. (I should know, as I once managed a project to develop such performance measures for a state agency, though admittedly not a DOT.) It requires a long-term commitment by the state government to develop a monitoring project as a program area in its own right, rather than simply something that’s done incidentally using data that already exist. In my experience and observation, states will not commit to this kind of project; they can’t see the political benefit from it. So the performance measures end up being simple-to-count things like the number of highway miles that were paved in a year. And, just as in schools, this creates a “teach-to-the-test” culture where subjects that can be easily tested, like math, are prioritized–even if overall educational quality is sacrificed.

  • Good to talk about this. I have served as an adviser for my state DOT — a very effective one, and which I was grateful to see was not one of those who campaigned against the common sense notion of tying performance to funding this past week — during annual long-term plan performance assessments twice in the past decade. This particular DOT’s practices in performance measurement are solid (with almost 50 separate measures, beyond simplistic throughput-oriented ones), AND could definitely improve. Staff seem open to that in part b/c of a commitment from the legislature and from upper management (including a governor obsessed with performance metrics).

    So I’m convinced this can be done well. I concede that, as you say and as you may well have experienced in state government, it can also be done badly so that you get “teach-to-the-test” caliber results as in the case with education in cases.

    However, especially given dramatic improvements in data collection and crunching capacity (technology and techniques make it cheaper and easier to assemble massive data sets and analyze them fruitfully; I have even seen it credibly claimed that the days of settling for sampling in polls may be numbered), I don’t think the alternative is to forego performance measurement and management.

    States need to commit to it, and it needs to be structured well. But the days when a large government agency can credibly claim it’s too complex or difficult to do this well and right are thankfully gone with the 20th century.

  • Larry Shaeffer

    Same goes for regional MPOs. In the Philadelphia area, the regional planning commission (DVRPC) shut down its 10yr old regional citizens Committee because they kept bringing up the performance and evidence-based approach. This volunteer committee was filled with dedicated residents/taxpayers, many former transportation professionals. The committee had only an advisory role to the MPO’s board but the members were appointed to many of the important organizational committees in the MPO. This valuable process was all shut down because the citizens committee kept insisting that there be some kind of system in-place to assure accountability. The powers-that-be reacted like vampires to sunlight-verydramatic.
    Larry Shaeffer larryshaeffer@gmail.com

  • Bolwerk

    The 21st century is a new age of accountability…where only have-nots are accountable. 🙁

  • Geoff Bowles

    If USDOT says the travel time from Jacksonville to New Orleans on I-10 is too slow, and it’s determined that a bottleneck fix in Mobile would improve that, just exactly how should Florida DOT address this?

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