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, 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.