National Transportation Safety Board:

Progress Made, Yet Management Practices, Investigation Priorities, and Training Center Use Should Be Improved

GAO-07-118: Published: Nov 22, 2006. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2006.

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) plays a vital role in advancing transportation safety by investigating accidents, determining their causes, and issuing safety recommendations. To support its mission, NTSB's training center, which opened in 2003, provides training to NTSB investigators and others. It is important that NTSB use its resources efficiently to carry out its mission. GAO was asked to examine the extent to which NTSB follows leading management practices, how NTSB carries out its transportation safety function, and the extent to which NTSB's training center is cost-effective, including potential options for improving the center's cost-effectiveness. GAO reviewed NTSB documents and data concerning management practices and accident investigations, interviewed relevant NTSB and other federal officials, and evaluated NTSB's management practices based on leading practices identified in prior work.

While NTSB has recently made progress in following leading management practices, its overall use of leading management practices in the seven areas GAO examined was either minimal or partial. NTSB minimally follows leading practices in strategic planning, information technology, and knowledge management. NTSB partially follows leading practices in human capital management, communications, acquisition management, and financial accountability and control. For example, regarding human capital management, NTSB developed a detailed staffing plan. However, the agency lacks a strategic training plan and a diversity management strategy, which are important for ensuring that an organization has strategies for achieving the appropriate mix of skills to achieve its mission. In addition, while NTSB follows some leading practices for financial management, it is noncompliant with the Anti-Deficiency Act because it did not obtain budget authority for the net present value of the entire 20-year lease for its training center lease obligation at the time the lease agreement was signed in 2001. NTSB carries out its transportation safety function by selecting which accidents to investigate, investigating accidents and issuing recommendations, and taking proactive steps outside of specific accidents. For some transportation modes, NTSB has risk-based criteria for selecting which accidents to investigate, while for others it does not. Such criteria are important to ensure NTSB is using its resources to achieve a maximum safety benefit, particularly because, by statute, NTSB must allocate a large proportion of its resources to investigating aviation accidents, which may reduce the number of staff that NTSB can use to investigate accidents in other modes that may have critical safety implications. To its credit, although accident investigations are sometimes lengthy, NTSB issues urgent recommendations during the course of an investigation. In addition, NTSB proactively carries out its mission by conducting safety studies to consider issues that may be relevant to more than one accident. Safety studies, which sometimes result in recommendations, may also reduce the likelihood of recurrence of transportation accidents. Over the last 6 years, NTSB has conducted four safety studies. Industry stakeholders stated they would like NTSB to conduct more safety studies. NTSB's training center is not cost-effective, as the combination of the training center's revenues and external training costs avoided by NTSB staff's use of the facility do not cover the center's costs. In fiscal year 2005, costs exceeded revenues by $3.9 million. Furthermore, the training center has had a limited impact on avoiding external training costs, as the majority of NTSB staff training occurs externally. Potential strategies to increase revenues or decrease costs could increase the cost-effectiveness of the training center; however, vacating the space may be the least-cost strategy.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was missing opportunities to make the training center cost-effective. Without a comprehensive business plan, NTSB will likely be unable to efficiently attract users who would help pay the ongoing costs of the facility. We recommended that NTSB develop a business plan to increase the utilization of its training center or vacate it and submit the plan to Congress. As part of this effort, NTSB should determine the costs and feasibility of alternative actions such as adding more courses for NTSB staff, moving headquarters staff to the center, subleasing space to other entities, or buying out the lease. NTSB has fully implemented our recommendation to increase use of the Training Center. NTSB subleased all available office space at its Training Center to the Federal Air Marshal Service at an annual fee of $479,000. NTSB also increased use of the Training Center's classroom space and thereby increased the revenues it receives from course fees and rents for classroom and conference space. From fiscal year 2006 through fiscal year 2009, NTSB increased other agencies' and its own use of classroom space from 10 to 80 percent, and increased revenues by over $1.1 million. For example, according to NTSB, it has a sublease agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to rent approximately one-third of the classroom space. NTSB considered moving certain staff from headquarters to the Training Center, but halted these considerations after subleasing all of the Training Center's available office space. NTSB decreased personnel expenses related to the Training Center from about $980,000 in fiscal year 2005 to $507,000 in fiscal year 2009 by reducing the center's full-time equivalent positions from 8.5 to 3.0 over the same period. As a result of these efforts, from fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2009, Training Center revenues increased 179 percent while the center's overall deficit decreased by 51 percent.

    Recommendation: NTSB should develop a business plan to increase the utilization of its training center or vacate it and submit the plan to Congress. As part of this effort, NTSB should determine the costs and feasibility of alternative actions such as adding more courses for NTSB staff, moving headquarters staff to the center, subleasing space to other entities, or buying out the lease.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had made limited use of safety studies (only four in the past 6 years) to proactively examine and highlight safety issues, which may limit the effectiveness of its work on behalf of improving overall transportation safety. We recommended that NTSB increase its utilization of safety studies. GAO believes that NTSB has met the spirit of our recommendation to increase its use of safety studies by completing a safety study, broadening concept of safety studies, and developing new guidelines for the studies. In March 2010, NTSB completed a safety study on the introduction of glass cockpit avionics into light aircraft and has others in progress. NTSB officials also told us that because the agency has a small number of staff, it has difficulty producing large studies in addition to processing many other reports and data inquiries. NTSB officials told us they would like to broaden the term safety studies to include not only the current studies of multiple accidents, but the research done for other smaller safety-related reports and data inquiries. NTSB also developed new guidelines to address its completion of safety studies. These actions will improve the effectiveness of NTSB's work, which will have a positive impact on overall transportation safety.

    Recommendation: To be more proactive in identifying and correcting safety problems before accidents occur, NTSB should increase utilization of safety studies.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) lack of risk-based criteria for investigations in some modes reduced its assurance that it was using its resources effectively. We recommended that NTSB develop orders for all transportation modes that articulate risk-based criteria for determining which accidents would provide the greatest safety benefit to investigate. Since April 2008, NTSB fully implemented our recommendation to develop risk-based criteria for selecting which accidents to investigate. NTSB's highway policy assigns priority to accidents based on the number of fatalities, whether the accident conditions are on NTSB's "Watch List" or whether the accidents might have significant safety issues, among other factors. For marine accidents, NTSB has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Coast Guard that includes criteria for selecting which accidents to investigate. In addition, NTSB has developed an internal policy on selecting marine accidents for investigation that enhances the MOU by providing criteria to assess whether to launch an investigation when the Coast Guard, not NTSB, would have the lead. Prior to April 2008, NTSB had also developed a transparent, risk-based policy explaining which aviation, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents to investigate. In taking these steps NTSB has increased its assurance that it is using its resources effectively.

    Recommendation: To make the most effective use of its investigation resources and increase transparency, NTSB should develop orders for all transportation modes that articulate risk-based criteria for determining which accidents would provide the greatest safety benefit to investigate or, in the case of aviation accidents, explain which accidents are investigated at the scene, or remotely, in a limited manner.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the National Transportation Safety Board had taken positive steps in following some leading management practices, but that key gaps in NTSB's management practices remained. The continued lack of comprehensive plans and policies in the areas of information technology (IT), knowledge management, strategic human capital management, and certain acquisition practices suggest that NTSB is still not ensuring that its management of these areas is aligned to fully and effectively support its mission. GAO recommended that NTSB develop plans or policies for IT and knowledge management and develop a strategic human capital plan that is linked to its overall strategic plan. During fiscal 2008 and 2009, NTSB developed IT and strategic human capital plans and improved its knowledge management by (1) developing a plan to capture, create, share, and edit knowledge citations, and (2) deploying a computer program for facilitating the sharing of information within NTSB. In taking these steps, NTSB has filled the key gaps in its knowledge and human capital management planning practices.

    Recommendation: To improve agency performance in the key management areas of IT, knowledge management, and human capital management, NTSB should develop plans or policies for IT and knowledge management and develop a strategic human capital plan that is linked to its overall strategic plan. The human capital plan should include strategies on staffing, training, diversity management, and recruitment and retention. The IT plan should include a strategy to guide IT acquisitions.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had violated the Anti-Deficiency Act because it did not obtain budget authority for the net present value of the entire 20-year lease for its training center lease obligation at the time the lease agreement was signed in 2001. This violation occurred as a result of NTSB classifying the lease as an operating lease rather than a capital lease. We recommended that NTSB identify and implement actions to correct its violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act related to its lease of the training center. These actions could include obtaining a deficiency appropriation for the full costs of the lease, renegotiating or terminating the training center lease so that the agency complies with the Anti-Deficiency Act, or obtaining authority to obligate lease payments using annual funds over the term of the lease. In addressing our recommendation, NTSB officials told us that because congressional appropriators do not want to appropriate funds for the remaining lease payments in a single appropriation law, NTSB worked with Congress to obtain authority to use its appropriations for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 to make its lease payments during those periods. In addition, NTSB officials have asked Congress to ratify the lease payments it made from 2001 through 2006. To avoid future violations, NTSB will need to continue to work with Congress to obtain similar authority in its future annual appropriations.

    Recommendation: NTSB should identify and implement actions to correct its violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act and bring the agency in compliance with the act. These actions could include obtaining a deficiency appropriation for the full costs of the lease, renegotiating or terminating the training center lease so that it complies with the Anti-Deficiency Act, or obtaining authority to obligate lease payments using annual funds over the term of the lease.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

 

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