National Transportation Safety Board:

Preliminary Observations on the Value of Comprehensive Planning, and Greater Use of Leading Practices and the Training Academy

GAO-06-801T: Published: May 24, 2006. Publicly Released: May 24, 2006.

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a relatively small agency that plays a vital role in transportation safety and has a worldwide reputation for investigating accidents. With a staff of about 400 and a budget of $76.7 million in fiscal year 2006, NTSB investigates all civil aviation accidents in the United States, and significant accidents in railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline; and issues safety recommendations to address issues identified during accident investigations. To support its mission, NTSB built a training academy, which opened in 2003 and provides training to NTSB investigators and others. It is important that NTSB use its resources efficiently to carry out its mission and maintain its preeminence. This testimony, based on ongoing work for this committee, addresses the extent to which NTSB follows leading practices in selected management areas, addresses challenges in completing accident investigations and closing safety recommendations, and generates sufficient revenues to cover costs at its academy.

NTSB has recently made progress in following leading management practices, but overall has a mixed record. For example, NTSB has improved its financial management by hiring a Chief Financial Officer and putting controls on its purchasing activities, which should address past problems with unapproved purchases. However, NTSB lacks a full cost accounting system, which would inform managers of the resources spent on individual investigations and provide data to balance office workload. NTSB has also begun to develop a performance management system that should eventually link each individual's performance to the agency's strategic goals and objectives. However, the performance management system will not be fully functional until NTSB has developed a strategic plan with results-oriented goals and objectives and specific strategies for achieving them, which are lacking in the current strategic plan. Other areas, such as human capital and communications, partially follow leading practices. While NTSB is accomplishing its accident investigation mission, it faces challenges that affect the efficiency of the report production and recommendation close out processes. NTSB routinely takes longer than 2 years to complete major investigations. Several factors may affect the length of report production, including several revisions of draft reports through multiple layers of the organization. In addition, the processes for federal transportation agencies to implement NTSB's safety recommendations and for NTSB to change the status of recommendations are lengthy, paper-based, and labor intensive. While Department of Transportation officials have been working with NTSB to find acceptable means of implementing its recommendations, they cite the lengthy rule-making process as a challenge to speedy implementation. For fiscal years 2004 and 2005, NTSB's academy did not generate sufficient revenues to cover the costs of providing training. As a result, those portions of the academy's costs that were not covered by the revenues from tuition and other sources--approximately $6.3 million in fiscal year 2004 and $3.9 million in fiscal year 2005--were offset by general appropriations to the agency. While NTSB has taken action to generate revenue from other sources, such as renting academy space for conferences, it does not have a marketing plan that seeks to optimize opportunities for additional revenues at the academy.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, GAO found that the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) strategic plan, issued in December 2005 for the years 2006 through 2010, generally did not follow performance-based strategic planning requirements in the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) and related guidance in the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-11. GAO also found that NTSB had neither developed a strategic training plan, nor had it identified the core competencies needed to support its mission and a curriculum to develop those competencies, all of which are considered leading practices in training. Further, GAO found that NTSB's agencywide staffing plan lacked a workforce deployment strategy that considered the organizational structure and its balance of supervisory and nonsupervisory positions. GAO recommended that NTSB improve strategic planning by (1) developing a revised strategic plan that follows performance-based practices; (2) developing a strategic training plan that is aligned with the revised strategic plan and (3) identifies skill gaps that pose obstacles to meeting the agency's strategic goals and (4) curriculum that would eliminate these gaps; and (5) aligning their organization structure to implement the strategic plan and (6) eliminate unnecessary management layers. NTSB has taken actions, which were verified in 2013, in response to GAO's recommendations. (1) In October 2012, NTSB issued its strategic plan for fiscal years 2013 through 2016, which incorporated a number of GPRA performance-based requirements that had been missing from the plan issued in 2005. For example, the 2012 plan included strategies to achieve goals and objectives and sought external stakeholder comments on the plan, both of which had been missing from the 2005 plan. A comprehensive strategic plan allows the agency to align staffing, training, or other human resource management to its strategic goals and align its organizational structure and layers of management with the plan. (2) NTSB's December 2011 Strategic Training and Development Plan is aligned with its strategic plan. For example, every NTSB employee was required to complete an individual development plan that relates their proposed training to the agency's strategic objectives and to work with their supervisors in establishing priorities. The plan also described the agency's steps to identify skill gaps and a curriculum to eliminate these gaps. (3) For example, the plan identified competency gaps for the investigator workforce through discussions with managers in technical offices and through online self-assessments. (4) The plan also identified over 20 courses that are provided to individuals in mission-critical occupations to close the competency gaps. Having a strategic training plan that is aligned with the agency's strategic plan and identifies and closes skill gaps enables NTSB to have assurance that the courses that agency staff take provide the technical knowledge and skills necessary for them to be competent for the type of work they perform. (5) NTSB's office operating plans describe how each office serves NTSB's mission as defined in its mission statement. The operating plans align their offices' respective performance objectives, and actions addressing such objectives to strategic goals in NTSB's strategic plan. (6) The agency has also taken steps to eliminate unnecessary management layers by realigning the operations at 10 regional offices in the Office of Aviation Safety into four regions. This action simplified its reporting structure and made available a larger pool of accident investigators per region. Such actions to align the organization's structure to implement the strategic plan and eliminate unnecessary management layers will help NTSB to avoid excess organizational layers and to properly balance supervisory and nonsupervisory positions.

    Recommendation: To improve agency performance in the key functional management areas of strategic planning, human capital planning, financial management, and communications, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should improve strategic planning by developing a revised strategic plan that follows performance-based practices; developing a strategic training plan that is aligned with the revised strategic plan and identifies skill gaps that pose obstacles to meeting the agency's strategic goals and curriculum that would eliminate these gaps; and aligning their organizational structure to implement the strategic plan and eliminate unnecessary management layers.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that NTSB lacked a full cost accounting system, which would inform managers of the resources spent on individual investigations and provide data to balance office workload. As a result, NTSB managers had little information they could use to plan the utilization of staff resources or manage staff workloads properly. We recommended that NTSB develop a full cost accounting system that would track the amount of time employees spend on each investigation and in training. In fiscal year 2012, we verified that NTSB substantially completed this recommendation by implementing an accounting system that tracks the amount of time and dollars that employees spend on each investigation and in developing or teaching training courses. When fully integrated into ongoing operations management, this system should provide NTSB managers with information to allow for better allocation of staff resources and workload management..

    Recommendation: To improve agency performance in the key functional management areas of strategic planning, human capital planning, financial management, and communications, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should develop a full cost-accounting system that would track the amount of time employees spend on each investigation and in training.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2006, we found that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had taken positive steps to improve communications from senior management to staff; however, the agency lacked upward communications mechanisms-such as town hall meetings, regular staff meetings, and confidential employee surveys-which are central to forming effective partnerships within the organization. To improve agency communications, we recommended that NTSB develop mechanisms that will facilitate communication from staff level employees to senior management, including consideration of contracting out a confidential employee survey to obtain feedback on management initiatives. NTSB management officials have put in place processes to improve communication within the agency. Since October 2007, managers and Board members began holding periodic meetings with staff, such as brown bag lunches; conducting outreach visits to regional offices; and holding "town-hall" meetings in which NTSB employees ask questions of the managing director. In November 2007, NTSB informed us that it is conducting meetings with union leadership to provide information on upcoming actions by the agency and to allow union leaders the opportunity to pose questions to management. In addition, the agency has formed two bodies comprising representatives from management and staff intended to enhance internal communication, including upward communication. Since May 2006, one body was formed by NTSB and is comprised of employees from NTSB's administrative offices, and another was formed from NTSB's program offices. In addition, NTSB began conducting periodic surveys of employees, including (1) a July 2007 survey to measure staff satisfaction with internal communications; (2) a survey to obtain employees' views on the mission statement and goals that NTSB proposed for its revised strategic plan (conducted February 2007); (3) four separate surveys throughout 2007 to measure employee satisfaction with services provided by NTSB's administrative, human resources, and acquisition divisions and NTSB's health and safety program; and (4) a biennial survey, held in November 2007, to obtain employee feedback on NTSB's human resources efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve agency performance in the key functional management areas of strategic planning, human capital planning, financial management, and communications, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should develop mechanisms that will facilitate communications from staff-level employees to senior management, including consideration of contracting out a confidential employee survey to obtain employee feedback on management initiatives.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) developed a draft agencywide staffing plan in December 2005 that followed several leading practices in workforce planning but lacked other leading practices such as a workforce deployment strategy that considers the organizational structure and its balance of supervisory and nonsupervisory positions. We recommended NTSB eliminate any unnecessary management layers. In response, NTSB has eliminated unnecessary management layers. For example, to streamline the management structure in the Office of Aviation Safety, in 2008 NTSB realigned the operations from 10 regional offices into four regions, simplifying the reporting structure. We conclude that NTSB fulfilled this recommendation by eliminating unnecessary management layers, thereby simplifying its reporting structure.

    Recommendation: To enhance the efficiency of the report development and recommendation close-out processes, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should identify better practices in the agency and apply them to all modes. Consider such things as using project managers or deputy investigators-in-charge in all modes, using incentives to encourage performance in report development, and examining the layers of review to find ways to streamline the process, such as eliminating some levels of review and using concurrent reviews as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that the process that NTSB uses to change the status of or close out safety recommendations is paper-based, labor intensive and relies on a series of sequential reviews that could take months to complete. As a result, NTSB was delayed in communicating with (1) agencies on whether NTSB considered the actions that have been taken to address the recommendation are sufficient to accept the recommendation, and (2) DOT for its annual report to Congress on the status of implementing NTSB's recommendations. We recommended that NTSB improve the efficiency of the review process for changing the status of recommendations by computerizing the documentation and implementing concurrent reviews. In fiscal year 2012, we verified that NTSB implemented an agency-wide document management system that streamlined its recommendation closeout process and allows concurrent review. Consequently, NTSB more expediently delivers information about recommendation status to affected agencies and resources within NTSB are more efficiently used.

    Recommendation: To enhance the efficiency of the report development and recommendation close-out processes, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should improve the efficiency of the review process for changing the status of recommendations by computerizing the documentation and implementing concurrent reviews.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) training center was 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 did not cover the center's costs. As a result, those portions of the training center's costs that were not covered by the revenues from tuition and other sources (approximately $6.3 million in fiscal year 2004 and $3.9 million in fiscal year 2005) were offset by general appropriations to the agency. We recommended that NTSB develop a business plan and a marketing plan to increase utilization of the training center or vacate its training center. NTSB has implemented this recommendation. NTSB completed a revised business plan in March 2008. 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 DHS 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: To enhance the utilization of the academy and improve the ability to generate revenues that will cover academy costs, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should develop a comprehensive marketing plan for the academy. The plan should consider such things as outreach to potential users, working with the Department of Agriculture and the General Services Administration to market it as classroom and conference space, and conducting market research for additional curriculum development. If ethical and conflict-of-interest issues can be addressed, the plan should also consider options for allowing transportation manufacturers to conduct company-sponsored symposia and technical training at the academy facility, which would benefit NTSB investigators in keeping up with new technologies. In addition the plan should consider the feasibility of subleasing a portion of the academy space.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) training center was underutilized, with less than 10 percent of the available classroom capacity being used during fiscal years 2005 and 2006. This contributed to the training center not being cost-effective, as the combination of the training center's revenues and external training costs avoided by NTSB staff's use of the facility did not cover the center's costs. We recommended that NTSB maximize the delivery of core investigator curriculum at its training center. NTSB implemented the intent of our recommendation to maximize the delivery of its core investigator curriculum at the Training Center by increasing the number of NTSB-related courses for investigators taught at the Training Center. For example in 2008, 49 of the 68 courses offered at the Training Center were solely for NTSB employees. This has helped increase the use of the Training Center.

    Recommendation: To enhance the utilization of the academy and improve the ability to generate revenues that will cover academy costs, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should develop core investigator curriculum for each mode and maximize the delivery of that training at the academy.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2006, we found that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is not precluded by its training center lease or its headquarters space in Washington, D.C., from relocating some headquarters staff to the Virginia facility. As such, we recommended that NTSB conduct a study to determine the costs and feasibility of moving certain functions from the agency's headquarters to their academy facility in preparation for the renegotiation of the headquarters lease, which expires in 2011. By July 2008, NTSB's managing director consulted with the agency's senior leadership to discuss the issue of moving additional functions to the training center. Input from management was analyzed, and the managing director determined that it was not cost beneficial to move functions to the training center beyond the current staff already working at the center. In part because of this decision, NTSB implemented a strategy to sublet remaining space at the training center.

    Recommendation: To enhance the utilization of the academy and improve the ability to generate revenues that will cover academy costs, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board should conduct a study to determine the costs and feasibility of moving certain functions from headquarters to the academy facility in preparation for the renegotiation of the headquarters lease, which expires in 2011.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

 

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