Department of Transportation:

Experts Identified Areas for Operational Improvements without Implementing Organizational Changes

GAO-17-478: Published: May 18, 2017. Publicly Released: May 18, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The United States Department of Transportation's (DOT) nine modal administrations conduct a range of similar activities that are generally intended: (1) to achieve different goals (e.g., to protect consumers or improve motor vehicle efficiency); (2) to serve different recipients (e.g., airlines, railroads); or (3) to meet different requirements (e.g., grant and credit programs specified in statute). DOT has numerous efforts to coordinate similar activities across administrations, such as formal coordinating bodies that bring together staff from multiple modes on a variety of topics. DOT also has processes designed to coordinate regulations' development and to approve infrastructure projects.

Experts told GAO that DOT could make operational improvements but does not need to implement organizational changes, to help efficiently and effectively carry out its missions. Experts identified five areas:

Collaboration and coordination: Additional efforts to collaborate among the nine modal administrations, state and local governments, and other federal agencies would better support the development of transportation projects. For example, experts stated DOT could improve the effectiveness of internal collaborative groups by including senior-level officials who could provide leadership and have the authority to make decisions.

Data quality and analytics: Prioritizing which data to collect and improving analytic capabilities could help DOT ensure data are effectively used. Experts stated DOT could do a better job identifying and improving data quality to answer specific, transportation-related questions.

Regulation development: Improving how regulations are developed could help DOT ensure the agency's priorities are addressed and coordinated among all stakeholders. Experts stated that DOT could improve the quality and timeliness of its regulations by seeking earlier input from stakeholders.

Project delivery processes: Streamlining and making the project delivery processes more consistent across modal administrations could reduce barriers and challenges for state and local governments. For example, experts suggested creating a central position to help state and local governments navigate the environmental review process.

Addressing emerging issues: Proactively focusing on how to address technological advancements (e.g., autonomous vehicles) and other emerging issues (e.g., safely transporting domestic oil and gas) could help DOT achieve its missions more efficiently and effectively. For example, experts were concerned that DOT was falling behind the private sector's need for research and specific regulations for autonomous vehicles.

DOT officials agreed improvements are needed across DOT within the areas identified by experts. However, DOT did not identify plans to conduct a department-wide review. The administration recently released documents requiring federal agencies, including DOT, to assess their ability to efficiently and effectively meet their missions. In addition, federal internal control standards require agencies to assess and, typically, develop an action plan to determine whether their policies are effective. Such an assessment could help DOT to improve how it implements programs across all of its modal administrations.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOT was established over 50 years ago, in part, to build, maintain, and oversee a vast national transportation system. Millions of Americans rely on this system every day to travel and receive goods and services. DOT is organized into nine modal administrations that are generally responsible for activities related to specific transportation modes, such as air, rail, public transit, and highways.

GAO was asked to examine how well DOT's organizational structure enables DOT to address today's transportation challenges. This report addresses (1) activities performed by multiple DOT administrations to fulfill their missions and how, if at all, DOT coordinates these activities, and (2) expert opinions on what, if any, organizational or operational changes could enable DOT to more efficiently and effectively carry out its missions. GAO reviewed documentation on DOT's missions, interviewed DOT officials, and worked with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a meeting with transportation and organizational-change experts. Experts were selected for their experience working with multiple modes of transportation and expertise in organizational change, among other factors.

What GAO Recommends

DOT should conduct a department-wide review of its current efforts to address issues in the areas experts identified for improvement and develop an action plan to implement improvements, as identified, in these areas. DOT concurred with these recommendations and cited new initiatives to improve the department.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512- 2834 or FlemingS@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Transportation's (DOT) mission is to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system. DOT is organized into nine modal administrations that are generally responsible for activities related to specific transportation modes, such as air, rail, public transit, and highways. A March 2017 Executive Order required federal agencies to submit to OMB a proposed plan to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency. In May 2017, GAO reported that experts suggested that DOT could make operational improvements to help efficiently and effectively carry out its missions. The experts identified five areas-in which multiple administrations perform activities-that they believe DOT could make operational improvements: (1) collaboration and coordination; (2) data quality and analytics; (3) regulation development; (4) project delivery processes; and (5) addressing emerging issues. DOT officials agreed improvements were needed to address challenges in these five areas. However, DOT did not identify plans to conduct a department-wide review. In addition, federal internal control standards require agencies to assess and, typically, develop an action plan to implement improvements. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT (1) conduct a department-wide review of DOT's current efforts to address these concerns; and (2) develop an action plan with specific steps to implement improvements, as identified, in these areas. In 2018, GAO confirmed that DOT took specific actions to address the intent of this recommendation. Specifically, DOT completed a department-wide review and took steps to improve the department's efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. In response to the Executive Order, DOT's Office of the Secretary created two working groups that reviewed the department's mission and mission-related programs and activities to identify, among other things, opportunities to achieve efficiencies. DOT also solicited input from its employees about "programs, organizations, or services that are duplicative or obsolete." DOT's actions to address the challenges in the five areas include, among other things, enhanced: (1) collaboration and coordination as DOT has established more formal department-wide collaboration and coordination mechanisms, including increased senior-level participation on rulemaking and data efforts; (2) data quality and analytics through the Secure Data Commons initiative led by the Office of the Secretary in collaboration with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, designed to offer department-wide access to sensitive transportation datasets and facilitate the collaboration on and sharing of innovative data analytics; (3) regulation development through DOT's new Regulatory Reform Task Force that established a new process for initiating rule makings, which requires the Deputy Secretary's approval of all new rulemakings and obtaining input from all interested modal administrations; (4) project delivery processes through DOT's Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center that meets weekly with program and legal staff to share best practices aimed at improving the consistency and timeliness of project delivery; and (5) addressing emerging issues through DOT's designation of its Office of the Under Secretary for Transportation Policy as the focal point for developing and coordinating DOT's Automated Vehicle policies and engaging with stakeholders and industry to identify research, pilot programs, and exemptions the department needs to conduct to accelerate the deployment of automated vehicle technologies and innovations. DOT's actions have placed the department in a better position to effectively achieve its missions and address the challenges it faces. As a result, GAO believes that DOT's actions have satisfied the intent of this recommendation and considers it closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To leverage and build upon the ongoing efforts within individual DOT modal administrations and to address concerns raised by experts regarding collaboration and coordination, data quality and analytics, regulation development, project delivery processes, and addressing emerging issues, the Secretary of Transportation should: (1) conduct a department-wide review of DOT's current efforts to address these concerns; and (2) develop an action plan with specific steps to implement improvements, as identified, in these areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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