GAO Evaluates DOT Reorganization Benefits

Posted by Alexander Rossino on May 31, 2017

At the request of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and in response to a March 2017 Executive Order calling on federal agencies to identify efficiency improvements that might be achieved through departmental reorganization, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report titled, “DOT: Experts Identified Areas for Operational Improvements without Implementing Organizational Changes.” In this report, the GAO’s experts identified five areas for improvements that might be accomplished without reorganizing the Department of Transportation. These recommendations were identified because, as the report’s authors admit, the DOT had yet to “identify plans to conduct a department-wide review.”

The GAO put forward the following recommendations:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Technology Dimensions

Because recommendations #2 and #5 deal explicitly with technology, I’ll focus on those to the exclusion of the others.

  • Data Quality and Analytics – This recommendation reveals that while DOT modalities collect massive amounts of data, they often do not use it to inform programmatic decisions. The expert team also raised concerns about the quality and accuracy of the data being collected. The story here is basically the same at most agencies; this being that while program offices have grasped collecting data, they continue to struggle with several challenges, including standardizing data to maximize its usability and implementing agency-wide analytical strategies.
  • Emerging Issues – The tsunami of data entering DOT databases promises to grow larger with the emergence of autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation systems, a problem that DOT personnel admitted to the expert panel they have significant trouble handling. DOT modalities find themselves falling farther and farther behind private industry when it comes to dealing with “the rapid pace of technology development, data and coordination challenges, and the overall size and diversity of the transportation system.”

Implications

The GAO study makes clear that reorganization plans at the U.S. DOT haven’t yet gotten off the ground, meaning that industry won’t see a major impact on DOT business operations for some time. The study also points to the need for significant improvements in the DOT’s data governance strategy, use of big data analytics, and decision-making processes. Emerging technologies, to the extent that DOT modalities wish to leverage them, present additional challenges that promise to exacerbate the difficulties DOT personnel face. The solution to these challenges is for DOT’s component agencies to make greater use of commercial partners and technology in order to keep pace with the rate of technological advancement. Such an industry-centric strategy as this, however, can only come about after DOT components get their governance houses in order. The bottom line is that vendors offering big data solutions, particularly data strategy consulting services, should find plenty of business opportunities across the DOT as long as component budgets do not become too tight. 

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