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21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Improving Transportation Systems Management and Operations – Capability Maturity Model Workshop White Paper – Culture

3. State of the Practice for the Culture Dimension

3.1 The Culture Dimension

Culture is the most basic institutional dimension of transportation agencies. It embodies shared values, vision, and beliefs, including common technical perspectives. With regard to TSM&O in State DOTs, Culture is reflected in an accepted business case, policy and program status, legal authority, legal status, and communications messaging, both internally and externally. Improvements in other capability dimensions are dependent on a high degree of shared culture.

The capability-level criteria used in the self-assessments for this dimension are shown in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1 Self-Assessment Workshop Levels of Capability Maturity for Culture
Empty Cell. Culture Criteria for Level Achievement
Capability Level 1 Individual staff champions promote TSM&O
Capability Level 2 Jurisdictions’ senior management understands TSM&O business case and educates decision makers/public
Capability Level 3 Jurisdictions’ mission identifies TSM&O and benefits with formal program and achieves wide public visibility/understanding
Capability Level 4 Customer mobility service commitment accountability accepted as formal, top-level core program of all jurisdictions

Among the 23 workshops, the average self-assessed capability level for Culture is 1.92, with four sites at Level 3, eight sites at Level 1, and the remainder slightly above Level 2. Figure 3.1 depicts the scoring distribution relative to the other dimensions. Across all workshop locations, Culture was frequently cited for inclusion in implementation plans, behind Business Processes and Systems and Technology.

Figure 3.1 Graph. Culture Compared to Other Dimensions of Capability

Figure 3.1 is a graph that highlights the culture dimension line.

(Source: Cambridge Systematics, Inc. and Parsons Brinckerhoff.)

The discussion of the state of the practice regarding the Culture dimension is divided into key elements based on the approach used in the AASHTO Guide to Transportation Systems Management and Operations:

  • Technical Understanding and Business Case
  • Leadership/Champions
  • Outreach – Internal and External
  • Policy/Program Status/Authorities

The following sections discuss key observations regarding the current state of play in each element.

3.2 Technical Understanding and Business Case

There were consistent themes in the discussion of the Culture dimension: participants lacked the material required to make an effective business case, and advancing the status and resource claims of TSM&O required persuasive examples and technical justification.

  • Legacy culture. Culture, technical understanding, and the business case are closely related. The primary orientation of most State DOTs remains the delivery of capital projects, which dominates agency public outreach, web sites, and publications. However most senior managers recognize the constraints on capacity additions and largely understand the conventional components of TSM&O, such as incident and road weather management and traveler information. Nonetheless, the term “operations” as applied to TSM&O was a source of some confusion, since for many DOTs, “operations” refers to all of the day-to-day activities of the agency, including things like mowing and litter collection. Conventional TSM&O strategies have evolved independently of these types of day-to-day activities. Rarely is TSM&O understood or packaged as a suite of capabilities and services. Among headquarters TSM&O staff, the perspective regarding levels of payoff is often limited to the specific applications experience within their agency, which varies widely. In larger states, the understanding of TSM&O’s role is often clearer since district engineers and their direct reports have more hands-on contact with operational matters. Finally, State DOTs often operate under a legacy 9-to-5 culture, whereas TSM&O demands a 24-7 focus on continuous, real-time strategy applications and response to irregular events such as incidents and weather.
  • Making the TSM&O business case. Increasingly, TSM&O staff within agencies are realizing that a formal business case must be made to demonstrate the specific benefits and cost effectiveness of TSM&O activities in terms of agencies’ stated customer service mission. In this manner, TSM&O can better compete for internal attention and resources. While most of the more urban states have taken the public position that it is not possible to “build our way out of congestion,” few States have yet developed a formal business-case document to support focusing on TSM&O, although a few States and MPOs have produced considerable supporting material. Most participants noted both a lack of locally derived benefit-cost information, and in the case of some of the data available from national sources, high B/C ratios that were often not considered credible because they were so high. Most workshops concluded that a formal business case was needed to secure a clear formal role for TSM&O within a State DOT’s program. Many considered development of a TSM&O business-case document as a top priority.
  • External reinforcement for the business case. Participant discussions in the workshops indicated that several factors have promoted the value of TSM&O to both top management and external constituencies:
    • Funding shortfalls and agency cutbacks have drawn attention to the potential payoff of low-cost, highly cost-effective TSM&O activities. A few State DOTs – especially those with major urban areas – have taken the public position that it is not possible to “build our way out of congestion” and introduced an explicit program focus on TSM&O.
    • In a few cases, improved TSM&O is being linked to the support of specific economic activity such as freight movement, recreation area access, or border crossings.
    • Some of the more aggressive TSM&O activities were stimulated by experiences arising from “major events” – both planned (such as major athletic events or conventions) or, unplanned such as major crashes or weather events where incident management was clearly (and often publically) unsatisfactory. These events revealed the need for, or lack of, effective systems management in a publicly and politically visible fashion and increased attention accorded to TSM&O by State governments.
    • FHWA, TRB, SHRP , and AASHTO activities have increased the visibility of TSM&O. The FHWA workshops, training and webinars, support of interstate coalitions, and the organization of the National Operations Center of Excellence have lent increased visibility, understanding, and credibility to TSM&O. These activities also have produced national visibility for key State DOT and MPO staff and supported their participation in national activities.

3.3 Leadership/Champions

Agency culture can be substantially affected by individuals who are formal or even informal leaders.

  • Middle management champions. With few exceptions, TSM&O lacks formal DOT “program” status: statewide TSM&O activities are not accorded top-level division status, and no senior manager is exclusively responsible for it. As a result, the momentum of TSM&O programs substantially depends on middle management “champions,” who are committed to improving TSM&O, who are aware of the state of the art, and who exercise persuasion and intrapreneurship within their agencies to access resources and move projects forward.
  • These champions appear at several distinct levels in workshop sites. Among workshop participants, the strongest advocates for TSM&O in smaller states are DOT headquarters’ middle managers, who possess the greatest technical knowledge of TSM&O potential and hands-on experience. In larger states with major metropolitan areas, these advocates may be TMC managers, key MPO staff, or even district engineers. While the role of these champions is critical in advancing several State DOT programs, the reliance on individuals, rather than on formal program structure and authority, renders progress vulnerable to staff turnover.
  • Top management. With some exceptions, top managers in State DOTs and MPOs have focused their time on major capital project activities and have not exercised leadership visibility regarding TSM&O, either internally or externally. This situation is exacerbated by the high rate of CEO turnover and by the increasing number who come into transportation agency leadership from outside the highway or engineering arena. As indicated in senior leadership meetings, program priorities lie with the major capital programs, and TSM&O has secondary status as reflected in specific management actions and resource allocations. In some cases, major events have elevated the importance of certain TSM&O actions (emergency, weather, and special-event management) to a level of policy priority – not just in State DOTs but even within State government administrations – leading to increased TSM&O focus and resources.

3.4 Outreach – Internal and External

There was limited discussion of public-private partnerships in the workshops, but attendees at several included State DOTs’ private-sector support consultants, especially those supporting planning, TMC operations, and related technical specialty areas. Several issues were addressed.

  • Internal outreach. Branch and district managers in State DOTs focus primarily on capital projects, maintenance, safety, and planning; the significance of congestion and history of major events and incidents notably influence the level of appreciation for the role of TSM&O. Staff with some level of involvement in specific strategies (e.g., maintenance and safety staff who respond to incidents and weather outcomes) have greater contact with TSM&O activities. Geography also is important: rural states focus on one or two TSM&O activities (particularly truck incidents and weather-related issues), whereas urban states tend to have a more programmatic approach that involves several activities, including freeway and arterial management, signalization, and special events. Staff in nonoperational units, such as design, planning and project development, are less likely to include TSM&O considerations in their activities, although a few states have incorporated consideration of TSM&O into their project development processes.
  • External Outreach. Public safety stakeholders (e.g., law enforcement, fire and emergency services, towing and recovery operators) increasingly understand the overlap between their own primary missions and traffic management. This perspective is stimulated by their own emergency management focus and is reinforced by transportation-related training initiatives. Traffic incident management team formation and co-training are increasingly common. While many local governments are system operators (arterials) in their own right and understand basic TSM&O concepts as they apply to their operating priorities, their focus is typically on their own jurisdictions’ facilities. At the MPO level, significant traffic operational improvements (e.g., equipment upgrades, coordination, retiming initiatives) gain minimal support among elected and appointed board members who are typically focused on capital projects of interest to their constituencies. For other key external stakeholders with business interests related to capital investment (consultants, contractors, developers), TSM&O is of marginal interest. In terms of public education, State DOT outreach efforts and attempts to generate understanding and support from stakeholders have been modest, except in major problematic corridor contexts where, for example, weather or economic development impacts are highly visible and the relevance of TSM&O is most apparent. Regarding the general public and their elected officials, lack of robust business-case material is a major handicap, especially in the context of gaining public program understanding and support.

3.5 Policy/Program Status/Authorities

In transportation agencies, activities conceived as formal “programs” are accompanied by a set of long-standing formal institutional conventions and processes that are designed to provide sustainability, resource sufficiency, capability improvement, and clear public- and private-sector roles.

  • TSM&O in agency policy. Achievement of formal TSM&O program status is rare. Evidence of this would be clear embodiment in an agency’s policy and mission, the individual agency’s budget-line item, a separate first-level division, program leadership at an influential level within the agency, and formal resource allocation trade-offs between capacity and operations. This lack of policy status detracts from the ability of TSM&O to compete for management, staff, and financial resources. Similarly, it does not present itself as a promising career opportunity. At present, TSM&O exhibits a range of level of maturity among the workshop locations. Only one workshop site includes TSM&O in its formal DOT mission statement language that puts operating the system on par with system development and system preservation; however, several State DOTs now include “congestion reduction,” “efficiency,” and “mobility” as one of several objectives, and a few of these have standalone TSM&O strategies and multiyear program plans and budgets with full formal program apparatus including mission objectives, performance measures, and budget. Finally, national, State, and professional emphasis on accountability and performance management has stimulated an increasing number of publicly visible dashboards on agency websites, including measures of service and/or congestion (see the Performance Measurement dimension white paper).
  • Legal authorities. The roles and activities of State DOTs and their public safety partners on public roads are defined both by statute as well as by conventional practice. Most states have obtained the necessary statutory authority for such measures as Quick Clearance, Move It, and agency use of shoulders for emergency access – although enforcement of these measures is reported to be uneven. In most states, by law or formal agreement, public safety entities usually have incident command, which varies by State between law enforcement and fire departments. In this case, State DOTs must exert their influence regarding the importance of mobility through MOUs and co-training with their partners.
  • Funding constraints. TSM&O is rarely supported by a dedicated multiyear budget determined as part of the top-level resource allocations. Although most TSM&O expenditures are an eligible use of Federal aid, many states have legal constraints on the use of State capital and maintenance funding for TSM&O activities. In some cases, these constraints may actually reflect precedents regarding use of certain funds established over the years rather than actual legal prohibitions on how the funds can be used. Several states include TSM&O funding as a subcategory of “operations” or “maintenance”, but information on rates of expenditure are rarely readily available or explicit. In almost all cases, capital and staff resources and authorities are subparts of other programs (typically maintenance) or are largely available on an ad hoc basis for occasional and specific initiatives.
  • Roles of public vs. private sector. The prevailing legacy public works culture of transportation agencies is to manage “operations” with agency staff. However, staffing limitations and the need for special expertise have led to a substantial level of outsourcing to consultant organizations or contracted staff, especially for intermittent activities such TSM&O planning, systems engineering, performance data acquisition, TMC staffing, ITS device maintenance, and even safety service patrol. Several State DOTs with higher self-assessment levels outsource many of these functions.

A variety of conventions are evolving regarding using outsourcing. One example is safety service patrols that have been set up under a series of regimes that vary with the use of agency staff versus contracted staff, agency versus private sponsorship, and uniformed personal and service emphasis. Another example is TMC staffing that also includes a range of approaches from outsourcing contract floor staff to outsourcing overall TMC management.

The use of outsourcing, however, stimulated workshop discussion on the broader issue of what “core” functions and capabilities should be retained in-house to support assurance of best practice. It was also noted that outsourcing has provided an effective way to introduce performance management on a contract basis. Several states build performance requirements into their operational contracting with private vendors/suppliers.

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