Improving Transportation Systems Management and Operations – Capability Maturity Model Workshop White Paper – Organization and Staffing
Research done through the Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP 2) determined that agencies with the most effective transportation systems management and operations (TSM&O) activities were differentiated not by budgets or technical skills alone, but by the existence of critical processes and institutional arrangements tailored to the unique features of TSM&O applications. The significance of this finding has been validated in 40 State and regional self-assessment workshops using the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) and its six dimensions of organizational capabilities. This White Paper focuses on Organization and Staffing as one of the central dimensions of capability needed to support effective TSM&O – including program status, organizational structure and staff development, and recruitment and retention. It summarizes the TSM&O state-of-the-practice based on the workshops and subsequent implementation plans developed at 23 sites selected by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) as part of the SHRP 2 Implementation Assistance Program.
This white paper includes the following material:
- A description of the SHRP 2 research and workshop process related to the institutional and process aspects of TSM&O including a description of the CMM self-assessment framework and its application to the Organization and Staffing dimension.
- A discussion of the state-of-the-practice regarding Organization and Staffing in terms of its key elements including capability levels self-assessed at the workshops.
- A description of key synergies between Organization and Staffing and the other dimensions of capability and evaluation of managers’ spans of control to effect improvement.
- Best practice examples and references.
- Suggested actions to address Organization and Staffing needs on a national level.
- An Appendix presenting common implementation plan priority actions for the Organization and Staffing dimension.
State of the Practice Findings for TSM&O Organization and Staffing
Key findings from the workshops included:
TSM&O activity managers are typically two to three levels down in headquarters and in regions, often stovepiped in engineering vs. operational units, and typically report to senior managers who have divided programmatic responsibilities. Program initiatives are therefore heavily dependent on middle management champions, rather than formal organization. A few states are developing more consolidated organizational structures with clear lines of authority/reporting but vary widely in the degree of centralization vs. decentralization. TSM&O staffs are very small and trained on-the-job, as formal training opportunities are not generally available (FHWA traffic incident management and SHRP 2 training are notable exceptions). Some core technical capacities are difficult to recruit and retain, which appears to be leading to increased outsourcing of more technical functions to private entities.
- TSM&O organized as a program. In states/regions, TSM&O typically has not yet been accorded formal program status equivalent to legacy programs (construction, project development, maintenance, safety). This subsidiary status is reflected in agency organizational structure at both the central office and district/regional level, as well as in agency policy, planning, and budgeting. While TSM&O ultimately needs to be integrated into a wide range of agency activities, the consensus from most workshops has been that given its early stage of development, TSM&O should be established as a program with a separate and more visible identity.
- TSM&O in the State DOT hierarchy. At the central office level, the highest level of TSM&O program management is typically at a branch level – three to four levels down from top leadership – and part of one of the conventional legacy programs. A similar situation exists at the district and regional level, where TSM&O activity managers typically report to the district managers of operations or maintenance. Workshop participants noted that this subsidiary status limits the representation of TSM&O in overall agency staffing and budgeting considerations.
- Centralization/decentralization. Most TSM&O applications are real-time and delivered with or by traffic management centers (TMCs) at the regional level and reporting to district management, while TSM&O program development and administrative functions are typically handled in central offices. As a result – especially in larger states – local operations managers report some communication problems and confusion in chain of command regarding TSM&O program development and operations.
- Siloing and responsibility versus authority. In many State DOTs, TSM&O duties are often siloed between engineering/project development units and system operations/management units (including TMCs). This structure separates systems and technology development from real-time systems management, with no single senior manager with full time responsibility for all aspects.
- Reorganization. In several States, pressures for agency-wide efficiency combined with increasing understanding of TSM&O synergies have led to considerable consolidation of TSM&O-related units and clarified reporting relationships, although they have stopped short of creating a new top-level division.
- Staffing levels. The overwhelming reality in most State DOTs is staff hiring freezes or even reductions in force. Workshop participants indicated that staffing constraints undercut the ability and initiative for expanding and/or improving TSM&O programs because they require additional staff resources.
- Champion dependency. TSM&O activities are typically reliant on a small, dedicated, hard-working staff, often energized by one or more highly committed individuals who are able to overcome lack of formal authority or dedicated resources through knowledge of the agency, strong personal relationships and personal persuasiveness. However, such informal leadership is fragile and subject to retirements or reassignments that can significantly undercut the momentum and priority of TSM&O initiatives.
- Core capacities, mentoring and succession. Most TSM&O staff has come from other parts of an agency, especially from traffic engineering, maintenance, and safety. Few staff have significant systems engineering, information systems, or performance management backgrounds – or capabilities relevant to newer technology applications such as connected vehicles. Workshop discussion reflected an increasing recognition of the need for specialized technical and managerial staff capacities to sustain an effective TSM&O program, including formal development of relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). In addition, there is rarely a formal approach to mentoring or succession planning. There were several instances where departure of key staff left major holes in agency capacity.
- Training. Formal in-house training with a TSM&O focus is limited, supplied largely through SHRP 2 and FHWA-based programs that have provided important onsite training, as well as through related association activities. Many of the relevant KSAs are acquired via on-the-job training. While most State DOTs offer support for technical training and coursework, this opportunity has limited impact due to the lack of training curricula or university courses specifically focused on TSM&O.
- Outsourcing. The lack of specialized staff capacity and slot limitations encourage the outsourcing of activities that require special technical expertise, such as planning, systems engineering, data management, and device maintenance, to private technology and service suppliers, especially where the need for expertise is episodic. Most workshop States outsource two or more activities and several outsource five or six, sometimes managed by different units within the agency. Uniform performance management of outsourced activities is becoming a challenge.
Recruitment and Retention
- Recruitment and retention. Most State DOT TSM&O staff comes from within agencies, transferring from other units. The hiring processes, internal staff job preferences, relative compensation, and union constraints appear to discourage external hires. Hiring staff with backgrounds in key technical specialties is especially difficult. At the same time, some States report retention challenges as younger staff (Millennials) value career flexibility and varied opportunities over long-term institutional career commitments, especially if they have developed technical skills of value in the private sector.
- Career attractiveness. With very few exceptions, TSM&O is not seen as part of the traditional career track to senior State DOT management, where senior roles historically have been rooted in engineering and planning, and district or division management. Furthermore, TSM&O brings with it a lifestyle at odds with the 9-to-5 office culture, including 24x7 availability, rapid response, improvising solutions, and working extensively with outside collaborators – all without any special recognition in grade level or compensation. State DOTs report entry level staff with relevant technical backgrounds often use department employment as a stepping stone to more lucrative and mobile career options, especially in the private sector.
The Organization and Staffing dimension is synergistic with other dimensions of capability. The agency Culture dimension is extremely influential in terms of top management support for organization and staffing improvements and the need for external Collaboration. At the same time, the process dimensions (Business Processes, Systems and Technology, and Performance Measurement) are all dependent on both efficient organizational structure and staff capabilities.
State DOT and Regional Implementation Plan Priorities
Most states/regions included some aspect of Organization and Staffing in their implementation plans to improve agency capability. The two highest priorities were organizational consolidation of related units and the development of TSM&O staffing plans, potentially including identification of core staff capacities, position descriptions, and succession plans. Several agencies had undertaken some degree of recent reorganization.
Best Practices and National Needs
This white paper describes example best practices and references material related to the identified implementation plan priority needs. The paper also suggests supportive national actions to improve TSM&O Organization and Staffing – development of a TSM&O organization and staffing gap analysis tool, polling State DOT senior TSM&O managers on needed staff core capacities and identifying related training and educational resources, and reviewing secondary and graduate school curricula for TSM&O best practices and gaps – but also the need to develop new custom-tailored approaches to the issues raised by workshop participants in their implementation plan priorities. Important roles are seen for FHWA, AASHTO, and the National Operations Center of Excellence in supporting these efforts.