Anxiety in an Age of Accountability

Thanks to increasingly powerful means of collecting and crunching “big data” and more and  more technologies and techniques that allow for effective communication we could be heading into a golden age for citizen involvement with government.  This is good news for those of us who pay taxes, but those who spend our money may not be so thrilled. But in this era of constrained resources we really need to use all the new tools to ensure we get good bang from every buck. Tell that to state DOTs.

The “Culture of Consequences” is common sense – it means moving towards performance-based management and accountability for results. This shouldn’t exactly be shocking to government officials. Remember Vice President Al Gore and Reinventing Government ?

In recent years performance management has spread in fields including education and medicine. And now it is coming to transportation. Ensuring that reforms are effective requires setting clear goals, as detailed in this short video by BPC a few years ago: 

And as performance-management gurus at RAND found, tying performance to incentives is necessary, especially when it comes to reforming government bureaucracies – with “the rewards or penalties big enough to matter.”

So imagine my dismay when grantees of the national transportation program – state transportation departments – launched a concerted campaign this week against one sentence in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly proposed strategic plan for 2014-2018. Specifically, this modest move forward on page 28: “[DOT will] Use the system performance information to drive programmatic and legislative linkages between system performance and Federal funding.” This is in the chapter about achieving a state of good repair for the system, which is one of the two measures that DOT and states can most readily implement since they already collect a lot of data (the other is safety). Seems like a logical place to start connecting incentives to performance goals.

A flurry of seemingly coordinated counter-responses started populating DOT’s website.

For example, Florida DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad posted the following “idea” on the DOT site: “Performance Measurement Must Not Be Linked To Funding.” Say what? The Secretary – who was recently anointed the leader of performance measurement for all state transportation bureaucracies – goes on to say that “tying performance measurement to funding would prove to be counterproductive to MAP-21’s policy direction.”

A chorus of comments by a dozen other state transportation agencies echoed this tune on the DOT web site. In remarkably uniform language, states claimed this “would penalize” them, and a few make reference to this as their association’s (the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO) position. Two state transportation bureaucracies (Delaware and Utah) claim that “uniqueness of each State” makes comparison difficult, a claim echoed by North Carolina’s transportation agency in other words.

RAND points out that one of the challenges of implementing new performance-based accountability systems is that stakeholders might push back. And how! While moving to a “performance-driven” transportation program may pose a challenge to agency culture, I’m certain that hospitals and schools have similarly claimed they shouldn’t be compared because of “unique” circumstances.

Tough or not, the 21st century is a new age of accountability for government agencies at all levels – and that should include state DOTs. As a commenter tartly put it when reacting to Wyoming’s plea that funding and performance not be linked, “We are in a period of constrained funding for all activities. If funding is not producing results, it should be sent elsewhere.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to measure performance, and manage it as well by linking it to meaningful incentives. State DOTs putting up roadblocks on the road to accountability is the last thing hardworking American taxpayers need.