The premier accident investigator is urged to tighten up its management practices

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is often among the first to arrive on the scene, after an airplane or train crashes. Its expertise is renowned. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the NTSB needs to tighten up its own performance planning, particularly by more effectively connecting its strategic goals with its mission of transportation safety. For more on this, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Heather Krause, GAO’s Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues.

Interview Transcript: 

Heather Krause We initiated this work at the request of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Chair, as well as the chair of the Aviation Subcommittee. You know, Congress over the years has expressed some concerns about the timeliness of the NTSB accident investigation reports. So the quality of some of their accident investigation data and really whether they have sufficient staff to conduct its work. And so we were asked to do a fairly broad review looking at various aspects of NTSB operations and management. And so, you note the, you know, strategic planning and sort of performance planning was certainly one area that we looked at. But the other areas we focused on as well was looking at how are they using or sort of improving their ability to use data for decision making. We also looked at, you know, workforce planning and are they ensuring that their workforce has the skills it needs to carry out its mission as well as looking at some of their policies and procedures related to the security of their information systems and data.

Tom Temin That’s really important because the NTSB has been viewed as the gold standard and not just in the United States, but worldwide, for the ability to assess and figure out what happened when something went wrong in aviation going back many years. They are often called in for international disasters that did not even involve the United States or a U.S. carrier because of what they know. So it sounds like if they’re not careful, that could get a little tarnished.

Heather Krause I mean, I think there’s a number of things that the NTSB has done to improve in the areas that we looked at around the area of performance planning in particular. You know, we did find we were looking specifically at, are they meeting the content requirements of and sort of the federal content requirements of some of their performance planning documents, like strategic planning, their annual performance plan, their annual performance reports. And so, you know, those types of requirements are really important for agencies like NTSB to follow because they can help us hold those agencies accountable for achieving results. And so in some instances, we did find that they had carried out those activities, but they didn’t necessarily include a description of those activities in those documents. We’re really looking at the documents and what they contained. But we did find some areas of improvement in particular in really what are fundamental tools to federal performance management. You had mentioned is establishing strategic goals that really align with their mission. They established strategic goals, and that was really targeted around operational efficiency process improvements in preparedness for emerging technologies. You know, those are really important efforts. But you know, what you want to do to ensure your activities within an agency are supporting your mission is really have those strategic goals linking to the mission and ensuring that they support and connect to broader outcomes the agency hopes to achieve.

Tom Temin I guess it’s fair to say then that in the type of work that they do accident investigations and coming up with causes which lead to improvements in safety for whatever systems involve their trains or planes and so on, that there is a need to keep up with technological advances in maybe forensics in aeronautics. And I don’t know, whatever it is that goes into these particular accidents and happenings that they do need to stay current and so that even if they understand that somehow it has to be tied to that safety mission. And you found that sometimes they sounded like nice strategic goals, but they weren’t tied directly to safety.

Heather Krause Right. So I think, you know, an NTSB, in commenting on our report, did acknowledge some of the steps that they’re looking to do to take to try to respond to our recommendation, but then also make those links and address some other issues that we found in terms of those content requirements.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Heather Krause. She’s director of Physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office. And is the issue that they just simply didn’t do the paperwork right for government standards in writing strategic plans, or was the thought really missing for that connection between strategic goals and and mission goals?

Heather Krause I mean, I think there were a couple of different deficiencies we found in terms of those content requirements not being fully met. And so in some of those instances, they had carried out the activities but just hadn’t put that into the plan. So as an example, strategic plan should really have how the agency’s strategic goals and objectives incorporate input from congressional consultations. NTSB did speak to us about how they had obtained input from Congress in developing its strategic plan, but that wasn’t in kind of the plan itself. So that’s something that they can work to improve in terms of some of the other areas, which are a little more fundamental to, you know, ensuring their progress being made to achieving the mission. One example was, you know, they had annual performance plan goals for fiscal year 2023, along with some, you know, related indicators. But what we found is the majority of those goals weren’t quantifiable or measurable, which doesn’t meet the requirements. A lot of them were really you know, most of those are about completing a task or creating a process which makes it difficult to gauge progress over time. Like progress towards NTSB is goal of establishing like a repeatable capital planning process, for example.

Tom Temin And getting to some of the substantive issues here. They have model officers, aviation, highway, marine and of course pipelines, hazardous materials. And that number of staff is surprisingly low. There’s not even a couple hundred people in the whole place that look at these things. Talk more about the human capital issues and human capital planning that they need to do because everything they do comes down to really smart people looking through wreckage.

Heather Krause Yeah, I mean, people is a large resource for the NTSB to carry out their mission and their work. You know, we found that the NTSB had taken some recent steps to determine whether its workforce, you know, had the skills it needed to carry out the agency’s mission. But what we found was those efforts, you know, don’t provide a comprehensive information on the skills that the staff need, how many staff, you know, have those skills and where those skill gaps exist. And so some of the things that they have done, you know, in 2022, NTSB issued a survey and held listening sessions with their staff to identify training needs. But that, you know, those efforts didn’t include all mission critical staff as leading practices would really recommend. And so in addition, NTSB, you know, doesn’t have a consolidated inventory of current staff skills, you know, without having that kind of information about, you know, what are the skills you need across all your mission critical occupations and staff as well as what the skills they currently have. You know, NTSB is really hampered in its ability to identify where they have those skill gaps and how to fill them.

Tom Temin And it’s not like they have to look across a population of 12,000 either. Here again, it’s not even a couple of hundred people on the expert. So just review then, your top line recommendations. And did they agree with most of them?

Heather Krause Yeah, absolutely. So we ended up making six recommendations across the various areas, which included things like working to meet those content requirements in those three performance planning documents, working to really assess the skills needed as well as the skills that staff currently have to better understand the skill gaps as well as improve the use of labor cost data, something that they’ve been working on for a while. NTSB didn’t take a specific position on our recommendations, but stated that our report really reinforces the areas that their leadership team has been actively targeting to improve. They also pointed out a number of activities that they’re taking to respond to our recommendations.

Tom Temin All right. So this has real consequences. Wouldn’t an example be, say, in the skills gap 40 years ago if you were examining a plane crash, you looked at certain things in the most recent famous incidents of that software system that was aboard the Boeing planes, that capability that that whole domain of technology was not even extant on planes at one time. That would be an example of where they would need to have their staff expertise keep up with what the latest things are, in this case, aviation, versus what they might have had to know 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Heather Krause Yeah, I mean, the advances in transportation related technologies, as well as the growth in the transportation sector, make it that much more important that the NTSB understand the skills that it has and that they’re most efficiently using their resources.

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