Transportation Research:

The Department of Transportation Has Made Progress in Coordinating and Reviewing Its Research Activities

GAO-09-361T: Published: Feb 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 12, 2009.

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Research, development, and technology (RD&T) activities are vital to meeting the Department of Transportation's (DOT) priorities, such as increasing safety, enhancing mobility, and supporting the nation's economic growth. In fiscal year 2008, the department's RD&T budget totaled over $1.1 billion, primarily for highway and aviation projects. Over the years, concerns have been raised about DOT's capabilities to improve RD&T coordination and evaluation efforts across the agency. In 2004, Congress created DOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) to coordinate and review the department's RD&T programs and activities for the purposes of reducing research duplication, enhancing opportunities for joint efforts, and ensuring RD&T activities are meeting goals. In 2006 GAO reported that RITA had made progress toward these ends, but needed to do more. GAO's testimony focuses on (1) the importance of coordinating and evaluating RD&T activities and (2) RITA's progress in implementing GAO's 2006 recommendations. GAO's statement is based on its 2006 report, a review of best practices for coordination and evaluation, and follow-up discussions with RITA officials on actions to implement GAO's recommendations. GAO did not assess whether RITA's actions have improved the effectiveness of the department's RD&T investment.

Coordinating and evaluating research are important elements in ensuring that federal dollars are used efficiently and effectively. Coordinating research enhances collaboration, ensures that questions are explored, and reduces inefficiencies, such as from duplication of research. Evaluating research activities entails comparing research with established performance measures in agency strategic plans and using expert reviews to assess the quality of the research. With DOT's large RD&T budget--over $1.1 billion--coordination and evaluation are critical to making cost-effective investment choices in today's climate of expected trillion-dollar deficits. RITA has fully implemented five recommendations that GAO made in 2006 aimed at enhancing RITA's ability to manage and determine the effectiveness of RD&T activities, and partially implemented the remaining two. (See table below.) Regarding implemented recommendations, most notably, RITA has implemented a strategy to coordinate RD&T activities and look for areas where joint efforts would be appropriate. Results of its coordination efforts have identified a number of areas for cross-modal collaboration, including the areas of climate change and freight capacity. RITA has also developed a strategy to ensure that the results of DOT's research activities are evaluated against best practices, using governmentwide guidance and external stakeholder reviews. Regarding partially implemented recommendations, RITA has not yet developed an overall strategy, evaluation plan, or performance measures that delineate how its activities ensure the effectiveness of the department's RD&T investment. However, it has developed a process for doing so. In this regard, RITA plans to use an existing departmentwide strategic planning and budget process and collaborative meetings to develop an overall strategy and performance measures. RITA officials expect that it will fully implement activities related to this recommendation by 2012. GAO will continue to monitor RITA's activities.

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