Washington governor uses new accountability program to keep transportation projects on track and on budget

Bruce Botka
Performance Analyst
Office of Governor Chris Gregoire
Olympia, Washington

Just days after taking office in January 2005, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire put her executive branch agencies on notice that she personally was going to make sure they delivered the results taxpayers expect, and that she expected aggressive action to improve performance and customer service.

At a news conference, the governor made it clear that every agency of state government—and every employee—would be accountable for results. She said her primary tool to improve accountability would be called "GMAP"—Government Management Accountability and Performance. GMAP is an in-depth process that requires state agencies to develop data-driven management and performance systems to measure their effectiveness, to inform operational decisions, and to determine whether expected results are being accomplished.

Modeled after successful municipal programs like CompStat in New York City and CitiStat in Baltimore, the Washington State GMAP program represented the first attempt to extend such performance-driven accountability to agencies that have statewide responsibilities.

Why is accountability—and the GMAP program—so important to this governor? As she said in her October 2006 accountability report, "It's not enough just to set priorities and talk about what we want to do. We also must measure government performance to make sure citizens are getting the best possible return for their tax dollars. That's why we constantly collect and analyze data to identify and solve problems today—and to anticipate the challenges we will face in the future."

At its heart, GMAP is a common-sense management tool that promotes the sharing of current performance data to achieve better results. The governor and her leadership team meet in regular "GMAP forums" with agency directors to evaluate the results their agencies are delivering. These meetings—always conducted in public—provide an opportunity for conversations about what is working, what is not, and how to improve results.

Using the GMAP process, the governor and state agencies examine the performance and dig into obstacles and opportunities in transportation, economic development, health care, public safety, government efficiency, and the protection of vulnerable children and adults. By having candid, data-focused discussions and asking probing questions about performance, the governor, her agency directors and staff are better able to understand the reasons for specific results; authorize changes if necessary; and set clear expectations for future performance. By revisiting key issues every few months, Governor Gregoire is able to follow up and make sure results meet expectations.

In the two-plus years since GMAP was developed, transportation projects and the performance of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have been addressed in six forums with the governor and her senior leadership team. In addition, the agency conducts its own "internal GMAP forums" to more closely examine the performance of its seven regions and the headquarters divisions.

Daniela Bremmer, WSDOT Director of Strategic Assessment, notes that in-depth performance measurement has been used for years by agency leaders who need to keep close track of the progress and cost of a wide range of projects, from bridge replacement in sparsely populated eastern Washington to complex freeway expansion in the densely populated Puget Sound region. The foundation of WSDOT's performance assessment system is known as The Gray Notebook, a nationally recognized compendium of in-depth quarterly reports on agency and transportation system performance.

Bremmer says the agency has collected and analyzed performance data since the early 1990s. The effort gained strength with the arrival in 2001 of WSDOT Secretary Doug McDonald. McDonald's prior experience as chief of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority enabled him to institute a comprehensive approach to performance and accountability that provides critical information and analysis for management decision-making, interaction with legislators and the governor, and clear communication with the public.

Governor Gregoire has ramped up this effort even further—and given it increased public visibility—in part by including other transportation agencies, such as the Washington State Patrol, Department of Licensing, and the state Traffic Safety Commission, in her GMAP transportation forums.

Engaging multiple agencies whose programs contribute to the achievement of a particular state goal—such as improved traffic safety—is one of the hallmarks of Governor Gregoire's approach to accountability. She often talks about "breaking down silos" and promoting active, strategic partnerships among state agencies that have a stake in similar outcomes.

For example, the governor's transportation GMAP forum on May 23 focused on the partnership of WSDOT and the State Patrol to reduce the time needed to restore normal traffic flows following major accidents. If successful, this effort will make a difference in the daily lives of many Washingtonians. WSDOT also provided data on several other important performance measures, including the percentage of highway capital projects completed on time and within budget; the condition of bridges and pavement across Washington State; and the percentage of highway maintenance targets achieved. Like all GMAP reports, this information is available to the public through the governor's accountability website: www.accountability.wa.gov.

Does the GMAP approach work? Despite the relative youth of the program, there is increasing evidence that it helps agencies improve results, keep ongoing projects on course, and work together to address difficult challenges. For example:

  • In the face of rapidly increasing construction inflation, the agency has delivered an unprecedented $638 million highway construction program, comprised of 79 projects, within 0.4 percent of the projected budget. All but six of those projects were completed early or on time.

  • The effort to clear highways sooner after major blocking incidents (those that last more than 90 minutes) has shaved an average of 12 minutes from the nearly three-hour delays that occur in fatalities and other serious accidents. The agencies plan to build on this modest improvement by using more emergency response vehicles, speeding up tow truck deployment, and working with local officials to make sure victims are more quickly transported from accident scenes.

  • WSDOT is exceeding its goals for wetland replacement—an important environmental consideration even in relatively damp Washington State. Data from 45 ecologically effective wetland mitigation projects shows that those sites have replaced more than the required acreage, which is good news for the state's watersheds.

The GMAP process sometimes reveals issues that don't have easy solutions. For example, Washington's concrete highways will need major rehabilitation in the coming years as they exceed their projected pavement life spans. WSDOT has used several innovations to extend pavement life and is updating its predictive model to determine the best timing for rehabilitation. Future GMAP forums will provide the opportunity to monitor and discuss pavement conditions and to discuss possible interim solutions until comprehensive rehabilitation can take place. The use of GMAP tools to anticipate future challengesand prevent them from becoming crisesmay be one of the program's most important benefits.

Another challenging problem is the recent rise in motorcycle traffic deaths, a trend that will require concentrated attention and follow-up for several years. GMAP has provided the impetus for WSDOT, the State Patrol and the Traffic Safety Commission to develop a joint action plan to cut motorcycle deaths through improved law enforcement, rider awareness and education.

GMAP Director Larisa Benson says the multi-agency approach and the governor's commitment to discussing performance results in public have begun to change the culture of Washington State government from one that focuses on programs and processes to one that emphasizes service, accountability and results. In particular, she says, getting several agencies together with the governor and her leadership team allows each organization to focus on its core functions while working as partners with other agencies. This approach also increases the chances that most, if not all, of the governor's questions can be answered on the spot.

"We recognize that better results don't occur overnight, but the governor's leadership has sent a crucially important message throughout state government," Benson says. "This governor isn't interested in hearing, 'We've always done it this way' without seeing the numbers that prove it's the right way."

Says Benson, "Some of our strongest supporters—and several members of our staff—are people who have worked in state government for 10 or 20 or more years. They know we can do better, and GMAP is giving them the opportunity to prove it."

Bruce Botka is a Performance Analyst in Governor Gregoire's GMAP office who has worked in Washington State government since 1985. Contributors to this article include GMAP Performance Analyst Karl Herzog and WSDOT Director of Strategic Assessment Daniela Bremmer. Botka can be reached at (360) 902-0586 or Bruce.Botka@GOV.WA.GOV.

For more information: www.accountability.wa.gov (Governor Gregoire's GMAP website) and www.wsdot.wa.gov/accountability (the WSDOT accountability website).

GMAP Principles
Washington's Government Management Accountability and Performance program is designed to hold state government and agency leadership accountable to customers, taxpayers and citizens for the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of state services. Seven principles, rooted in management theory and common sense, define the GMAP philosophy and practice.

  1. Engage the leader(s) at the top of the organization. GMAP stresses the personal presence of senior managers and others needed to make decisions.

  2. Do not measure for measurement's sake. This is a waste of resources. GMAP is a management tool, not a presentation. Effective measures require clarity on: (a) what programs and services expect to influence, and (b) how agencies will use measures to manage programs and get results.

  3. Develop and use timely and accurate performance data to set targets and inform decisions.

  4. Reward candor in identifying and diagnosing performance barriers and creativity and commitment to overcoming them. It is okay to identify missed targets. It is even more important to know why you missed targets and to have a plan to address barriers to meeting them.

  5. When the data indicates needed action, quickly and clearly specify what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will be done. Action plans should primarily focus on what can be done prior to the next GMAP session (typically three to four months away).

  6. Persistent follow-up and clear accountability. Agency leadership should relentlessly follow up on commitments made in action plans. They should also monitor results over time to verify change is real and sustainable.

  7. Create a continuous learning environment. Agencies should use process improvement tools to get better results.