Improving Transportation Agency Capability: A Structured Approach

Many transportation agencies today are under pressure to improve their effectiveness in the delivery of programs and/or services, including such activities as planning, development and design, procurement, construction, finance, operations, and maintenance, among others. The pressure flows from both budgetary constraints and external demand for improved performance and accountability. Improving effectiveness (in performance outcome terms) represents a strategic management challenge—conceptually, strategically, and tactically.

Conceptually, it requires clarity in defining effectiveness. Strategically, it requires determination of the key dimensions of and criteria for effectiveness. Tactically, it requires the development of an implementable strategic management plan with a high probability of achieving continuous improvement in effective program and/or service delivery.

To address these strategic management challenges, Parsons Brinckerhoff adapted a Capability Improvement Framework (CIF), an innovative strategic management framework that:

1.   identifies essential agency capabilities and the “institutional architecture” required for continuous improvement in
      program effectiveness,
2.   describes the criteria for meaningful levels of improvement in each capability area, and
3.   specifies actions to improve capabilities.

Parsons Brinckerhoff recently led state departments of transportation (DOTs) in self-evaluation workshops embodying this approach. In addition, Parsons Brinckerhoff developed detailed web-based guidance using this framework.

Parsons Brinckerhoff’s CIF is not focused on specific applications, services, project designs, or specification. Its focus is on developing the overall capabilities needed to improve the effectiveness of all activities on a long-term, sustainable basis. While the application described in this article focuses on transportation systems management and operations (TSM&O) at state DOTs and their partner agencies, the methodology is clearly applicable to any agency program, service, or activity—with minor variations.

The Research: Process and Institutional Architecture

Research conducted for the TRB Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) focused on improving state DOT capability in a new program area: the real-time operational management of the existing roadway network.1 TSM&O involves combining new technologies of surveillance, detection, and communications with strategies to clear crashes and breakdowns, manage snow and ice impacts, assure highway work zone safety, and provide updated traffic information, among other program activities. Improvement in these applications is dependent on tracking effectiveness in terms of such measures as incident clearance time, reduction in delay, improvement in reliability, and safety. State DOTs and their partner agencies must carry out actions in an event-responsive setting, combining technology with real-time field procedures on a multi-agency basis.

The SHRP2 research began with an investigation of the preconditions to an effective TSM&O program. It soon became evident that effective TSM&O by state DOTs required an entirely different set of specific capabilities from those of traditional civil engineering-based construction and maintenance functions in terms of policies, planning/programs, systems, performance measures, organization and staffing, and resources. Parsons Brinckerhoff’s SHRP2 research identified more- versus less-effective state DOT TSM&O activities to distinguish the key features of the most effective state programs.

There is an inescapable relationship among program implementation and effectiveness, the business and technical processes needed to support an effective program, and the institutional and organizational configuration required to develop and support the needed processes. Box 1 on the following page illustrates these relationships—perhaps self-evident in concept, but challenging for strategic management.

The relationships in Box 1 are already evident in transportation agencies’ more well-established programs, such as capital project development and maintenance. However, to fully develop new program areas, agencies must develop a parallel set of relationships between the technical requirements of the strategies involved, the required technical and business processes, and the supporting organization—tailored to the special characteristics of the program area. For TSM&O, these relationships must address heavy reliance on new systems technology, information management, performance tracking, real-time field procedures, and significant outsourcing; characteristics that, generally, most agencies have not fully developed.

Earlier Development, and Adaptation of the Capability Maturity Model

Previous Parsons Brinckerhoff guidance documents developed the notion of specific needed capabilities and levels of improvement that are at the core of the CIF.2,3 The CIF concept was further refined through adapting key features from the capability maturity model (CMM) widely used in the information technology industry to identify levels of improvement in technical processes needed to meet project goals.4 The CMM provided the key insight of preconditions for continuous improvement. The resulting CIF combines into a single framework many key features of quality management, organizational development, and business-process re-engineering concepts that have long been used as strategic management tools in transportation agencies.

Key Dimensions of Capability

The background research, which was focused on existing best practice, indicated the critical dimensions of TSM&O that must be incorporated into a CIF. Both business processes and institutional/organizational change have been shown to be essential and complementary. Six critical dimensions, and their corresponding sub-dimensions, are closely associated with the more-effective TSM&O activities and also in a wide range of state DOT programs:

  1. Business processes, including formal scoping, planning, and programming (resource allocation)
  2. Systems and technology, including systems architecture, standards, interoperability, and standardization and documentation
  3. Performance measurement, including measures definition, data acquisition, analysis, and utilization
  4. Culture, including technical understanding, leadership, policy commitment, outreach, and formal program authority
  5. Organization and staffing, including organizational structure, staff capacity development, and retention
  6. Inter-jurisdictional collaboration, including working relationships with public safety agencies, local governments, MPOs, and the private sector

These six generic dimensions of capability apply to virtually any program activity in a transportation agency.


Levels of Capability

The CIF uses criteria defining four incremental levels of capability to assess current practice and improvement targets for each dimension of capability. Each level is a “doable” step that builds upon the previous level. The steps lead away from informal, ad hoc, and champion-based processes toward custom-tailored processes that are made routine, standardized, documented, and performance-driven, and are supported by appropriate capabilities and organization. Box 2 illustrates the levels (described in general) and their relationships.

The Basic Capability Improvement Framework Guidance Matrix

Parsons Brinckerhoff identified criteria that determine the process and institutional capabilities specific to each level, and then defined the logical increments in capability to reach the next level in consistent, manageable steps that are presumed to be achievable in a one-year time frame. Box 3 illustrates a sample agency’s hypothetical self-evaluation of its capability level for each of the six dimensions. The criteria of each capability level, introduced in Box 2, drive the evaluation.

General Applicability

For any given program, the dimensions at each level are defined with specific criteria. Box 4 provides the specific criteria used in the TSM&O application. Using these criteria, state DOTs and other organizations involved in regional TSM&O activities can assess their current levels of capability, and then identify the actions needed for further improvement by referencing criteria at the next higher level. This same framework can be applied to other activity areas.

The “Rules” of the Capability Maturity Model Impacting Strategic Management

A key feature of the CMM is its rules of application, which include the following considerations:

  1. The six dimensions are interlinked. The dimension at the lowest level of capability is usually the principal constraint to program effectiveness improvement and therefore the highest priority to be addressed.
  2. Each of the dimensions included is essential and must be addressed. Omitting improvement in any one dimension appears to inhibit continuous improvement of program effectiveness.
  3. Each incremental level of maturity within a given dimension establishes the basis for the agency’s ability to progress to the next higher level of effectiveness.
  4. Some of the dimensions are more difficult to deal with than others. However, the dimensions included are all essential and must be addressed. Omitting improvement in any one will inhibit continuous improvement of program effectiveness.

The Capability Improvement Framework in Practice

Organizations have used the framework, with its incremental levels of improved capability, in two applications:

  1. developing detailed web-based guidance for TSM&O,5 and structuring workshops with key state DOT staff and partners in TSM&O programs in order to assess their current state of play and develop improvement strategies; and
  2. developing guidance for the incorporation of TSM&O into regional and statewide planning and programming, as part of a separate SHRP2 project.

The Strategic Management Challenge

The CIF indicates the strategic management challenges facing agencies that want to improve their effectiveness in any particular program, service, or activity.


As emphasized in the workshops, the self-evaluation matrix (Box 3) works in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Improved business and technical processes are dependent on improved institutional and organization features. The difficult strategic management challenge is, therefore, to simultaneously and continuously address key relationships.

Limits of Control

Middle management, which may be able to define needed business and technical process improvements, is likely to require certain top-down overall organizational support and leadership to create the “authorizing environment” (staff capabilities, accountability, resources, legitimatization) for advancing capability.

Some Next Steps

Although initial development has focused on TSM&O programs, particularly among state DOTs, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s CIF is designed to assist agencies in developing the overall capabilities needed to improve the effectiveness of all their activities. The authors are adapting the CIF to serve the needs of the toll industry by expanding the dimensions of capability—and specific criteria—for all business functions and programs of particular interest and concern to toll agencies.



  1. Institutional Architectures to Improve Systems Operations and Management. SHRP2 Report S2-L06 (2012)
  2. Lockwood, Steve. The 21st Century Operations-Oriented State DOT. Transportation Research Board (2050)
  3. Lockwood, Stephen, John O'Laughinlin, David Keever, Karen WEiss. Guide for Emergency Transportation Operations. Published in NCHRP Report 525 Surface Transportation Security, Volume 6 (2005)
  4. Software Engineering Process Management Program, CMMI for Services, Version 1.3. Carnegie Mellon (2010)
  5. AASHTO. Systems Operation & Management Guidlines.  (


Image Header Source: Damien Halleux Radermecker (Creative Commons)