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The National Academies

NCHRP 20-24(141) [Pending]

Advancing the Art and Science of Decision-Making
[ NCHRP 20-24 (Administration of Highway and Transportation Agencies) ]

  Project Data
Funds: $300,000
Contract Time: 20 months
Staff Responsibility: Ann M. Hartell

BACKGROUND

Those in leadership positions at state departments of transportation (DOTs) and other transportation agencies have an essential role as decision-makers. They are called upon to make decisions that establish transportation investment priorities, direct emergency response, allocate staff resources, and define relationships and roles with partners. Although decisions are guided by data, analyses, processes, and policies, decision-makers are also influenced by organizational culture, their own past experience, and contextual factors, including the level of risk or urgency involved.  In an urgent situation, there may be less time to collect and analyze data and consult with stakeholders. Decision-makers also face information overload and need guidance to find the essential elements and information sources needed to make quality decisions. Because transportation decisions and decision-making contexts take many forms, decision-makers must be agile and adaptable.

Decision-makers in transportation agencies face a decision-making environment of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and contentiousness. For example: 

  • Embracing equity expands mobility and accessibility, yet requires different practices and information to address the full range of community needs;
  • Changing travel dynamics no longer fit traditional, trend-based approaches;
  • Connected and automated vehicles bring new opportunities and new uncertainties;
  • Advances in data and information technologies can simplify data collection as well as contribute to information overload; and
  • Social media expands outreach but also increases scrutiny and the potential for misinformation.

In any context, biases shape decisions. Fields such as psychology and economics provide compelling insights into human decision-making and our innate tendency to rely on intuition and personal experience rather than objective information. Decision-makers may also have biases stemming from their educational and professional backgrounds that lead them to over- or underweight quantitative or qualitative information. Such biases can perpetuate inequitable resource allocation and investment.

Decision-makers need to be prepared to communicate the rationale for a decision to agency staff, partners, and stakeholders. Clearly communicating a well-reasoned rationale increases the likelihood of acceptance and implementation—the durability of the decision. Yet as new information and conditions arise, decision-makers and their staff also need to be prepared to adapt.

Research is needed to provide executive-level decision-makers—and the staff they rely on—with resources to strengthen their decision-making skills.

OBJECTIVE

The objective of this project is to develop guidelines for decision-makers at executive levels of state DOTs and other transportation agencies for selecting and using decision-making strategies that can improve the quality, agility, and durability of decision-making. The guidelines will include concepts and strategies that address:

  • Aligning decision-making strategies with goals and priorities;
  • Grappling with complexity and uncertainty;
  • Assessing and accounting for risk;
  • Diagnosing and managing biases that may affect decision-making; 
  • Harnessing the expertise and insights from multidisciplinary teams;
  • Balancing data and analytics with insights from staff and stakeholders;
  • Making decisions in emergent conditions;
  • Building trust with the public, regulatory and other partners, and agency staff through effective documentation and communication of the rationale for decisions; and
  • Making use of new information and communication technologies to inform decision-making and communicate the rationale for a decision.

RESEARCH PLAN

The final deliverables will include but not be limited to:

  • A report designed to be a practical and readily understood resource for executive-level decision-makers as well as the staff responsible for advising them. The report will include but not be limited to:
    • Characteristics of quality, durable, and agile decisions;
    • Frameworks, approaches, processes, and models for quality, durable, and agile decision-making drawn from research and practice in transportation and other fields (e.g., medicine, education, social policy, social sciences, and communications);
    • Types of executive-level decisions commonly encountered by transportation agency executives characterized by level of complexity, risk, urgency, potential sources of bias, level of transparency needed, available information, process and institutional requirements, and other features;
    • Common themes, patterns, and practices in transportation agency leadership decision-making obtained through in-depth interviews with decision-makers and staff who advise them;
    • Case studies that provide examples of decision-making strategies, including examples from other sectors;
    • Selecting strategies for decision-making that align with the characteristics of decisions;
    • Effective strategies for addressing risk and uncertainty;
    • Approaches to diagnosing and managing biases in decision-making;
    • Guidelines for engaging with staff, partners, and stakeholders at the right time to improve the flow and quality of information;
    • Documenting and communicating the rationale for decisions;
    • Opportunities for process improvements and capacity building to increase capabilities in quality, durable, and agile decision-making; and 
    • Topics for additional research on effective decision-making in transportation agencies. 
  • A stand-alone conduct of research report that documents the entire research effort and presents key findings.
  • A stand-alone technical memorandum that identifies implementation pathways, key implementers of the results, and well-defined scopes of work for further dissemination and pilot implementation of the methods. The technical memorandum should provide adequate detail about how state DOTs and other transportation agencies can implement the results of NCHRP Project 20-24(141) (e.g., timeline, budget, and needed staff resources).

 

STATUS: Proposals have been received in response to the RFP.  The project panel will meet to select a contractor to perform the work.

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