IG’s Citing of Change Resistant Culture within FAA is Cause for Concern

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ARTICLE: Causes of Delays to the FAA’s NextGen Program

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Aviation Subcommittee Chair Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) set the parameters of the July 17 hearing inquiring into the progress, or lack thereof, of NextGen with the following comments in his initial statement:

“..I also know that there are serious concerns regarding the FAA’s ability to effectively and efficiently implement NextGen. I’ve heard that some “transformational” NextGen programs aren’t truly transformational, that the FAA will never make the tough decisions required to advance NextGen, and that nobody can really agree what NextGen is today or what it should be in 2025.

“I also want to make clear that I’m not pointing the finger at any specific person for perceived or actual problems with NextGen, in particular Administrator Huerta. The NextGen program is a decade old and there are a lot of people that share the responsibility for any problems, including people within the FAA, the aviation industry, and Congress.”

The Administrator made a five minute opening statement which highlighted the successes that NextGen has achieved and is recording. He stressed the value of collaboration, but did not affirmatively address any of the problems which the FAA is encountering. Mr. Huerta answered questions from the Members of the Subcommittee in attendance.

The US Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has a long history of criticism of the FAA’s management of NextGen. Mr. Scovel’s prepared statement repeats a number of significant technical and management concerns (Metroplex, ADS-B, ERAM, need for an integrated planning document), but his report pointed to a factor heretofore unheard of ignored:

FAA’s highly operational, tactical, and safety-oriented culture can lead to a risk-averse outlook that is slow to embrace change, resulting in an organization that prioritizes day-to-day operations over more strategic and policy-driven change over time. Moreover, as we have previously reported in 2010, FAA’s culture is reluctant to embrace outside technologies and has historically not leveraged the work of other departments such as the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development related to surveillance and security of aircraft.
Organizational instability and inconsistent leadership have also undermined FAA’s efforts to establish a culture that could effectively advance NextGen.

In his oral testimony, he used terms such as a lack of buy-in and organizational instability. If the people who have the responsibility of implementing NextGen do not believe in it and do not share the vision of a future Air Traffic Management, as opposed to Control, THEN no leadership from the FAA Administrator can overcome such institutional inertia against change.

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The Administrator commented on this IG characterization of a culture resistant to change by admitting, in part, that as a safety agency, the FAA generally favors old procedures that worked and those employees are not quick to accept new procedures. He asserted that they are working to improve internal attitudes.

The subject matter stimulated a number of questions from the Members. The evidence of such attitudes is secondary and subjective in nature; so it will be difficult to prove absolutely that it exists. Users of Air Traffic services and taxpayers, who are being asked to finance NextGen, will want to see how Deputy Administrator Whitaker, now the single person responsible for NextGen, is able to change this alleged attitude.

Since “culture” is hard to measure, perhaps the best proof of NextGen progress is the rolling out of success in implementing major programs.

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1 Comment on "IG’s Citing of Change Resistant Culture within FAA is Cause for Concern"

  1. It is positive to see that Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation has concurred in emphasizing the culture issue:

    Inspector General Cites Underlying Causes of Nextgen Problems

    In his testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee on July 17th, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel laid it on the line. NextGen’s slow progress and cost overruns are not merely the usual challenges inherent in developing and implementing new technology programs. Rather, they stem from “an organizational culture that has been slow to embrace NextGen’s transformational vision.” Both the 2011 Monitor Group study and IG interviews found that “FAA’s highly operational, tactical, and safety-oriented culture can lead to a risk-averse outlook that is slow to embrace change, resulting in an organization that prioritizes day-to-day operations over more strategic and policy-driven change over time.” (“FAA’s Progress and Challenges in Advancing the Next Generation Air Transportation System,” DOT Office of Inspector General, CC-2013-028, July 17, 2013, available on http://www.oig.dot.gov.)

    FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, testifying at the same hearing, put the best face he could on areas of incremental progress, but as an aviation colleague commented in an online forum, “Even skimming quickly through [the two testimonies] you’ll see quite a difference. A visiting Martian might easily assume Huerta and Scovel were discussing two entirely different agendas.” (Huerta’s testimony is available at http://www.faa.gov/news/testimony/news_story.cfm?newsid=14874.)

    Among the points in Scovel’s testimony was that, nearly 10 years into NextGen, the agency “continues to lack an executable NextGen plan.” And because requirements for many elements have not been finalized, “decisionmakers and stakeholders lack sufficient information—including reliable cost and schedule estimates for achieving NextGen’s goals of enhancing capacity and reducing delays—to assess progress and risk.” Key NextGen design decisions that FAA has still not made include:

    The division of responsibility between controllers and pilots;
    The level of automation;
    Facility requirements, including an overall plan for facility consolidation.

    Scovel also pointed to “organizational instability and inconsistent leadership” as undermining a culture that could effectively implement the NextGen vision. Since 2003, he pointed out, the agency has had five Administrators and had only an Acting Administrator for all of 2012. Stakeholders also told the IG auditors that “frequent turnover in senior leadership has hindered a consistent message and a shared vision for NextGen, along with limiting accountability for NextGen problems and lack of progress.”

    There’s a lot more in the 12-page written testimony, which you can peruse yourself. That these kinds of problems still persist after numerous attempted fixes by Congress suggests that previous reforms have not corrected the underlying problems that have plagued the FAA for more than the 30 years that I have been reading GAO and OIG reports about the agency. Congress has implemented what it considered four major reforms intended to fix these problems: procurement reform, personnel reform, a fixed term for the Administrator, and creating the Air Traffic Organization to supposedly operate like a business. Yet the GAO and OIG reports you can read today are dismayingly similar to those written in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—only the program names have changed.

    In a forthcoming paper on ATC innovation commissioned by the Hudson Institute, I hypothesize several possible reasons for the FAA’s poor performance. You will have to wait for the paper itself to assess my arguments, but here are the five I’ve come up with:

    Identity as a safety agency;
    Loss of technical expertise;
    Loss of program management expertise;
    Excessive oversight;
    Lack of customer focus.

    If I’m right, the solution needs to involve reform that separates the Air Traffic Organization from the safety-regulatory portion of FAA, frees it of civil service constraints, and makes it directly accountable to its aviation customers rather than to myriad oversight bodies and congressional micromanagement.

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