The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is concerned that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is understaffed and is not making the best use of the resources it has.
NTSB investigates and reports on the probable causes of transportation accidents and issues recommendations to improve safety. According to NTSB’s own data, the agency has conducted investigations of more than 153,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. From those investigations, NTSB has issued more than 15,300 safety recommendations.
NTSB currently has approximately the same number of employees as it had 20 years ago, which is around 400. But the transportation sector has experienced tremendous growth and technological advancement in that time. One major consideration for NTSB officials in the event of an accident is whether emerging technologies played a part, necessitating a workforce with an understanding of the latest transportation innovations.
Congress has previously expressed concerns about the timeliness of NTSB’s accident investigation reports, the quality of its accident investigation data, and whether the agency has sufficient staff to conduct its work. Congress is currently considering NTSB’s reauthorization, which will set agency priorities for the coming years.
NTSB’s most recent strategic plan, annual performance plan, and annual performance report fully met 14 of the 25 statutory content requirements that GAO analyzed specified in federal laws on agency performance planning. For example, NTSB’s strategic plan described the agency’s mission and identified external factors that could affect achievement of the agency’s goals.
Other requirements that NTSB did not satisfy are fundamental tools in federal performance management, GAO says. For example, within its strategic plan, NTSB established strategic goals targeting organizational efficiency, process improvements, and preparedness for emerging technologies. However, none of these strategic goals directly link to NTSB’s mission of improving transportation safety, as required. Without mission-focused strategic goals, GAO believes it will be difficult for NTSB to determine how the agency’s actions connect to the broader outcomes it hopes to achieve.
GAO found that NTSB has improved its use of investigation data to inform decisions, but it has made limited progress in doing so for labor cost data (i.e., data on staff time spent on individual investigations and other activities). The government watchdog notes that NTSB has previously taken steps to improve the usability of its labor cost data but, despite years of effort, it continues to be unable to use these data for resource allocation and other decision-making. NTSB officials said that they recently improved NTSB’s labor cost data system, and that they expect to receive approval to fully implement the updated system later this year. Until then, GAO maintains that NTSB is limited in its ability to use labor cost data to make more informed decisions, in alignment with federal guidance that directs agencies to leverage data in carrying out their missions.
Turning to its concerns over staffing levels, GAO found that NTSB has recently taken steps to determine whether its workforce has the skills needed to carry out the agency’s mission. However, the watchdog notes that these efforts do not provide comprehensive information on the skills staff need, how many staff have those skills, and where skill gaps exist.
In 2022, NTSB issued a survey and held listening sessions with staff to identify training needs, but GAO found that these efforts did not include all mission-critical staff, as leading practices recommend, nor did they identify the range of skills needed.
Moreover, NTSB officials indicated during GAO’s review that they do not have a consolidated inventory of current staff skills. As a result of these shortcomings, GAO has determined that NTSB is hampered in its ability to identify skill gaps across the agency, including in all mission-critical occupations, and to implement strategies to address its most pressing needs.
As a result of its review, GAO is making the following recommendations to NTSB:
- Ensure the agency’s future strategic plans and annual performance plans include content that fully meets all statutory requirements.
- Finalize implementation of a system that enables the agency to more effectively analyze labor cost data to inform decision-making.
- Conduct assessments to determine the skills its mission-critical occupations need and the extent to which staff have those skills.
- Establish security awareness and training procedures to facilitate the implementation of NTSB’s security awareness and training policy and the associated controls.
In its response, NTSB did not take a position on GAO’s recommendations but stated that the government watchdog’s report reinforces areas that the NTSB leadership team has been actively targeting for improvement.