State DOT Leaders Talk Risk Management at TRB Session

In a panel discussion billed as a “fireside chat” at the 2024 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., state transportation leaders talked about the ways they manage risk within their agencies.

[Left to right in above photo: Garrett Eucalitto, Nancy Daubenberger, and Toks Omishakin. Photo by AASHTO.]

Nancy Daubenberger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, explained that her agency has set up a specific “steering committee” to help her department better communicate about and understand project risks – as well as how to allocate agency resources based on risk assessments.

“We manage risk, generally speaking, on project, program, and then enterprise/agency level,” she said. “We require project managers to establish budgets with risks included; and they must manage the ‘risk budget’ as part of the overall project.”

Daubenberger noted it is critical that agency leaders make time to frequently conduct risk assessments and subsequent crisis scenario planning efforts.

“Sometimes you just have to stop, back up, and take a fresh look at what you are doing,” she said. “Sometimes you just need to take a time out to reassess risks. And you need to create a ‘safe space’ to put items out there that you do not deal with often – that spurs questions and further research. You should make sure to do this routinely – set aside time to brainstorm. Because even with the best planning, you come across unknown risks you just did not know about.”

Toks Omishakin – secretary of the California State Transportation Agency – added that every transportation agency staff member, regardless of whether they are executive staff or frontline personnel, must become a “risk manager” for the organization – and, as a result, they all need risk management training.

“In the past, being on time and on budget formed the center of what we did strategy wise,” he said. “Now, in California, we focus on our ‘Core Four’ principals: safety, economic prosperity, climate action, and equity. And it is those four principles that we measure risk against.”

Omishakin said that while transportation agencies will never be able to mitigate every single risk they face, it is critical that they have an established “risk policy” to follow.

“Do you know where your continuous operating plan is? Do you know what you are supposed to do in a crisis? Most are not sure – because risk management is not part of their daily tasks,” he emphasized. “That’s why it is so important that risk management is not hidden away, that it is in the room for every executive discussion. You need discussions of risk part of the day-to-day work environment. The voice of leadership is important for successfully embracing risk management. If there is one part of agency be paranoid about, make it this one – because successfully managing risk can surely save lives, but also a ton of money, too.”

Garrett Eucalitto. Photo by AASHTO.

Garrett Eucalitto, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and 2023-2024 vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, stressed that agency leaders need to “socialize risk” so their staff feels comfortable discussing all manner of potential transportation vulnerabilities and solutions.

“Listening is the most important thing; that allows us as leaders to provide direction with good insight,” he said. “Getting a clear picture of the risks involved in specific situations is all about listening and asking questions. It is also important that staff know that the leaders have their back. Because you can’t plan for every scenario – you can have the best risk management in place, but the one thing you never considered is what happens. So you need trust with those you work with that they can go find solutions in those situations.”

Eucalitto said that while everyone in his agency takes their job seriously – “they want nothing to go wrong on their watch” – they end up hyper-focused to risks to their specific tasks.

“That’s why we need to break down the internal silos,” he noted. “It is hard to get folks to think about impact of their decisions on other aspects of the agency. That’s why we need to learn to ask broader questions.”

For example, the Connecticut DOT recently appointed a chief data officer, who found that each division within the agency not only maintained their own data separate from the other divisions, they stored it differently, too. “That is why we are creating a centralized data library so everyone can access the same sets of data, because if you use the wrong data, you may make wrong assumptions when it comes to managing the risks facing your agency.”

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