Psst, Pass it On—New Web Site Improves Consistency of State Research
On playgrounds, children sometimes play a game called telephone. They sit in a circle, and one child whispers a sentence to the next child, who then whispers the sentence to the next child, and so on. The game continues until the sentence travels around the circle, and the last child repeats the sentence out loud. By the end, the sentence has usually changed, becoming noticeably different from the original.
Until recently, a similar phenomenon was happening among managers at State departments of transportation (DOTs) who work with the research arm of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) State Planning and Research (SP&R) Program. Without a central location on the Internet where researchers could access information about the program directly, States tended to share information informally and therefore administer their programs differently. Just as the last child's sentence was inconsistent with that of the first, the State's programs were not always consistent with the rules and guidance that FHWA provides.
To help alleviate the problem, FHWA created an online portal for information related to the research arm of the SP&R Program. Although FHWA originally created the Web site for the agency's Intranet, the site now is available publicly at www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/general/spr/index.cfm. Targeting State research staff and officials from FHWA's division offices who oversee the SP&R Program, the site includes links to reference materials, guidance, how-to manuals, legislation and regulations, and other useful information.
"The value of the site rests in its attempt to collect up-to-date information that is relevant to the States conducting the SP&R program and the FHWA staff who oversee the program," says William Zaccagnino, research and technology program manager at FHWA.
In a section on oversight and stewardship, FHWA and State DOT users will find descriptions of their respective roles in managing public funds for research programs. Each State is required to create and follow a management plan for its SP&R Program. To help States develop their plans, the site provides a link to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program's Guide for Developing a State Transportation Research Manual.
Another link directs users to a list of minimum requirements that States must meet to demonstrate effective management of funds devoted to planning and research activities. For example, the management process should identify and prioritize research activities and outline procedures for tracking activities, schedules, accomplishments, and fiscal commitments. The oversight and stewardship section also features a distribution list that States can use to circulate publications from the SP&R Program and a memorandum on using metric measurements in research publications.
Where to Go for Help
The site also includes information about where States can find assistance in managing programs and how to become involved in other research activities. One section, for example, features detailed instructions on how to establish a State peer exchange program. During a peer exchange, a host agency invites an outside team of top-level managers to discuss and review the host agency's processes for managing research. The site explains the steps involved for the host agency and outside team prior to, during, and after the visit, and offers tips on writing the postvisit report.
Users also can access information about the Transportation Pooled Fund (TPF) Program, which aims to maximize the benefits of public expenditures on transportation research by encouraging States and others to collaborate on solving common issues or problems. Users can peruse a list of frequently asked questions, such as "How do States contribute funds to a specific pooled fund project?" and "What is the process of organizing a pooled fund study request?" This section also provides a link to the pooled fund Web site, www.pooledfund.org.
Zaccagnino notes that prior to the development of the site, the Research Advisory Council held training sessions where it presented much of the same information now found on the site. He adds, however, that the council has conducted the sessions only a few times in recent years. "With changes in staff at the Federal and State levels, having a ready-reference Web site was critical to creating consistency in how the SP&R Program operates nationally," says Zaccagnino. "The site helps keep people aware of new information or the changes in laws, regulations, and guidance that are crucial to conducting the program."