July 2017

 

Stakeholder Partnering: Paving the Way for Better Project Delivery

By Michael Smith, FHWA Resource Center-Atlanta
      Kevin Chesnik, PE, Principal Engineer at Applied Research Associates
      and former Chief Engineer for the Wisconsin DOT


Local agencies are joining forces with state and federal colleagues to help get the greatest value from transportation project investments that use Federal-aid Highway Program funds. Through stakeholder partnering, they are turning good ideas into solutions for better Federal-aid project delivery.

Why stakeholder partnering?

The idea behind stakeholder partnering is to bring local public agency (LPA), state department of transportation (DOT), and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Division representatives together so that open communication aimed at reducing administrative burdens, stretching budget dollars, and shortening project delivery can happen.

Bringing representatives from each type of agency together provides a collaborative forum to foster better understanding of challenges within the Federal-aid program. Those closest to the issues at the state and local level can work as partners, with FHWA in the room, on programmatic solutions for delivering projects more efficiently while still meeting guidelines for use of federal funds.

“There is only so much streamlining you can do at the federal level,” said John Davis, Director of Engineering for the City of Denton, Texas. “Some of our research and anecdotal information indicates Federal-aid may increase project costs by possibly as much as 20 percent. If we could update our processes to implement those requirements easier and faster and cut that down to 5-10%, just think of the enormous impact that would have on the effectiveness of the funding we receive.”

How is this different from what DOTs and LPAs are already doing?

Stakeholder partnering is part of the FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) program to speed transportation project delivery. Where state DOTs and LPAs may already be partnering on a project-by-project basis, the type of partnering being promoted with EDC is different in that it occurs at the overall program level.

These stakeholder committees are founded and designed by state DOTs to create an atmosphere where LPAs can contribute their experience and expertise to the state’s local program processes, and where stakeholders at each agency can gain a better understanding of each other’s needs. The discussions focus on program-level issues, rather than project-specific ones, with the goal of improving project delivery for LPAs statewide and increasing Federal-aid opportunities for both the state DOT and LPAs.

While using federal funds on a local project may increase the requirements an LPA needs to address, stakeholder partnering can be used to help reduce the effort involved in an already time-consuming process. There is an initial investment of time to organize the partnering group to identify and discuss the specific issues in that state, but in the long run, stakeholder partnering can lead to better ways to do things from an overall process perspective and bring issues to resolution, benefiting every project down the road.

How do these stakeholder partnerships work?

The stakeholder partnering committees meet regularly to address opportunities for process improvements and streamlining that can improve projects statewide. Many use formal charters to commit to details such as meeting frequency and length of time members will remain on the committee. Some require members to complete specific training. For example in Missouri, all of the committee members take the DOT’s four-hour Federal-aid basic training course.

One of the challenges in assembling a stakeholder partnering committee is ensuring it represents as many of the state’s stakeholders as possible. One way to do this is to include representatives who are also members of state and national organizations such as the American Public Works Association (APWA) and the National Association of County Engineers (NACE). These “connected” members can provide the reach needed to communicate stakeholder partnering council activities to local agencies throughout the state.

Debbie Albert, transportation engineer for the City of Glendale, Arizona, and a member of Arizona’s LPA Stakeholder Council, said that stakeholder partnering works effectively when the right players are at the table and two-way participation and honest, open and direct communication are encouraged.

“When programmatic stakeholder partnering began in Arizona three years ago, our region was experiencing challenges in delivering projects on time, so I was initially interested in getting involved so that I could share best practices and learn what was working for other agencies,” Albert said. “I just knew there had to be a better way of delivering our projects.”

“On the LPA Stakeholder Council, we educate and learn from each other and identify opportunities for change. We’ve had to take into consideration that some changes are not possible based on state or federal laws, but there are other areas where we can work on together,” she said. “As we are a representative group, we network with our partners for brainstorming and facilitating improvements and giving feedback.”

Albert said one lesson learned from Arizona’s council is that it is better to take on simpler issues at first, so that the group can demonstrate success and achieve some momentum before moving on to issues, such as environmental reviews and intergovernmental agreements, that may be met with a lot of restrictions. “It’s been very beneficial in Arizona. Personally, I’ve experienced that our projects have gone from nearly all being deferred two or three times, which generally means a two- or three-year delay, to now maybe getting delayed one time; and that’s more the exception than the rule,” she said.

What topics do stakeholder committees address?

Each stakeholder partnering committee addresses topics of unique interest within their state. Typical agendas include items such as project delivery clarification, environmental review and right of way procedures, and funding opportunities.

Whatever the topic, stakeholder partnering provides a platform for information exchange that can help identify where processes can be improved and made more efficient. Examples of deliverables that have come out of these discussions include targeted training and educational materials, new technology tools, and even new funding programs.

“Some stakeholder committees may initially focus on updating the DOT local agency program manuals and processes, and while these are important, they represent the beginning and not the end,” Davis said. “We still need continuous process improvement for expediting projects, and that can be done through stakeholder partnering.”

In Florida, where the DOT districts are decentralized, the initial statewide stakeholder partnering effort, called the Local Agency Program Community of Practice (LAPCoP), was aimed at achieving more consistency in interpretation of federal regulations across the state. Since its first meeting in November 2010, the LAPCoP—which includes representatives from the Florida Association of County Engineers and Road Superintendents (FACERS), Florida’s chapter of APWA, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council (MPOAC), and the state’s Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP)—has branched out to other types of issues, both within and outside of the local Federal-aid program.

Ramon Gavarrete, County Engineer for Alachua County, Florida, and a member of the LAPCoP, said the group has also worked on solving issues concerning both plan and project reviews and the oversight required for simple versus complex projects. Solutions have ranged from process adjustments to additional training for locals.

“For example, sidewalk projects were being given the same oversight as bridge projects, which added time to simple projects. As we came together, we defined what a simple project was and what a complex project was,” Gavarrete said.  “We have made some improvements, but the results were not overnight. You have to work on trust and build relationships first,” he said. “It’s a dynamic process—what you’re going to discuss today is not what you’re going to discuss in six months. Your representatives are going to change. That’s why it’s good to have organizational representatives, because when individuals leave, the organization is still there, the information exchange is still happening, and new representatives can be named.”

How do states benefit?

Stakeholder partnering is a proven solution to the challenge of getting the right people at the table at the right time to handle the right issues, and it has become an institutionalized practice in at least 21 states.

In addition, as the staff at many DOTs has been reduced in size over the past several years, stakeholder partnering can support current and future DOT efforts to delegate more Federal-aid project delivery administration to local agency owners. “By facilitating more and better local project delivery, stakeholder partnering allows local agencies to become what we used to refer to in military terms as a force multiplier,” Davis said. “State DOTs can deliver a lot more projects with the help of knowledgeable LPAs than they can by themselves. State DOTs and local agencies really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by using stakeholder partnering.”

How to get started?

Stakeholder partnering can help LPAs and state DOTs work together to make measurable improvements in Federal-aid project delivery that benefit all involved. If your state does not already have programmatic partnering underway, reach out to your state DOT local program office or your state FHWA Division Office representative to start the dialog.

For a list of contacts, visit the following resources:

Local Public Agency State and Federal program coordinators (from the Federal-aid Essentials website)
The American Public Works Association Chapters
National Association of County Engineers State Affiliates

Information in this article on stakeholder partnering initiatives in Arizona and Florida is from a November 2016 FHWA webinar: EDC-3 Stakeholder Partnering at the Local Level.

More details on stakeholder partnering in these and other states is also available on the FHWA website in the EDC Stakeholder Partnering Resource Library.

Stakeholder Partnering Across the United States

According to the latest FHWA report on EDC progress, programmatic stakeholder partnering on local projects is an institutionalized practice in 21 states, and several more states are working toward establishing stakeholder partnering groups or developing an implementation process.

This figure shows EDC stakeholder partnering goals and implementation stages throughout the United States as of May 2017. As shown in the map, 38% of states have institutionalized programs; 28% are evaluating through assessment, development, and demonstrations; and 33% are not implementing EDC stakeholder partnering.

 

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