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Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-048
Date: June 2010

State Planning and Research Guide For Peer Exchanges

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5. Frequently Asked Questions

The following questions and answers about the peer exchange program are asked frequently.

What is the peer exchange program?

The general intent of the Federal regulation for the peer exchange program is to enhance the quality and performance of the State's RD&T management through peer involvement. The peer exchange process grew out of the original concept of peer review as conducted by organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the Association of Soil and Foundation Engineers. In those peer exchanges; organizations seek independent assessment of their firms and a comparison with industry norms. Furthermore, the review teams deal primarily with the chief executive officer (CEO) of the organization to review standard and predetermined aspects of the organization's operations, (e.g., financial management, project management, human resource management), conduct confidential interviews with employees, and present findings at a closeout meeting with the CEO at the conclusion of the exchange. The final step is a staff briefing of the exchange report. Many of the elements from this peer exchange methodology were retained in the development of a customized peer exchange process.

What is the objective of the peer exchange program?

The objective of the peer exchange program is to give State DOTs means to improve the quality and effectiveness of their research management processes. A peer exchange provides an opportunity for a State to examine its research program, particularly relative to its management plan. It is a practical and effective tool to foster excellence in RD&T program management. Peer exchanges provide an opportunity for panelists to share best practices and management innovations with each other.

The basic approach for setting up a peer exchange is to invite an outside panel of managers to meet with the host agency to discuss and review its RD&T management process. Information on the host agency's policies and procedures, including its management plan and work program, are shared with panel members in advance of the peer exchange. During the peer exchange, panel members may meet with managers, staff, stakeholders, and customers to gain further insight into the host State's program. The information gathered from the exchange is presented to agency management.

How often are peer exchanges conducted?

Under 23 CFR 420.209 (a)(7)4, a State is required to conduct peer exchanges on a periodic basis. FHWA has administratively determined this to be at least once every 5 years.

Who should be on the peer exchange panel?

Peer exchange panels should include representatives of other States' research programs, universities, and customers and stakeholders of the research program. States are also encouraged to include a representative from the FHWA division office and/or FHWA's headquarters. Panel members may be chosen for their technical expertise, experience in managing a research program, or knowledge of customer needs. The host State may also want to consider inviting research directors, who are new in the role, to give them not only some experience on a peer exchange, but a chance to make mentoring connections with other transportation research leaders.

Does the peer exchange have to be an overview of the State's whole research program?

No. While an overview peer exchange is very valuable for a State to conduct, some of the periodic peer exchanges may be focused on areas of the State's research program. For example, some States have focused on performance measurement or technology transfer. If a State chooses to conduct a peer exchange on a focused area, it should still address the general intent of the peer exchange program to enhance quality and performance of the State's RD&T management through peer involvement.

Can peer exchanges be funded with SP&R funds?

Yes. Travel and other costs associated with the State DOT's peer exchange may be identified as a line item in the State DOT's planning and research work program and is eligible for 100 percent SP&R funding.

Is a face-to-face peer exchange in one State the only format that may be used?

No. These guidelines permit several formats, but in all cases, the host State(s) must ensure that the format will meet the intent of the Federal regulation for the peer exchange program to enhance the quality and performance of the State's RD&T management through peer involvement.

The permitted formats include:

  • Onsite at Host State

    A multistate format may be feasible in some situations, particularly if several States have a need to examine a single focus.

  • Multistate Peer Exchange

    The traditional peer exchange is onsite at the host State's location and lasts for 2 to 3 days.

  • Virtual Peer Exchange

    A virtual peer exchange may be feasible in rare instances, but should not be used as an easy way to fulfill the regulatory requirement. A virtual peer exchange would use technologies such as a Webinar or video conference.

Does participation in a meeting such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) RAC national meeting fulfill the peer exchange requirement?

No. Participation in a meeting such as national meetings of the AASHTO RAC is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and typically involves considerable interaction with peers, but such meetings lack crucial elements of a formal peer exchange.

A peer exchange is designed to focus on a State's research program, using a knowledgeable panel to gather information on the host State's program and make constructive recommendations. A crucial part of a peer exchange is the panel's opportunity to present findings and recommendations to the host State's senior management and key decision makers. One of the benefits of peer exchanges has been the opportunity to make senior managers more aware of how research supports their overall program and helps them address customer needs. Even in a multistate peer exchange, host State participants are to go back to their home States and brief senior leadership and other staff on the results of the peer exchange and the processes to be improved as a result of the exchange.

Is the peer exchange panel required to report its findings?

Yes. According to 23 CFR 420.209 (a)(7)4, the peer exchange panel must prepare a written report of the exchange. If at all possible, the report should be written before the closeout meeting with the senior management of the host State(s). At a minimum, the report should be prepared before the panel members leave.

The report should include a brief introduction that identifies all of the participants on the panel and describes the purpose and intent of the activity. The body of the report should briefly discuss those aspects of the research program that the panel explored.

The conclusion section of the report should reflect the highlights of the open discussions and should be written as a panel, using a panel consensus approach. Moreover, it should include an endorsement by all of the members of the panel. A copy of the report should be forwarded by the host State to the FHWA division administrator upon completion of the peer exchange.

Before the next peer exchange the State director of research should prepare a follow up report or memorandum summarizing changes that were or were not made to the program based on the previous peer exchange, and submit it to his/her FHWA division office and his/her State DOT senior management.

What does the closeout meeting with the host State senior management involve?

The closeout meeting can be of great benefit if conducted with senior management of the host State. It should highlight positive aspects of the host State research program and outline those aspects that the visitors intend to incorporate into their own programs. Of course, any suggestions agreed to by the panel should also be presented to the host State senior management, with the understanding that senior management support is necessary to make significant changes. For multistate peer exchanges, host States returning home should conduct this briefing as soon as possible after returning.

Does FHWA hold the States responsible for the specific action items included in the report?

No. Peer exchanges are opportunities for States to identify successes as well as areas for improvement in their research programs. The host States and their peer exchange panels identify action items as ways the host States may improve their programs. It is a host State's responsibility to follow up on action items with the goal of gaining the greatest benefit from the peer exchange. A host State may choose to give feedback on its progress on action items to the panel and FHWA, but it is not required.

Before the next peer exchange the State director of research should prepare a follow up report or memorandum summarizing changes that were or were not made to the program based on the previous peer exchange, and submit it to his/her FHWA division office and his/her State DOT senior management.

Must panel members be selected from a list of "approved" panel members?

No. During the initial stages of the program, there was a requirement that some panel members be selected from the FHWA "approved" list of those who had received formal training on the peer exchange process. Since then, many people have gained experience by participating in peer exchanges, so FHWA no longer requires formally trained members on the panel.

Peer exchange panels should include representatives of other States' research programs, universities, and customers and stakeholders of the research program. States are also encouraged to include a representative from the FHWA division office and/or FHWA's headquarters. Panel members may be chosen for their technical expertise, experience in managing a research program, or knowledge of customer needs.

Among participants should be a few people who have experience with peer exchanges, but the host State may also want to consider inviting Research Directors who are new in the role to give them not only some experience on a peer exchange, but a chance to make mentoring connections with other transportation research leaders.

Who can help me identify panel members?

There are a number of ways to identify potential panel members. Nominations may be solicited from State DOT staff, FHWA division/headquarters staff, partners, and stakeholders. The host State may solicit names of potential panel members from scientific or professional societies, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), TRB, or AASHTO committees. AASHTO's RAC maintains a list of its members on its Web site, http://research.transportation.org9, and the RAC national or regional listservs can be used to solicit volunteers from other States.

What if I cannot attend a peer exchange because my State agency has travel restrictions?

The FHWA division office can write a letter in support of the peer exchange stating the State's responsibility to attend peer exchanges and citing 23 CFR 420.209(a)(7)4 of "Participation in peer exchanges of its RD&T management process and of other State DOT's programs on a periodic basis."

Have all States conducted peer exchanges?

Yes, and many States have hosted several peer exchanges. The regulation, 23 CFR 420(a)(7)4, calls for States to participate "in peer exchanges of its RD&T management process and of other State DOTs' programs on a periodic basis." Initially, FHWA's Office of RD&T defined "periodic basis" to mean at least once every 3 years. With the initiation of these guidelines, periodic now is defined as at least once every 5 years.

Additional questions?

For more information or if you have additional questions, contact John Moulden at 202-493-3470 or john.moulden@dot.gov.

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