Idaho TD Director Ness Aspires to be the Best Department in the Country
It seems right that a department of transportation director should have a strong sense of where he is going. That is certainly true of Brian Ness, Director of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) since 2010.
At the beginning of his career, Ness who had earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at Tri-State (now Trine) University, took a job with the Michigan Department of Transportation. "When I started as an Engineer-In-Training, I looked around at the department. You started as an Engineer and worked your way up from there. So I asked myself, 'How do you set yourself apart from the rest?'"
In Michigan, he held positions that ranged from Structural Research Engineer and Assistant Unit Head in the Materials Testing Laboratory to District Maintenance Engineer, Airport Project Section Manager, and District Project Development Engineer. Along the way, he also earned a master's degree in Public Administration from Western Michigan University.
His observations, ambition and hard work eventually saw him promoted to the position of Administrator of the North Region Office. Then came the offer to head the department in Idaho. With 30 years in Michigan, there were strong incentives for him to stay, Ness said. "But there are only 50 state director positions in the country, how can you say no to that opportunity?" He had developed a lot of ideas about the way things could be different and wanted to put those ideas into practice.
Ness felt strongly that government agencies needed to change. "The way they are structured makes them tend to work more for their own purposes than for the citizens they exist to serve. Many suffer from an organizational structure that dates back to the 1960s, with many layers of bureaucracy and strong central control."
Public servants become empire-builders because "you are compensated based on the layers of staff below you, not on the performance of the department." Ness believes in moving decision making closer to where the work gets done. "The old ways lead to a passive work culture where employees don't do anything without being told, because they might be criticized for taking initiative."
Surveying His New Surroundings
On taking up his position with the ITD, Ness began as you might expect of a professional civil engineer. He did a detailed site survey. He did this by spending nine months getting to know his staff - literally scheduling meetings with every single one of the 1,800 employees of the agency to learn from about their work. He discovered that many felt they were hampered by an atmosphere in which they were being told what to do, instead of asked how the work could be done. "They felt they were not being heard," he said.
Ness set about making changes accordingly. He asked the question: "How can we get out of your way?" Noting, "the decisions can't all be made from Boise," Ness reduced layers of supervisors, empowered employees to do their work, and focused on measuring results, not process. The department downsized slightly, mostly through attrition, to about 1,700, but job satisfaction is up.
Ness said the key elements of the Department's strategic plan are that it is brief, that every employee can relate it to their own work, and that the focus is squarely on results for the consumer. This year those goals, which each have their own performance measures, are:
- Commit to providing the safest transportation system possible
- Provide a mobility-focused transportation system that drives economic opportunity
- Become the best organization by continually developing employees and implementing innovative business practices
In 2013, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) presented ITD its President's Award for Administration for the results of its realignment efforts. The award is just one of many. Under Ness, ITD has been recognized with 164 regional, national and state awards in recognition of achievements and innovations.
One quantitative measure Ness uses is the percentage of roadway that is clear of snow and ice during winter storms. That figure was at 28 percent in 2010. It more than doubled to 59 percent in 2014 and reached 73 percent for the 2015 season. How was it done? The metric depends on technology - the use of road weather information sensors and real time collection of data.
The performance improvements, Ness said, came by empowering local crews to find the best ways to organize their workload. Since all units can track their numbers as well as the results of other teams, healthy competition also played a part. The system has won admirers across the country and internationally. Ness proudly notes that the Colorado Department of Transportation, one of many that have studied and emulated the program, calls it the "Idaho System."
Another example of employee initiative came from ITD's aeronautics division. Idaho depends heavily on aeronautics - flying is the only way to get to some parts of the state. Details about the many airports and landing strips fill a large publication known as the ITD Facilities Directory. Thanks to one enterprising employee, you can now look up all the information on a handheld device. The ITD Facilities Directory is now available as an app on iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.
In terms of construction projects, the ITD has improved from 60 percent on time delivery to 100 percent on time. The Department has also accelerated the planning process in order to have a year's worth of projects ready in reserve if additional funding becomes available, which is likely.
Increases in Transportation Funding
Showing results has earned the Department good support from legislators across the political spectrum. With ITD's proven effectiveness, advocates for increased transportation funding got traction with their argument that "delaying funding is like passing debt on to our grandchildren."
The legislature approved almost $95 million in form of a 7-cent increase in gas tax and increases in registration fees ($21 for passenger vehicles, $25 for commercial vehicles). These new monies are to be split 60/40 between ITD and local jurisdictions.
The legislation also created a two-year Strategic Initiatives Program for ITD funded from a potential surplus eliminator of the General Fund, which is dependent on growth. When the general fund grows more than four percent, half of the surplus above that amount will go to strategic projects, such as improving safety and removing bottlenecks. Although it is uncertain how much revenue the program will generate, estimates are in the range of $40 million or higher.
The legislature will review the program in two years. That "sunset" provision is a challenge, Ness said, but on the positive side "brings people back to the table to discuss the issues."
State lawmakers also agreed to ITD's proposal to finance some projects through the federal GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles) bonding program. Idaho will raise $900 million through the program to fund 57 projects "addressing some real needs" in the state.
Looking to the Future
Among the major projects coming up is a $20 million project, which begins in December, to replace the Broadway Avenue Bridge over the Boise River and improving the roadway between University Drive and Front Street. The bridge, built in 1956, is next to the Boise State University football stadium.
Another upcoming project expands a 6.5-mile section of U.S. 95 (Thorncreek Road to Moscow) replacing the existing two-lane roadway with a new four-lane divided highway. The project is expected to improve safety and highway capacity. The $45 million upgrade to one of Idaho's most important highways is set to begin in spring of 2017.
Ness prizes the good working relationship ITD has with the construction industry, and notes that, after some initial anxiety, the industry has been very supportive of the changes at ITD. For one thing, Ness said, "We instituted faster payments, because we understand the importance of keeping cash flowing." Ness credits the leadership of Associated General Contractors with helping to get support from the state legislature.
So where does Ness see the Idaho Transportation Department in the future?
"Our vision is to be the best department of transportation in the country."