Director Brian Ness joined the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) in 2009, traveling over 2,000 miles across the country from Michigan where he worked for 30 years at the Michigan Department of Transportation. He was familiar with Idaho, but did not know the department well prior to committing to the role as the new director. Over the next 12 years, director Ness transformed the ITD into a credible, trusted and transparent agency that moved at the speed of business. Now, after more than 44 years as an engineer in the transportation industry, Ness is ready to retire to spend more time with his wife and other family members, including his grandchildren. Ness said he hopes to continue his involvement in transportation and affiliated organizations in his retirement.
What was it like coming into the ITD?
When I came here, I was surprised at the agency’s reputation. We were under a governor’s audit; we were under two legislative audits. There was a group of businessmen that said our department was inefficient and ineffective. The media was taking their shots at ITD. My first inclination was, “OK, I need to fix the department,” which means fixing people, but I thought, “No, before I make any major changes, I want to travel around the state and meet with every employee at ITD.” And I did that. It took me nine months. What I found was, we had employees who were dedicated; they were hard working. And they really took ownership and pride in what they did, and I thought, “Well, we really do not need to fix our employees. So why do we have the reputation that we have?” The problem was not that our employees were not owning their jobs. They took great pride in what they did. But they were not talking to the other people who they impacted in the department. They were not talking to our partners, and most importantly they were not talking to those who use the roadways. We did not have a reputation for listening to the public — the users of the transportation system. Once I realized this, I decided we needed to create a culture that is focused on listening to our customers. This started with our mission statement: “Your safety. Your mobility. Your economic opportunity.” That word “your” is speaking to our customers, the users of the system.
One of my next priorities was to implement a new strategic plan that got us all going in the same direction, focusing on our customers. We wanted it to be easy to comprehend, and for all our employees to be able to find themselves within it. Once we were all on the same page, we started to focus on our culture. One of the things that was slowing us down was bureaucratic layers. These layers were preventing people from doing their jobs and creating needless processes for employees to follow. We had to quit saying “you’re successful if you follow the process.” Instead, we wanted to look at the results and the outcomes and focus on those. And when I talk about process, an outcome is what you would see driving on the road. So, in the winter, you want a clear road where you feel safe. When I started here, the first time we measured our winter road conditions, they were clear of snow and ice 28% of the time, so, maybe a quarter to a third of the time, you could drive close to the speed limit and feel safe. The rest of the time you would be slowing down for winter weather conditions. Today, we are at 84-85%. That is a significant increase. And it is driven by the employees making better decisions about how they do their job and focusing less on processes and more on outcomes.
What do you still foresee as being some of the challenges for ITD going forward?
I see two major challenges that the department faces. One of them obviously is funding, and the Legislature has done an excellent job of giving us more revenue. But there is still a funding shortfall, particularly with the amount of growth we have in Idaho right now. We are always struggling with, “Where do you invest your money?” You invest for the amount of growth that you have. That means expanding the system. This last revenue package the Legislature passed will get us a lot closer. To put it in perspective though, $1.6 billion sounds like a lot of money, and it is and will help us begin a significant number of projects, but when our board looked at the list of projects to approve it was in the $9 billion range.
The other concern I have is hiring. We are finding it is getting harder and harder to attract people, not (just) attract, but to retain people. We also have a workforce that is aging. So that will be a significant challenge for the department going forward.
How do you bring in what you know going on nationally to the local level, and then very specifically to your department and the particular regions around Idaho?
I think it is important to be prepared for additional funds. When we received the $90 million infrastructure grant for I-84 it was almost a domino effect. We were able to move the money to Chinden, for widening, which is badly needed, and then we could use the Chinden money now to start buying right-of-way on Highway 16; so by having the projects ready, we were able to attract those grants; we were able to put that federal money to use because if we did not use it some other state would. In the past we used to have a five-year plan. What we decided to do was create a seven-year plan and a very aggressive push of two years’ worth of projects on the shelf. That way we are much more prepared for whatever is to come.
What are the business principles you have introduced at ITD?
When I began my career in government, around 1980, there was a lot of discussion about how “government should run like a business.” And plenty of good people tried to do that, but for some reason it was never carried across the finish line. I started looking at it and said, “Why would that be?”
One of the reasons government agencies cannot run like a business is our money is appropriated annually. We are allocated a designated amount of money that is our budget for the year. And after that ends, the money lapses or goes away. And this is a huge difference compared to the private sector, where you are focusing on driving profits and minimizing losses.
The second reason is in the private sector, you are reporting to shareholders and stockholders, which creates a different dynamic. In government, we are accountable to the public — they are our biggest concern.
The real difference I saw, however, is if I am running a private business, I can narrowly target my audience, and then serve and invest in that group specifically because I know they are my target customer. In a government agency, we are responsible for messaging and targeting to all road users — which ends up being just about everyone. It is not as simple to target our audience.
Even with all these things in mind, I felt we should still be able to provide good government using sound business principles. So, we asked questions such as, “How do we invest our dollars?” We started looking at what investments would increase the gross domestic product of Idaho and provide the greatest return on investment. We began focusing on where we could make smaller investments that have a huge impact on moving freight and keeping the economy going.
Another business principle we implemented was decreasing the amount of regulation and red tape. I believe we have reduced our administrative rules by about 45%. For example, we looked at trucking regulations across Idaho, Montana and Washington. If you can imagine going across I-90 with a wide load, you go across Washington, you get to the Idaho line you have to stop. Why do you have to stop? You must change the oversize load sign because the font is different in Idaho than it was in Washington; you have to change the escort vehicles you have because there may be different requirements. So, we worked with the other states around us to standardize some of those regulations so trucks can just keep moving.
How has your involvement on various transportation-related boards informed ITD, and vice versa?
I realized the impact that funding at the federal level had on ITD, and how we could start working through some of the federal requirements that benefit Idaho more. To do this, I became more active in national organizations like WASHTO, the Western Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. It was at WASHTO that we began talking about standardizing regulations. Working with WASHTO, we were able to not only standardize those around Idaho, but we were able to then work with the whole western United States to standardize permits. And so, that benefited Idaho, but also benefited the entire region. And then certainly with my involvement with some of the more national organizations, we were able to attract a $90 million dollar infrastructure grant.
What will be next for the department?
I am leaving the organization in a great position for the future. The next director can take what I have done and continue to build upon it. I would expect the next director will not try to be me. The next director needs to bring in their ideas and their vision for where they want to take the agency, but they do not have to fix a lot of things; they can build on what we started. And I think what is in place now will serve the department well for many years to come.
And I will also add that this was a tough decision to make — walking away from the great employees we have here. They mean the world to me. And if it was not for them, the agency would not be where we are today. It will be hard to not come in, day in and day out, and be able to engage with them.