Trust is a currency in the public sector. Lacking the private sector’s profit model safety net, the ongoing existence of a public sector department is ultimately a matter of whether there’s enough trust accrued to get by.
And that doesn’t just come from the public these departments serve; the elected officials responsible must also invest a certain modicum of trust in order for things to run smoothly.
But Executive Director Carlos Braceras says the Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) trust balance is in the black – to say the least.
“We’re at a point where I’d say we’re definitely the most trusted state agency in the Utah government,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “In fact, I’d be bold enough to say that for a department of transport, we probably have the highest level of trust in the country.”
With so many moving parts and a great deal at stake, transportation departments are particularly beholden to the faith people have in them. Transportation is a foundational element of society; without a well-functioning transportation system, mobility is lost and commerce doesn’t move.
“People don’t notice transportation when it works. And that’s our goal, to facilitate the development and maintenance of a system people don’t even know is there,” Braceras says.
“They can just go where they want, when they want, how they want, and do it safely. Do that, and people trust you. Have trust, and people will provide you with the resources to do your work.”
Braceras, a civil engineering graduate, was born in New Jersey and says he’d initially planned to become a doctor. “Turns out I didn’t like blood and gore,” he says with a laugh.
Instead, Braceras pursued a geology degree and found work in the Mountain West as a wellsite geologist.
“I moved to Utah with some friends for a year of skiing,” he says. “And now I’ve been here 43 years, been married for 38 years and been with UDOT for over 37 years.”
“I’d be bold enough to say that for a department of transport, we probably have the highest level of trust in the country.”
With an applied understanding of life’s perpetual motion, Braceras has a wellspring of passion for his work.
“We’re on stage every single day. I once had dinner with Sweden’s Minister of Transport, and she said, ‘We’re not a department of transport, we’re a travel agency. It’s all about the journey’,” he says.
“I recognize that we’re always on this journey and we must constantly evolve to meet the challenges along the way. You should never believe you’re there.”
And nowhere is the finish line more inscrutable than in Utah. The Beehive State is the fastest-growing in the United States, thanks to its geographical girth. “We have a relatively small population of 3.4 million, but when I moved here 43 years ago, we were under a million,” Braceras says.
Utah’s beautiful mountain ranges and expansive lakes are tourist hotspots, but their large footprints squeeze the locals together. “We’re the seventh most urbanized state in the United States, and that’s hard to get your mind around, because 65 percent of our land is owned by the federal government.”
The challenge of growth is the biggest faced by UDOT. “The rate of change is hard for the public to take,” Braceras says. “People feel like their quality of life is being taken away from them, so it’s our job to help maintain mobility and safety as growth occurs.”
Add to that the impact on the workforce as the baby boomer generation continues to retire, and there’s a lot for Braceras and his team to deal with.
“Our solution has been to transform our agency from a department of roads to a department of transportation,” he says. “We’re a transit division, but of course we’re still going to continue to build, operate and maintain roads as well.”
UDOT has also worked on creating a vibrant, flexible and trusting culture that helps attract new staff and retain its existing people.
“Yes, we’re busy, but if it’s important to you that you’re home for your kids’ soccer game, everyone in the team is going to do what needs to be done so that can happen. It’s never even a question,” Braceras enthuses.
The department under Braceras places great importance on caring and teamwork. “Everyone wants to be respected. We don’t think of our team as employees, we care about them as people,” he explains.
“Everyone wants to be respected. We don’t think of our team as employees, we care about them as people.”
The tools at UDOT’s disposal are innovative and serve very specific purposes. “You can’t allow technology to become the purpose behind what you’re doing,” he says. “It has to serve your purpose. Yes, it’s fundamental, but it’s also just a tool.”
At UDOT, that purpose consists of three strategic goals: zero crashes, injuries and fatalities; the preservation of infrastructure; and optimization of mobility.
“We have to preserve our infrastructure, so we have a very sophisticated asset management system,” he says.
With several thousand miles of highways under its jurisdiction, UDOT has a big job on its hands to maintain pavement, bridges, signs and other elements of the road. Fortunately, it’s not alone.
“Partnerships and relationships are very important,” Braceras says. “Design-wise, 93 percent of that work by dollar value is outsourced to the private sector, and so is 64 percent of construction management. All of our construction activities are outsourced, but we consider them all a part of the Department. It’s the only way we can do work.”
UDOT is small in relation to the people it employs, a fact Braceras readily admits. “We could be the smallest department of transport in the United States by people, at just a little over 1,700 staff,” he says. “But we have almost 20,000 partners working with us.”
A network of external stakeholders and partners, including Ames Construction, Ralph L. Wadsworth Construction, and especially the Associated General Contractors of Utah, which represents over 630 member firms from the commercial construction industry, work with UDOT to ensure the state’s routes and roadways are in the best condition possible.
“The goal there is to have the lowest cost of ownership,” Braceras says. “If we let it fail, it’s going to cost the public more money to restore, so we manage those assets through multiple strategies.”
Mobility is another key factor of UDOT’s work. “Our traffic operation center is a statewide operation where we manage whether or not we need to change traffic signals, divert traffic to other routes, or whatever’s required to optimize that mobility,” he says.
“We’ve adopted software as a solution to handle things. It allows us to take advantage of changes in technology much faster.”
The more work that is done, the better UDOT becomes – and the more trust it accrues. “It takes a long time to build trust, and you can lose it very quickly by doing the wrong things,” he says.
“We need trust with our contractors so we don’t have to be out there watching them work. We have to trust that they’re going to do it right because they care about doing it right, and they have to trust we’ll be fair to them when it comes down to it.”
The world of transportation, he adds, is reliant upon trusting relationships.
“Everything we do is about relationships,” he says.
“The goal there is to have the lowest cost of ownership. If we let it fail, it’s going to cost the public more money to restore, so we manage those assets through multiple strategies."
“When everyone works together to agree what’s best for the public, which often happens at UDOT, you know you’ve got something special.”
Ultimately, Braceras believes UDOT is a place where people feel they have a purpose and can make a difference through their work.
“When people ask what I do, I say ‘I make your life better. I save lives’,” he explains.
“Ultimately, that’s what we do, and without that sense of purpose, that you’re helping people, life can be pretty hollow.”