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Kristen Cox

Executive Director, Office of Management and Budget

(M. Bryan Thompson)

(M. Bryan Thompson)

Often the most effective voice in government comes from someone who understands that government is far from perfect. That’s a big part of what drives Kristen Cox to produce the best possible product for taxpayers. “This is not our money, and I feel so strongly we had better watch out for every dollar we collect,” she says. “It’s like if I’m knocking on my neighbors' doors and getting money from them, you bet I would be super-conscientious of how I spend it.”

Cox, who is 47, is a public servant who has never let her physical blindness interfere with her broad and consistent field of managerial vision. Even in a state known for its prudent financial management, Cox and her keep-it-simple approach to government have made a lasting impact. She’s schooled dozens of agency leaders in the Theory of Constraints management method, which is designed to root out bottlenecks in agency operations. The process of figuring out what to measure and how to track it has required a significant culture change. “She’s able to articulate her vision to cabinet members, and that’s incredibly important,” says Jonathan Ball, Utah’s legislative fiscal analyst. “Particularly on the Theory of Constraints, it takes a lot of endurance and a clear vision to engage people and explain something to them in a way that’s easy to understand.”

The list of improvements under the new management regime is impressive. The state crime lab is processing cases 66 percent faster, helping solve more crimes per year; the agriculture department now treats nearly twice as many invasive weeds annually, protecting more crops and infrastructure; the Utah Public Health Laboratory, which tests for infant diseases and contaminated drinking water, revamped its staff schedules to triple the number of tests it runs every week and significantly reduce its backlog.

But what has really set Utah apart from its peers is Cox’s work on the revenue side of the government ledger. Last year, Utah took an extra step and applied scenarios from the Federal Reserve’s stress testing of banks to the state’s own budget. The scenarios were for either a moderate or a severe recession -- think 2001 versus 2008. The stress test predicts how the state’s revenues would react to economic conditions such as a soaring unemployment rate or declining gross domestic product. This has helped policymakers get a sense of how they might make different spending decisions on Medicaid, higher education and social services programs under the different scenarios.

Not only did the stress test tell policymakers that Utah has enough in reserves to weather a moderate downturn, but the process went so well that Cox and her colleagues are developing additional scenarios of their own to test along the spectrum of minor to severe recessions. For instance, what happens if the state’s biomedical industry slows down? Or if oil prices shoot back up? They are also looking at expanding the stress test to study multiyear recessions. While a few other states examine how their reserves might hold up in a downturn, none are doing so as extensively as Utah. Credit rating agencies have applauded Utah for this, noting that in a modest economic recovery, stress testing can be a particularly useful tool.

But to Cox, it’s just another -- rather obvious -- way to manage the taxpayers’ money responsibly. “It’s basically Finance 101 on how a household manages its budget,” she says. “Sometimes in government, we can overcomplicate things.”

-- By Liz Farmer

See the rest of the 2016 Public Officials of the Year.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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