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The former head of an influential state budget office has landed more than $350,000 in public funding to launch a new program — and has carved out a full-time position for herself — at the University of Utah.
Kristen Cox, who left the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget in September, stirred controversy as she took a central role in the state’s initial pandemic response. Public health leaders indicated they were frustrated and felt edged out by the level of GOMB’s involvement, according to emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, with Cox writing in one message that while she considered members of the medical establishment part of the solution, “relying on them exclusively has put our country into a serious and avoidable crisis.”
Cox has long sought to apply business principles to government, with a convention-breaking approach that previously put her at loggerheads with state employees and subject-matter experts.
Now, students at the U.’s business school, where she already works as a part-time adjunct instructor, will be exposed to her approach.
She enlisted Senate President Stuart Adams to help her secure money from the state budget to make that vision a reality.
The Layton Republican said he was “happy to try to champion” the funding request from Cox, whom he admires as an innovator and someone who rose to prominence despite significant personal challenges. Cox is blind.
“I was very thrilled to help a person with disabilities who has proved themselves as a national leader and wanted to try to convey those skills to others,” he told The Tribune. “I’ll stand by her and try to help her any way I can.”
A University of Utah spokesman said it wasn’t on the school’s initial list of state funding requests for the lawmaking session, but Adams shepherded Cox’s proposal through the Utah Legislature. The Senate president said he’s not sure when he first learned about Cox’s petition for the state dollars, among the many other requests that reach him.
Cox’s enterprising style and self-promotion have raised questions about whether she used her former state post to raise her own profile and give a boost to any future ventures. But in her quest for public funds, Cox’s relationships inside state government didn’t necessarily give her a leg up, Adams contends.
“Quite honestly, I’m not sure if that’s a positive or a detriment,” he said. “Because in order to get the efficiency she demanded, you always don’t make people happy.”
Cox did not respond to repeated requests to comment.
Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government watchdog group, said Cox’s connections with state leaders clearly put her at an advantage in seeking money, as shown by the fact that she convinced one of the state’s top leaders to take her request forward.
Public confidence in the system can be eroded when former officials work their government contacts, he said.
“Our concern is about the perception of the revolving door in government,” he said. “Where people are in a government position, and then once they leave government, they will make money off of what they were doing, so using that influence.”
Better, faster, cheaper
Pitching Cox’s proposal to a legislative panel in February, Adams argued the payoff to the state would far outweigh the cost. Ideally, some students will land in Utah government, where they would model her tactics for multiplying productivity without multiplying cost, he said.
“I think we all want low taxes. Isn’t that something we can all agree on?” Adams asked members of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “And if we want low taxes, what we really have to have is efficient government.”
In the ensuing weeks, the $350,000 set-aside for Cox’s government operations program would sail through the Legislature as lawmakers crafted and passed a state budget. The funding is designated as ongoing, meaning it’s slated for renewal from year to year unless lawmakers decide to cut it.
The bulk of that amount, or $260,000, will cover salaries for Cox and a second person to staff the program, according to university spokesman Christopher Nelson and a fact sheet shared with state lawmakers. The remaining $90,000 will go toward need-based scholarships that would halve the program cost for about 45 students.
The hope is to train up civil servants and nonprofit workers who know how to make their organizations “better, faster and cheaper,” according to Cox’s written pitch, which asserts that traditional public policy and public administration programs often omit operations and logistics training.
“Government’s performance is dependent upon the expertise of those running it. Yet, government often promotes people based off of their subject matter expertise and tenure,” the pitch states. “While important, this overlooks one of the most critical skill sets needed to effectively and efficiently administer programs and policies — operations.”
The write-up mirrors the talking points Cox used during her time as head of former Gov. Gary Herbert’s management and budget office, when she insisted that state agencies could unlock secret stores of productivity without more cash or staff.
At the public health lab, that meant adding barcodes to COVID-19 test samples to speed up turnaround times. For state driver license officials, it involved introducing a new system for queuing up customers.
Adams notes that Cox has been widely recognized for achieving success by tailoring business philosophies to Utah government. Governing magazine named her their public official of the year in 2016, lauding her for leading a “culture change” across state agencies, while Salt Lake Chamber celebrated her with a Pathfinder Award.
Herbert credited her with helping improve performance across state government by more than 30% (as judged by a metric that Cox’s office created). And Adams presented Cox with a legislative citation earlier this year, showering her with praise for her efforts during the pandemic and “outstanding accomplishments” across her roughly eight years at GOMB.
“If every manager could be as talented as Kris, we could reduce the number of employees like she did while she was here, significantly, we would increase productivity and we could increase employee satisfaction,” he said. “And the taxpayer would save a ton of money. I don’t know how you can get better than that.”
‘At the expense of’
For all these plaudits, Cox’s ideas have created friction within state government. Her detractors fault her for overly cozy relationships with business consultants and using state resources to broadcast her own successes.
Agency reviews undertaken for Gov. Spencer Cox (no relation to Kristen Cox) shortly before his inauguration found that natural resources officials felt GOMB’s performance metrics were a mismatch with the agency’s mission. And several health department employees shared concerns about Cox’s reliance on consultants and that her office stressed efficiency “at the expense of or exclusion of public health measures.”
Her operational excellence model — derived from the Theory of Constraints (TOC) business philosophy — also “caused some frustration” in state departments, particularly since the budget chief evaluated spending requests in light of an agency’s progress through her initiative.
“[M]any perceived the process used by GOMB as top-down and wanting for more agency input into the vision and ‘realistic’ goal setting,” the transition memo found. “It would be beneficial for GOMB to be in tune with employees in the trenches and leaders on the front line in developing suggested goals or process improvements that would yield lasting results.”
Under Cox, the office had also lost “the stature” it enjoyed in past administrations, the memo continued.
“Once a thriving office for budgeting, policy analysis, demographics, economic analysis, and statewide land use planning, GOMB is best known today for its focus on process improvements and efficiencies. Developing comprehensive policies and budget recommendations for the Governor is a distant second.”
These tensions flared during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Cox’s office wrangled with public health officials over how the state should handle the spread of infections. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn at one point wrote that GOMB’s interference in the coronavirus response was “out of control.”
Cox, on the other hand, now boasts on her websites and social media accounts that because of the approach she advocated, the state was able to suppress coronavirus fatality rates without damaging its economy.
Her websites also brand her as the “world expert on how to apply TOC to government,” the type of self-promotion that has caused some to wonder if she was leveraging her GOMB role to enhance her career as a consultant.
While she did not respond to requests for comment, she’s said in the past that she never exploited her state position to boost her consulting endeavors and is simply “sharing what’s possible” by advertising Utah’s success.
Furthermore, Adams said, it’s not surprising that she upset a few people while pushing for transformation across state government.
“I think she was very tough,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would argue about the fact that the whole effort of what she was trying to do was to try to increase government efficiency, even if you didn’t agree with perhaps some of her individual policies.”
An ambitious vision
With the state funding in hand, Cox’s new government operations program will begin at the David Eccles School of Business this fall, said Nelson, the U. spokesperson.
As full-time head of the program, Cox’s yearly salary will be $115,000, he said. She earned about $11,000 annually as an adjunct assistant professor at the business school in 2018 and 2019.
Students taking the courses will not receive credit toward degrees. Because the new professional training courses are not an academic program, Nelson added, the proposal simply needed approval from the business school’s dean, Taylor Randall, and the senior vice president for academic affairs.
Randall was aware of Cox’s push to secure state funding before Adams presented the ask to state lawmakers, Nelson said.
While offering the courses did not require going through the U.’s process for creating a new degree or certificate now, Cox’s multiyear vision is to grow these offerings and eventually establish what she believes would be the nation’s first master of public operations program, her legislative fact sheet indicates.
And the government operations center she’s founding would raise additional funds through private contributions and report its accomplishments to the Legislature each year, according to the fact sheet.
She wants to show governments how to evaluate their efficiency with the formula she created at GOMB, it said, one that measured an agency’s or program’s productivity and quality in relation to its cost. And through the center, she aims to once again assist the state in solving “chronic and significant performance and cost concerns.”