Don’t rely on Utah’s best run state accolades

Originally published in the Deseret News.

We are fortunate in Utah to have had great governors through the years. I’ve had the pleasure of working directly with three of them — Norm Bangerter, Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker — and advising two of them — Jon Huntsman Jr., and Gary Herbert. I grew up admiring the service of Govs. Cal Rampton and Scott Matheson. To a person, Utah’s governors protect the public trust and serve as remarkable stewards of our state.

This stands in sharp contrast to a major state like Illinois where four of the past seven governors have served prison time. Leadership matters, and Utah is well led.

I worry in recent years, governors, legislators and other elected officials rely too much upon the claim that Utah is the “best-managed” or “best-run” state. They proclaim it in congressional testimony, veto letters, floor debates, political mailers, campaign ads and news stories. It’s used in economic development ads, highlighted in speeches and glorified in public decision making. It’s repeated so frequently we start to believe we really are incredible, like a performer who only hears accolades from his or her traveling posse. We start to think we are better than we are.

Like any claim, there’s a story behind it, and the best-managed rankings have a long history in this state. Here’s what you need to know.

Utah is not the best managed state; it is among the best-managed states. The entities doing the rankings have changed over time, moving from Financial World magazine in the 1990s, to the Pew Center on the States and Governing magazine in the 2000s, to 24/7 Wall Street (a financial news column) in the most recent tabulations. Utah ranked No. 4 in 2012, No. 6 in 2010, landed a three-way tie for No. 1 in 2008 and a two-way tie for No. 1 in 2005. Saying we are the best-managed state is convenient; it’s also out-of-date and misleading.

Every Utah governor in modern history gets to make the claim. The rankings stem from Utah’s long history of fiscal restraint, not from any particular personality on Capitol Hill. Under Gov. Bangerter’s watch, Utah achieved a No. 2 ranking for best-managed state in 1990, a No. 1 ranking in 1991 and a No. 2 ranking again in 1992. Utah was among the best-managed states under Gov. Leavitt’s leadership six times. Rating entities like Utah because we have a constitutional balanced-budget requirement and bond limitation, a line-item veto, an appropriation limitation and a triple A bond rating. A former Utah budget official I spoke with said it well, “Utah is small enough to control what happens and large enough to be sophisticated.”

Best-managed state doesn’t mean best led. Management is critically important, but it’s not leadership. Management is a set of processes that keep complicated systems running smoothly. It’s planning, budgeting, staffing and measuring performance. Thanks to great public employees we excel at these in Utah. Leadership is different. Leadership is about defining what the future should look like and then inspiring and aligning people to make that vision happen. Leadership is about producing useful change.

This is where the “best-managed” claim gets dangerous. If we are not careful it gets confused with leadership, creates complacency and stands in the way of needed improvements. Utah’s education system is the perfect example.

Are we comfortable having one in four Utahns drop out of high school? Are we pleased that our investment in public education as a percentage of our income has fallen from seventh to 29th among states in just 15 years? Of course not.

There are other needed changes — we need to modernize our election process, reform our tax system and assimilate Utah’s rapidly-growing racial/ethnic population, to name just a few.

Gov. Herbert, legislators and local government leaders throughout the state deserve our gratitude, praise and support. They do an extraordinary job. But becoming a better state means we should spend less time talking about our ranking as the “best-managed state” and more time investing in the right future and solving the problems we face today.