by Heather Pluard
“He only eats out once a week; sample day at the supermarket. His car not only stops on a dime; it picks it up, too. He’s the most frugal man in the world.” Meet Utah State Auditor John Dougall! He’s a politician who lives up to his campaign ads, practicing what he preaches and embracing his self-described “quirkiness.” Widely known in Utah as Frugal Dougall, he also has a history of shaking up state government and holding it accountable.
“People assumed I would be very liberal since I moved to Utah from the San Francisco Bay area, but I saw everything that didn’t work on the liberal agenda there,” Auditor Dougall says. “When I won my seat in the Utah House of Representatives in 2003, my first bill was to create a transportation planning task force and bring road deals out of the back rooms, forcing the Department of Transportation to be a lot more transparent. I also tackled major tax reform in 2007, lowering it from a tiered system to a single rate of 5%. People don’t pay taxes because they want to. They pay because they have to, and it’s on us to use them in the best manner possible.”
The oldest of 11 siblings, Auditor Dougall has always had to work for what he wanted. Growing up in the Portland area, he used to pick raspberries in his backyard, bag them up, and pull them on a wagon to sell to neighbors to earn spending money. He also had a paper route, worked in a nursery, and started bookkeeping by the time he was in high school.
“My dad was known as Frugal Dougall, too, so I guess that’s who I get it from,” Auditor Dougall laughs. “The only thing I dislike more than government waste is government paternalism. It’s too easy for politicians to tell people what they can’t do rather than show them how to do it. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
Take the Utah Food Stamp Challenge, for example. In 2011, Auditor Dougall accepted the challenge to try and live off $3.50 a day, the average monthly food stamp benefit. “It wasn’t easy, but I did it,” he says. “I ate three meals a day living off of fresh foods. I documented my menus and recipes, analyzed my cost and caloric intake, and published everything online to show people what I did to make it work. Many of my government counterparts cheated during the challenge by having friends buy them lunch, attending events with free dinners, or going to the food bank. What they lacked was a good plan.”
All good plans start with great data, and that’s another area where Auditor Dougall excels. Using his MBA from Brigham Young University and years of experience in the tech industry, he can organize systems, gather large amounts of data, and formulate actionable reports to help people make informed decisions. Last February, he launched Project KIDS, a key integrated data system that shows how tax dollars are used in every public school in Utah.
“Too often in public education, your zip code is your destiny,” Auditor Dougall says. “I wanted to empower the public and give board members actionable data to make better decisions that benefit all students. When you know where money is going, stakeholders can ask and get answers to how it’s being spent. Then they can drive dollars to improve performance. Money shouldn’t flow by formula, where you think it’s getting somewhere, but it doesn’t always do that.”
Auditor Dougall and his team spent three years developing Project KIDS. The system includes data from 2014-2019, allowing people to drill down to see which students have which teachers in which classes and how much they get paid. It calculates expenses from the bottom up and tracks results like standardized test scores, AP scores, and student GPAs. It also analyzes course enrollment and demographic data. It’s available to the public at auditor.utah.gov/kids/.
“Most superintendents don’t know what it costs to run a school,” Auditor Dougall says. “Some don’t know if they’re spending more on football or math. Project KIDS gives administrators the data they need to drive their district’s objectives and educate students better. It can replace old formulas based solely on good intentions, putting an end to zip code destinies in education.”
Not one to shy away from a chance to solve a puzzle, Auditor Dougall conducted a similar performance audit on Utah’s health system. “I was inspired after reading about a local hospital CEO who asked how much a specific procedure cost and no one could tell her,” he says. “I wanted to bring transparency to health care costs, reform the system, and empower patients to shop based on value. We found that a urine analysis costs $4 at one lab and $40 at another. But no one can explain the ten-fold increase.”
By visiting healthcost.utah.gov, consumers can now drill down and shop for health care like they would a hotel. The site bundles 100 of the most common procedures, listing Utah facilities from the cheapest to the most expensive charges. It also provides a proximity map with zip code filters. The plan is to marry the data with quality measures in the future.
“I love leveraging silos of data in a non-partisan way to improve the lives of individuals in my state and help them understand how government works,” says Auditor Dougall. “A flashlight is my greatest tool to ensure our government runs legally, efficiently, and effectively.”
Last November, Utahns showed their appreciation for a job well done. Auditor Dougall became the first candidate in the state’s history to win over a million votes. “I like to think that by bringing a sense of humor to a serious position, I’m able to make government more relatable to everyone. And when I’m tackling a task someone says can’t be done, I stay motivated by remembering George Bernard’s quote, “A reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
It helps, of course, if he’s also frugal.
Heather Pluard is a contributing writer for Smart Women Smart Money Magazine. For questions or comments email firstname.lastname@example.org.