Who are Utah’s top policy wonks? Here’s a list

I kind of like policy wonks. These are the cerebral people who usually work behind the scenes, exploring and explaining public policy problems, coming up with research, reports and solutions, and trying to make the world a better place.

I make a distinction between “pure” policy wonks and the elected officials who are often their bosses. Certainly, many politicians are also policy wonks, but their perspectives are influenced by partisan interests and the need to get re-elected, raise money, increase their name ID, etc. Their view of public policy is not always objective.
Certainly, all policy wonks face external pressures. It’s impossible to get completely away from politics. But many policy practitioners are somewhat insulated and can mostly focus on what makes good public policy.

Some policy wonks are also politically ambitious, and they end up running for office. But many of the best wonks are happy to stay in the policy shop, at least a little distance from the rough and tumble of partisan politics.

Policy wonks are all over the place, inhabiting agencies and offices in all three branches of government, in numerous business and non-profit organizations and associations, and in public policy think tanks.

So I’m going to name some of my favorite policy wonks, acknowledging that I will leave out many terrific people. If you perceive an egregious omission, please send me the name and position and I’ll include it in a future list.

Natalie Gochnour, who directs the Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, is probably Utah’s best-known policy wonk. She is in high demand as a speaker, makes more presentations than she can keep track of, and leads a large and excellent staff of additional dedicated policy wonks. Gochnour has exhibited some political ambition in the past, but has been content to focus on public policy, rather than politics.

Up there with Gochnour are other wonky leaders of think tanks, including Peter Reichard and Shawn Tiegen at Utah Foundation; Ari Bruening of Envision Utah; Matt Sandgren of the Hatch Foundation; Rick Larsen from the Sutherland Institute, and their staffs of policy analysts.

Other excellent policy leaders are Andrew Gruber and Ted Knowlton from Wasatch Front Regional Council; Theresa Foxley from Economic Development Corporation of Utah; Miles Hansen from World Trade Center Utah; Cameron Diehl from Utah League of Cities and Towns; and Brandy Grace and Lincoln Shurtz at Utah Association of Counties.

Numerous state legislators are policy wonks at heart, and the Legislature has a full staff of wonks, including Abby Osborne, House chief of staff, along with dozens of policy and fiscal analysts who write legislation, staff committees, and advise on state agency budgets. A number of lobbyists would label themselves policy wonks, although their priorities are to serve their clients, which means getting bills passed or killed.

The governor’s office also has an excellent staff of policy wonks, along with specialists in the various state agencies. And there are many policy wonks in academia who enjoy the luxury of producing pure research without the constraints of practical application.

Within the news media are reporters and editors with avid interest and some expertise in public policy. Their role, in many cases, is that of watchdog, and their priority is to find and communicate stories of interest to the general public. They often seek to explain how public policy impacts average citizens.

There are also some terrific policy wonks in the private sector, such as Jacey Skinner at the Salt Lake Chamber, and Michael Parker at Ivory Homes.

A wide range of approaches, priorities and perspectives exist in the public policy community. But participants are all part of a rather remarkable policy wonk ecosystem that feeds elected and appointed officials information and data. It all manages to come together in such a way that good public policy can be created and elected officials can effectively govern.