An auditor with an eagle eye

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:32 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — First, there’s the name. It’s almost too perfect for the job. John Dougall. Rhymes with frugal.

Who else would you want to audit the state’s books?

Voters handily swept Dougall into office in the 2012 elections, favoring him in the June Republican primary by 54 percent to 46 percent despite the fact he was running against incumbent Auston Johnson, an experienced, respected CPA who had been in office for 17 years. In the November general election, Dougall outpolled two challengers, winning with 65 percent of the vote.

Thus was the state auditor’s office turned over to a person who ran as “The Most Frugal Man in the World,” his campaign ads boasting such attributes as “He bought a turtle for a family pet because it eats less” and “He always rounds numbers down.”

Beyond frugality, Dougall’s campaign called for sweeping changes in the way the auditor’s office does business, demanding a departure from what was painted as a passive, backstage approach to a more active, engaged, in-front-of-the-curtain type role.

No one who knows John Dougall was surprised at either his colorful campaign or his crusade for change. At 47, his life is full of both. He is the oldest of 11 children belonging to John and Marilyn Dougall. His dad, a CPA, was the original Frugal Dougall. “With 11 kids, he had to be,” says John. “We all did.”

Born in Southern California and raised in Portland, Ore., John had a paper route when he was 8 and has held some kind of employment ever since. He graduated from BYU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and followed that with an MBA degree, also from BYU; along the way he went to work for various technology companies that were sprouting everywhere in the early 1990s and vying for his services.

“I had a choice between East Coast and West Coast,” says Dougall. “East Coast was dress shirts and ties, and West Coast T-shirts, shorts and jeans. I chose West Coast.”

He eventually returned to Utah to work for 3Com and later wound up winning the 2002 election for the state House of Representatives from his district in the Highland/Alpine/American Fork area. He won five two-year terms in the House before seeking the auditor’s post in 2012.

Despite his roots, he is a lifelong Republican. “I was in high school when Ronald Reagan got elected,” he says without further explanation. “I am from Oregon, and when folks see my political leanings and they know I lived in Southern California, Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area, they say, ‘What happened?’ I say, ‘I saw everything that didn’t work.’ ”

The Deseret News sat down with Utah’s state auditor, whose year anniversary is approaching on Jan. 7, to talk about his first year on the job.

DN: Thanks for meeting with us. How would you describe the way you see the auditor’s role in state government?

JD: I campaigned on the premise that rather than just being the accountant-in-chief, the auditor should be a constitutional watchdog, making sure tax money is being spent legally, efficiently and effectively. I didn’t think status quo was acceptable. I had a different vision for the office. It’s my job to help drive change and improvement. While I was in the House we talked about what the governor thought about policies, what the AG thought about policies, sometimes what the treasurer thought about policies, but nobody was talking about what the auditor thought about policies. From my perspective that’s not how it should be. The recommendations of the auditor’s office should be part of the conversation.

DN: How do you communicate that vision to your staff and to the public?

JD: One of the first things I did when I came into office is rework the mission statement, which is as follows: “We provide Utah taxpayers and elected officials with an independent assessment of financial operation, statutory compliance and performance management for state and local governments.” So you look at that, "independent assessment," what does that mean? We’re not in the chain of command with management, we’re outside of that, so when we come in and audit we issue our opinion on what we see and we make our recommendations. Then it’s up to management to act on that. They’re free to decide what they want to do, but we have independence that agencies don’t have.

DN: So in your view it’s important for the auditor to be highly visible?

JD: Even before I was in office I started going to local government public hearings on taxation and things like that. I wanted people to understand that the auditor and our team in the auditor’s office would be more visible in our oversight role. It’s our role to help empower the public to provide better oversight of government. So just being out there visible and going to meetings helps engage the public in their oversight role.

DN: Do you encourage the auditors on your staff to get outside the office as much as possible?

JD: One of the things I tell folks is that you have to get out in the field to see what’s going on. There’s only so much you can do from a desk. As an example, we were doing an audit of the Department of Alcoholic Beverages Control and one of the things we wanted to do is check the trailers of their common carrier trucking company that delivers their product out to the field to make sure the temperatures were correct per the contract on the trailers. In the process, we stumbled across the fact that the trailers were unlocked in a parking lot that anybody could access. Which was Whoa! You could have a teenager come in there or anybody who wanted to help themselves to the product. We immediately gave a heads-up to the DABC director and within 24 hours they had new procedures in place to ensure that all the trailers were locked when they left the warehouse and locked when they arrived at the stores. That’s one of those things where you can find something that shouldn’t be going on by being on the scene.

DN: The more scrutiny, then, the better?

JD: Part of the nature of audits, from my perspective, is they help keep honest people honest. The perception is if nobody’s ever going to look then some people are going to start to cut corners and try to get away with things that they shouldn’t. If the perception is somebody’s going to come check at some point then it helps conscientious people be conscientious about what they’re doing.

DN: How much controversy have you created by stirring things up?

JD: Probably the most controversial thing was before I came into office when I asked for everybody’s resignation and then reappointed the staff I thought could best do the job. I personally interviewed essentially everybody in the office — about 43 people, of which I reappointed about three-fourths of them. That set a tone right out of the chute that this was not business as usual. Some were surprised that I reappointed so many members of the team, but the level of talent that stayed is extremely high. These auditors are very talented at government auditing, and it’s been a great year working with them.

DN: That no doubt got the staff’s attention. What’s gotten the most attention from the government agencies that you audit?

JD: Something that was somewhat controversial but I think is good is altering how we bill our customers or clients. The practice had been to only bill for direct labor costs, and I wanted to break it down into a fully burdened cost and to provide more transparency for our clients so they could see how many hours we’re charging, how many dollars, and exactly how we compute that. It helps the client to be better prepared because they can see the extra costs they’re going to bear if they’re not. That’s a business approach, and I’m just trying to bring that business mentality to what we do.

DN: After almost a year, how would you gauge your popularity?

JD: You’ll have to go poll the public and government agencies to find that out. I think I’m popular from the public’s perspective because I’m doing the job they expect. They expect somebody who’s going to look, who’s going to ask the hard questions, who’s going to challenge the status quo and try and make sure that we’re using tax money the best way we can. I want to clarify for the public that the office doesn’t audit their taxes, we audit government agencies. They’re much more relieved when they hear that. It’s the job of the state auditor and of the Office of the State Auditor to look at government for them and let them know what government’s doing so they can do a better job of overseeing government.

DN: Communication is key?

JD: We want to make sure the public understands clearly what we are seeing so they can make better decisions about what to do about our findings and recommendation. One of the things we did a little differently this year is we altered how we announced the federal-funds compliance budget to the public. Rather than give them minutiae that gets them lost we called out a couple of key points in our press release. One we called out was the percentage of federal expenditures by state government relative to total expenditures. That figure was 26 percent. We thought it was important for folks to understand that number so they can debate back and forth whether 26 percent is too big, is it about right, is it too little? And in turn give that input to their policy-makers.

DN: Any surprises after a year?

JD: I’ve been surprised and pleased at the dedication and talent within the office. They’re passionate about being auditors and want to do a good job at what they do. Their dedication to serving as that watchdog for the citizens and taxpayers is inspiring. The work is difficult and demands a high level of skill, care and attention, but they are committed and I really appreciate their dedication. I hope that taxpayers understand that the members of this office are their eyes and ears on government spending and behavior.

DN: Will you run for a second term in 2016?

JD: The answer I always gave in the House is if I feel like I’m adding value then I’ll run again. But at some point it’s somebody else’s turn. This is not a career. This is an effort to improve the oversight, and then it’s somebody else’s opportunity. Continual change and improvement is critical.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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