The Power of Innovation: A Conversation with Amelia Powers Gardner

Innovation with Amelia Powers Gardner

Amelia Powers Gardner

Transitioning from Activist to County Official

Amelia started out as an activist and then ran for Utah County Clerk/Auditor. She is still an activist at heart though:

“It’s interesting because I have spent so much time as a political activist and a community activist that being an elected official is an interesting shift for me being on the other side. It’s funny because every now and again I still have that activist mentality and my kids remind me, ‘Mom, you work there now.’ I say, I know. It’s complicated children, it’s complicated.”

Growing Up Valuing Hard Work

Amelia’s mother persevered through numerous difficulties and taught her the importance of hard work:

“I grew up in Provo. My mom was single growing up, she got a divorce when I was just a few months old. And my mother’s also disabled, she is legally blind and she became crippled when I was in first grade. So, it was kind of an interesting life being the youngest of five children with a single, disabled mother who worked full time and put herself through college. We learned that you work, that’s what you do. You work hard and you get through alive.”

Coming Back to Utah After 12 Years

After college, Amelia went to work for Caterpillar. She said, “I was a corporate road warrior, I lived in two countries and four states for 12 years. I had my two oldest boys and then decided that I wanted to settle back here in Utah. I’d lived all over, I’d lived all over the continent and then decided that Utah County was where I wanted to be home.”

Amelia Powers Election Sign

Run for Office: Utah County Clerk/Auditor

Amelia wasn’t planning to run for office, but she ended up in Utah again and saw the need:

“So, I left my corporate career, settled here in Utah County, and started doing business consulting. Helping passionate people learn how to do what they want to do, well. And that’s when I decided to run for office because there was a major issue in this office and I hadn’t given up a high power corporate career to move back to Utah County to raise my family just to have our county government fall apart. So I decided to run for office and see what I could do to help.”

“I literally decided to run the night before the filing deadline because I couldn’t see any decent people running. And I filed two hours before the filing deadline and then I won. I won at convention, 74 percent in the first round with two people that I was running against. So, it went really well. Better than I had expected.”

What Does a County Clerk Do?

“I’m actually the county clerk and the county auditor. Utah County likes to keep taxes low, so they give me two jobs and one paycheck. It’s a huge responsibility. I’m over finance, purchasing, internal audits, archives, marriages license, tax abatement, passports, and elections. So, we have 45 full-time employees and about 15 to 20 part-timers that schedule through, and it’s been busy.”

Making Improvements

“Elections is the thing that most people see and in elections we’ve completely revamped the entire system. Every piece of equipment is new with the exception of our iPads, but we have updated the software on those iPads. We have a new space to process our ballots in. We didn’t have a space before, but now we have a dedicated space to process our ballots. We had about 12 years of experience in the election office before, now we have over 70 years of experience because we’ve recruited some amazing talent in.”

“We’ve streamlined the finance division. It used to take 12 steps for a department head to get a budget transfer, we have that down to five steps. So, things are more efficient in the county. And we process marriage licenses completely online. We perform marriages in the county, which we didn’t before. It’s just been a really, really busy 20 months.”

What Makes Amelia So Brave?

I told Amelia that she is really starting to get a reputation. The reputation that I keep hearing in the community is that she is an innovator. That unlike most elected officials she is willing to try new things that make sense, that she does her homework, that she figures things out, and that she doesn’t leave anything to chance. So, I asked her:

 What is it that causes you to get this reputation of innovation?

Re-Election is Not a Concern

Amelia responded,

“Well, I think part of it is that I’m not afraid of change. Government tends to be afraid of change, particularly elected officials. They want to do it safe because that’s their career, and I’m in a little bit of a different spot.”

“I don’t want a 30 year career in the county government. I don’t want to spend 30 years as the county clerk. I want to get in, I want to make it as efficient and effective as I possibly can so that I can have a good government as a citizen living here, and then I want to leave and go back to running my consulting firm. I want to go back to helping other people succeed at what they’re passionate about. So, I’m passionate about solving problems. And I just want to get in and solve the problem and get out.”

“I took a giant pay cut running for public office. So at the end of my term, if people don’t like what I did and they want to vote me out of office, I’m more than happy to rejoin the private sector and make better money. Make more than twice what I’m making here. And so I have this fearlessness that I’m willing to try new things.”

Not Afraid to Disrupt for Efficiency

“I don’t make things up. I look at risks and I don’t leave things to chance and I follow through, but I’m not afraid to change. I’m not afraid to disrupt the processes and the way things have always been done. As I go through and I do this I’m seeking efficiency. I want to make government more efficient. If it’s more efficient it costs less, and if it costs less than we tax people less, and that’s really a large part of what drives me.

Amelia’s Love of Innovation:

Amelia is passionate about innovation and it was quickly apparent when I asked her to talk about her innovations:

“I’m warning you when you ask me about the innovations, I’m a nerd. Right? Engineering. I’m a nerd, I get really excited and fired up when you ask me about innovations and really exciting projects that most people probably think are boring.”

Marriage License

Marriage License Portal

“One of my favorite things that we’ve done is our marriage license portal. I don’t understand why two consenting adults need to get a permission slip from the government to get married. It doesn’t make sense to me. And I know that when I got married in August of 2018 my then-fiance had to take an extra day off work the day before our wedding so that we could go down to the government office and fill out a piece of paper, show our ID, and get a permission slip so that the next day we could get married in a church. I thought that was really weird. And I knew that he would have much rather spent that day after the wedding on our honeymoon. So, I wanted to take the problem out of this.”

Names Spelled Wrong

“Besides, the process was just rife with opportunity for human error. And I know that human error occurs because my sister, who got her marriage license in our county 20 years ago had her husband’s name spelled wrong on their marriage certificate. And he didn’t spell it wrong when he wrote it down, but the person who was recopying his handwriting couldn’t read his handwriting and they filled it out wrong.”

 “The interesting thing to me is that the process hadn’t changed in 20 years. Our county was still having people handwrite things and then write it down. So, I look at it from the citizen’s standpoint and having to do this is annoying. And then I look at it from the government standpoint and it’s incredibly inefficient, I’m paying someone a full-time wage and a pension and benefits to recopy people’s names and then giving them an opportunity to do it incorrectly.”

Creating an Online Portal

“So, we want a marriage license portal. And the way this works is you take your phone and you fill out all your information. You’re with your significant other and they fill out all of their information. You take a picture of your government-issued ID and you take a selfie so that we can say that this really is you. Your significant other does the same, and then you pay with a credit card, you hit submit, and we email you that marriage license. So, you didn’t have to come into the office, you could do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, all you need is the internet.”

Missing Paperwork from Officiator

“ And then once that’s been done, one of the other things that we found is we would get calls from a bishop or a pastor and he would say, ‘Hey, I married someone last month and I forgot to turn in the paperwork and it says that you have to turn it in within 30 days or it’s a Class B misdemeanor. It’s after 31 days, what am I going to do?’ Well, sometimes they just didn’t turn it in at all and people would find out 20 years later that their marriage was actually never certified because their bishop didn’t turn in the paperwork. That was rare, but it’s happened.”

“So, what I found is that making that easy, even for the person that administers the wedding. So you perform the wedding, the people bring their cell phone and they show you their cell phone, you use your phone to scan the QR  code on their phone, and it brings you as the officiant directly to a portal. You fill in your information, this is the day, this is the time, this is the place, these were the witnesses, submit, and it automatically certifies this. There’s no paperwork. If your name is spelled wrong on your marriage certificate you’re the one who filled it out, which means that’s a you problem, not a me problem. And everything goes more smoothly, more seamlessly.”

Election Innovations

Voting

Signature Verification

“I love what we’ve done with elections. If your signature doesn’t match on your ballot, we used to put in an envelope a paper for you to certify your signature and mail that to you. And now we can actually send you a text message and you can certify over the phone via text message with a portal. Now, if we don’t have your cell phone number we’ll still send you the letter in the mail. But we’re starting to get to the point where we can text you and say, ‘Hey, your signature didn’t match. This is what we need you to do to fix that.’ And we can get that done in real time.”

Why Not Match

“The signatures don’t match for multiple reasons. Sometimes, it’s because you registered to vote 20 years ago and your signature has evolved over time. That’s probably the biggest reason. Another one could be that we’re using the DMV signature and you were signing with your finger on a little pad and it was awkward, and then when you signed your envelope you had a pen on paper and it was easier. So, there’s going to be those reasons.”

Resolution Issues

“Right now, some of the reasons are because the resolution of the images we have aren’t very good, we’re in the process of updating those. So, as we accept new signatures those will update in our system. But it’s just a matter of until I came into office the scanner that they used to scan in signatures was over a decade old and was literally held together with duct tape. So, we’ve gotten a new scanner, it has higher resolution, this actually helps us compare your signature a lot better. But we have to have time to update all of them.”

Changing Voter Affiliation

“For unaffiliated voters if they decided they wanted to affiliate or request a ballot we were able to mail them a postcard and instead of having them fill out a piece of paper and come back to us, they were able to scan a QR code on that postcard and update. So, they would tell us if they wanted a ballot, ‘Hey, I want a Republican ballot. I want you to update my registration to Republican.’ And here’s the thing, the majority, like 70 percent of people that requested a ballot or changed their party affiliation, they did it through ugh the post card that we sent them. They did it using their phone and we were able to expedite that so fast. So, that was another fun one.”

Secure Voting by Cell Phone

“We also allow people that are disabled or caretakers of disabled people or military men and women serving in the armed forces to vote utilizing their phone. Instead of using email they are able to use a secure portal through an app on their phone to mark a ballot and send us that marked ballot. Then we actually print their ballot off at our offices and run that through our scanners. If they sent us an email, which is incredibly unsecure and waives their rights to a secret ballot, then we have to fill out a ballot for them. This new portal allows them to maintain their secrecy and cast the ballot safely that we print off on our end and can scan. That’s a fun one.”

DocuSign

“DocuSign, this one seems so simple. The county was executing a thousand contracts a year. Each one required a minimum of three, usually between four and six, signatures. And they had people literally walking around getting ink signatures from people. We implemented DocuSign and took the time it takes to get a fully executed contract down from two weeks down to about three days.

Future Innovations

Innovate on Typewriter

With all of the recent innovations in the Clerk’s Office, I wanted to know more about the innovations that they are working on.

Budget Portal

“We are in the process of creating a budget portal for the county so that department heads and the commissioners and elected officials like myself, can get a monthly dashboard to see exactly where our budget is. We can see where it’s trending, what areas are coming in over budget, and what areas are coming in under budget. And that gives us the ability in real time to address issues instead of waiting until the end of a cycle. It’s also going to make building a budget more transparent and easier for reporting and more efficient.”


Paperless POs

“We’re in the process of making all of our POs paperless so that we’re not constantly printing off receipts and papers and turning them in so that we can pay invoices. We’re building a paperless system there.

Zoom Weddings

 “We perform Zoom weddings. So, during COVID when people couldn’t be all together we could have everyone together virtually. The husband and wife could be in one area on a Zoom, I could be on my computer on a Zoom, and their entire family could call into the Zoom meeting and we could marry them.”

“They didn’t have to go on airplanes, they didn’t have to quarantine, and grandma didn’t have to miss the wedding ceremony. We were able to marry people through a Zoom portal.”

Tax Abatement

“If you look at tax abatement, these are typically for people that are disabled, elderly, or disabled veterans. We had them filling out the same form year after year. Same as the marriage license, they were doing it by hand.”

“And this year we’re in the process of integrating that into a SalesForce portal and we’re putting all of their information in there so that next year when it comes time for tax abatement we don’t have to get all of their information again. They don’t have to gather all that information again, we only need the updates. We have all the other stuff, it’s going to be in the portal, we just are going to have to do updates for them. So, that’ll serve the public better and it’ll save a lot of man hours on our end.”

Digitizing Financial Data

“Another thing we did is organizing the historic financial statements for the county because they were not all compiled in one place. So, we pulled decades of financial data out of the archives and had it digitized so we now have immediate access. All the departments and the public have immediate access to all of the historic financial data for the county.”

Saving Money With a Sorter

“We were hand sorting and we were hand verifying signatures. Which not only enters human error, and not only does it bring in more questionable results on, are they looking at my name when they are deciding whether or not my signature matches? So, it brings it into question. But on top of that we have so much of a reduction in staff and so much of an increase in efficiency that our sorter will pay for itself within three years. And it’s estimated to be a ten-year machine.”

“That machine will last us ten years, it’ll pay for itself in three. which means we’re going to get seven years of cost savings out of it. And on top of that, in that ten years our population is going to grow significantly. So, not only at this rate that we’re at right now will save us in three years and give us seven years of increase, but that increased amount is going to go up exponentially every year. Because as our population grows, we don’t have to add more staffers.”

“It also means that we process elections faster. So, we’re serving the candidates and the citizens better. They get results faster, they have more security in our process, more transparency in our process, and it’s going to save us money.”

How Accomplish All of This?

My main question after our conversation was, how could she accomplish all of this in only two years? How do she innovate so many things in such a short period of time.

Loves Her Job

“Well first, I’m a nerd at heart and I get really excited about it. And if you’re excited about something you’re more likely to do it. I go to work every day excited to be there. And I have an amazing leadership team and amazing employees, and I get to invest my time and energy into my people and I love that, and they get to improve what they’re doing.”

Finding Out What People Love About Their Jobs

“One of the first things I did when I came into the office, is I called every person into the office and I said, ‘What is your favorite thing about your job, what is one thing that if you could eliminate you would, and what improvements do you suggest we implement?’ And I started with that. I didn’t start with my ideas, I started with their ideas.”

“And if there was something about their job that they hated, I tried to find any possible way that I could get rid of it. Is it a redundant process that we don’t need? Maybe they hate spreadsheets, but someone else loves spreadsheets. Well let’s have the person who loves spreadsheets updating the spreadsheets then and have this other person doing something else.”

“I had accountants that I asked, ‘What is your least favorite part of your job?’ They said ‘Filing.’ And I was like ‘Oh.’ So, we have highly-educated, highly-skilled accountants filing. Maybe we should find somebody that isn’t highly skilled and highly paid and have them do filing. Then you can keep doing the accounting and we can have a more efficient accounting system. So, simple things like that. In fact, a lot of these ideas that I just told you, they came from the staff. And I love working with people and solving problems and then seeing the end result.”

Ranked Choice Voting

I know that Amelia is a supporter of ranked-choice voting so I asked her to tell me a little about her feelings about ranked choice voting:

Becoming a Fan of Ranked Choice Voting

“I too am a fan of ranked-choice voting, and I have you to thank for that. I didn’t know here or there about ranked-choice voting, I wasn’t for or against, I was very apolitical when it came to that until you invited me to learn more about it. And in learning more about ranked-choice voting I realized that it is just, in so many ways it is a superior way to handle so many parts of elections.”

Choices When Don’t Agree With Candidate

“ A big part of that is I myself don’t always necessarily agree with the Republic candidate. I’m a Republican, and oftentimes I like maybe the Constitutional Party candidate more or I like the Libertarian candidate more, but I always felt like even if I liked another candidate more I had to vote for the Republican otherwise maybe the Democrat that I liked less would win. And that disenfranchises you.”

Trump vs. Hilary vs. Darrell Castle

“In the last presidential election for example, I could have voted for Darrell Castle, who was the Constitutional candidate, and then Donald Trump and then Hilary Clinton. Right? I could have put them in order. But in the last election there were a lot of people who said ‘I feel like I have to vote for Donald, otherwise Hilary will win and I don’t want Hilary to win,’ or vice versa. ‘I’m not really a fan of Hilary. I’d rather vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, but I can’t because I can’t let Trump win.’”

“And so, people felt like voting was plugging their nose and eating something they didn’t like the taste of.  And when you do that you really disenfranchise the voter and you make them less likely to vote. I’m a firm believer that the more people that show up in an election the better we’re going to have representation for that. So, it kind of helps with that problem.”

Winning with the Majority: Mia Love

Another issue is that people aren’t winning with a majority. So, a good example was in the 2012 Congressional District 4 race. Mia Love lost that race by about a thousand votes. And in 2012, there were like two-thousand people that voted for the Constitution Party candidate and the American Independent Party Candidate, both of which are very conservative leaning. Had they used ranked-choice voting, she probably would have been higher on that list.”

Spoilers

“So, you get this attitude of well, this person spoiled the race. You don’t have to worry about spoiler candidates in a ranked-choice voting election.”

Spoilers in Utah 2020 Gubernatorial Race Primaries

“Our gubernatorial race that we just had is a good example of that. Spencer Cox was just over 36 percent. You’ve got a lot of people out there right now that are saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a governor that only has 36 percent of his own party liking him or supporting him.’ And so, it’s hard for him to enter office that way.”

Majority in the Caucus

“However, in the Republican Party caucus and convention system they used ranked-choice voting. And in the first round Spencer Cox got less than 50 percent, but after going through all the rounds he got more than 50 percent. And so, then he’s able to say hey, according to the caucus convention system I have more than half the votes. And that matters.”

Your Vote Still Counts

“As a voter, if your number one choice doesn’t win you tend to say ‘Hey, my guy didn’t win. The guy who got that office, he’s not my guy.’ But, if you rank him number two you go, you know what, my first choice didn’t win, but my second choice did. And that changes your attitude as a voter towards who won. It gives you the ability to vote for who you want to vote for and it really makes the candidate have more support. On top of that you also have a nicer election. The candidates aren’t mean to each other because if you’re not getting their first vote, they want your second vote.”

Ranked Choice Voting: Better, Faster, Cheaper

“Ranked choice voting saves money. In municipal elections- it’s so funny, they’re non-partisan right, and you have to have a primary election and then you have a general election, and you have to pay for two elections. But if you ran a ranked-choice voting election then your election is better, faster, and cheaper.”

“And I’ll tell you why. It’s better because your candidates are nicer to each other and they talk more about the issues. And your citizens get to vote for who they want to. It’s faster because you only have to run one election. You run a general election, one and you’re done.”

“Your yards only have signs half the time. And it’s cheaper because you literally pay half as much because you’re running one election and not two. So, I love to say that- One of the reasons I love ranked-choice voting, not just as a voter, but as an election administrator is because ranked-choice voting is better, it’s faster, and it’s cheaper. “

Government Needs Innovation

Amelia ended our conversation with one final plea for more innovation in government:

“I would love people to know that innovation is not just for the private sector. Innovation helps government just as much as it helps the private sector. If you think about a lot of the innovations that we’ve had in the last ten years, I mean if you think back ten years ago we didn’t even have smartphones. And now, ten-year-olds have smartphones. Our lives run on smartphones, right?”

“If you look at a government agency and it hasn’t innovated in the last decade, they’re not saving you taxpayer dollars by not innovating, they’re costing you taxpayer dollars by not innovating. Government doesn’t have to be on the leading edge, they can let the private sector figure out the kinks and the bugs and they can maybe adopt version two of a system instead of version one, or version three instead of version one.”

“But if you’re not innovating in government, you’re costing the taxpayers dollars. Our marriage license portal is a great example. The population of Utah County is growing exponentially. I have the ability to process ten times the number of marriage licenses with the same amount of people who work for me. And I did that with just 70-thousand-dollar innovation. Building that system cost me 70 thousand dollars, I save that a year, minimum.”

Lesson Learned

Lessons Learned from Amelia Powers Gardner:

  1. She is not afraid to change and disrupt. She wants to make government more efficient and save taxpayers money.
  2. She is passionate about solving problems. Interestingly, she is a nerd at heart
  3. She goes to work every day excited to be there
  4. She believes that innovation helps government just as much as the private sector
  5. She says that if a government agency hasn’t innovated, they are not saving the taxpayer money they are costing the taxpayer money