Utah governor names state's first chief innovation officer

The Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City (Getty Images)

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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last Friday said that Rich Saunders, currently the head of the state Department of Health, will become the state’s first chief innovation officer later this month.

Saunders, who’s been with the health agency for six years, will move into Cox’s executive staff for the new role.

Rich Saunders (State of Utah)

In a press release, Cox, who took office in January, credited Saunders’ work through the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the reasons for the new appointment.

“As we worked closely together, I saw how he counseled, streamlined processes and guided his team through some very rough waters,” Cox said. “As chief innovation officer, he will bring that same creative energy and collaborative approach to all of state government.”

Saunders will be tasked to “aggressively upgrade state government efficiencies, innovations and responsiveness to Utah residents,” the press release read.

Saunders first joined the Utah Department of Health in 2015 as a consultant. He was named its chief deputy director in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was spreading throughout the United States and became its interim executive director last August. At the time, Saunders, a businessman whose private-sector career spanned everything from construction to hawking goods on the QVC home-shopping channel, acknowledged he had no background in medicine or public health, a fact that raised worries from some members of the state legislature.

“I don’t blame anyone for being concerned,” Saunders told the Salt Lake Tribune last year. “But I would assure the people of Utah that they do not need to be concerned. We have expertise and more in the areas that need it.”

Upon becoming the Utah Department of Health’s interim chief, Saunders became a leader of the state’s interagency command. He was confirmed to the post on a permanent basis in February.

Cox, whose family owns a telecommunications business, has staked out a reputation as a tech-minded governor. In March, he appointed Alan Fuller, a former Oracle executive, as the state’s chief information officer, following the retirement of Mike Hussey.

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Chief Innovation Officer, Rich Saunders, Spencer Cox, Utah
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