Before I had a child, I figured that raising one would be easy. After all, I had been a child myself and had seen firsthand what worked and what did not. It initially seemed largely a matter of common sense. For example, I decided that my daughter would never need more toys than could fit in one large toy chest. Whenever a new toy came in, an old toy had to go out. It turned out to not be so simple and she wound up with enough toys to fill many toy chests. This simple solution, like many others, did not consider the complexities of the real world.

Eighteen years later, I’m still not an expert on raising children. I’m also not an expert on land use, water policy or education, but at times it sure seems like there are plenty of clean and simple solutions to these issues. Similarly, they seem mostly a matter of common sense. But, as nicely put by H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

How do Utah legislators come up with solutions to Utahn’s complex problems? They might hear recommendations from a constituent, a colleague, a lobbyist, an activist or a think tank. What we do not want is for our legislators to come up with a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.

The Utah Foundation is a think tank focused upon a nuanced understanding of issues. We have been researching public policy topics for almost 80 years — topics such as land use, water policy and education — and our board of trustees recently voted to determine the top research findings of 2023. We hope that these are useful tools for people confronting complex problems.

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Each of the findings have at least one commonality: the problems associated with them seem to have straightforward solutions. However, digging into each can help policymakers and all Utahns understand their hidden complexities and discuss these quality-of-life issues in more multifaceted, informed, and productive ways. Here is a paraphrasing of the top findings:

  • The “use it or lose it” provision of Utah’s water rights limits the incentive of the water owners to conserve — opposing broader conservation efforts. Recent legislation may reduce this problem.
  • A massive 80% of Utah water is used by the agricultural sector. Given this, an appropriate focus upon the agricultural sector with multifaceted, conservation-based policy is likely to yield greater positive results than a focus upon less significant users of the resource, namely residences and businesses. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic thrust Utah’s educational sector into a new paradigm of digital learning for K-12 students. While the outcomes from various policy responses were mixed, this provides a solid foundation for integrating digital education in traditional educational environments. 
  • As Utah’s population grows, it will become increasingly important to ensure there are open spaces that are accessible to everyone.
  • Complete streets infrastructure can increase active transportation, reduce obesity rates, improve sense of community, improve neighborhood safety, reduce stress and reduce car usage. 

The policies, bills and ordinances that ultimately address these issues will not be simple and will not be neat. If they were simple and neat, we would have fixed the issues already. Long-term problems often require incremental steps taken over the long term to solve them.

Accordingly, the Utah Foundation and other policy researchers’ work will never be done. As problems shift and evolve, we will keep adding new toys to the toy chest, and keep learning how to improve this great state. This research is not just for policymakers but for all of us.

Check out the Utah Foundations’ research at www.utahfoundation.org.

Shawn Teigen is the president of the Utah Foundation.