The Citizens Research Council’s work is guided by the principles of economy, efficiency, accountability, and equity. Coincidentally, these are often ideals that drive individuals to run for public office. This week I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Oversight Committee and offer a number of ideas marrying our research on efficiency and accountability in state government to the legislative structure.
My testimony shared findings from our November report entitled Imagining What Should Be; Robust Legislative Oversight in Michigan.
For as much as politicians seek office to make government more efficient and keep it accountable to the people, Michigan is rated as having a fairly poor level of legislative oversight.
Although it is not as high profile as appropriating funds or enacting bills to serve your constituents, legislative oversight is and should be a critical function of state government. It is an ongoing process to rationalize and, if possible, reduce the size of government. Effective oversight ensures that government runs both efficiently and responsibly, that the agencies and programs are indeed addressing the policy problems they were created to address, and that the executive branch’s implementation of laws is consistent with legislative intent.
The Michigan legislature has a number of tools to help it with oversight. The Office of Auditor General, the legislative council, oral testimony from department personnel and department reports filed to comply with boilerplate language, standing committees crafted around the services provided by state government, and oversight committees all provide valuable information for legislators to act on.
However, it is not uncommon for us to see little legislative attention to reports filed and testimony taken or follow through to see that shortcomings identified through oversight processes are addressed.
Our research identified two issues that hamper legislative oversight in Michigan. First, Michigan has among the strictest term limits among the states, both in the length of terms and the lifetime limit on service. This limits their understanding of legislative intent when laws were enacted and hinder their ability to develop subject-area expertise to ask hard questions of the department personnel.
Additionally, unlike other states, the Michigan legislature has not developed a structure that creates a routine, systemic process for those heading agencies and programs to report their successes and challenges.
Michigan’s model of term limits and the lack of structure for legislative oversight result in little continuity from one legislative term to another. The propensity to engage in oversight activities and approaches incorporated have depended to rely heavily on the legislative leadership. Follow-through may be compromised if actions suggested in one legislative session are not checked on because the suggesting legislators have been termed out of office.
Our report makes a number of recommendations to overcome these issues. Among them, we suggest the creation of a structure that will survive from one legislative session to another. We suggest that the bill drafting process be very intentional to facilitate future oversight, with features such as statements of legislative intent. We suggest that the oversight process provides for bipartisanship, transparency, and public participation. And we suggest that the legislative bodies commit to oversight by employing staff for performance reviews and committing to review and act upon reports of the Auditor General, the legislative council, the fiscal agencies, or the departments complying with boilerplate report requirements.
Perhaps we were preaching to the converted because the presentation was to the Senate oversight committee, but we were encouraged by the dialogue that came after our testimony. It was clear that the committee members are trying to reconcile the principles suggested with their actual experiences reviewing reports and interacting with department personnel.