Symposium | Revitalizing Political Leadership

Oversight: The Key to Restoring Public Confidence

By Jim Townsend

Tagged AccountabilityGovernmentstates

Recent polls reveal not only that public trust in government is near a historic low, but that young people especially may be losing their faith in democracy. The oft-cited drivers of these trends, including gridlock in Congress, frequent political scandals, and polarization, show no signs of abating. Even this century’s catastrophes, from 9/11 to COVID-19, have not generated the seismic political shifts, reforms, and visionary leadership that emerged from the Civil War and Great Depression.

But rather than waiting for a big crisis to change us, perhaps we should look at the institutions we have built since the Great Depression to see if they are up to the challenge of helping us govern as a democracy in the twenty-first century. Maybe by ensuring that our government keeps more of its promises, we can reduce the lure of anti-democratic voices and shore up support for the institutions that safeguard our freedom.

A great place to start would be investing more in legislative oversight at both the congressional and state level. When conducted in an evidence-based, bipartisan fashion, legislative oversight can reduce waste and fraud and improve the quality of government services. Engaging in bipartisan fact-finding can also help lawmakers build relationships across the aisle that foster the comity and capacity for compromise that are essential to the form of government bequeathed to us by the Framers of our Constitution.

The Disconnect Between Policy and Governing

In 1979, newly elected Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the founder and namesake of the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy, expressed deep concern as he surveyed the landscape of American governance. Levin feared the political consequences of well-intentioned government programs that don’t achieve their mission. In a speech soon after his arrival in the Senate, he noted, “People haven’t rejected the goals of our programs, but they have begun to reject the claim that our programs have anything to do with our goals.”

In the decades since, those concerns have become only more pressing. The skepticism that Levin observed has led to a politics of cynicism, and political campaigns feed off that, widening divides and nurturing a growing distrust of government. That’s why Levin believed that oversight of the programs Congress enacts is so essential to a healthy democracy.

My team and I at the Levin Center work with Congress and state legislatures around the country to break this cycle by elevating fact-based oversight and encouraging discourse about how our government is doing its job. Our State Oversight Academy’s work with state legislatures does not focus on the bills they draft and pass, but rather on the oversight—fact-finding work in the form of investigations, hearings, evaluations, and reviews—they perform (or do not perform) to understand public problems and build consensus that can lead to solutions.

Conducting oversight also gives legislators the opportunity to transcend ideological and partisan differences to find solutions rooted in facts. This is especially vital in states because they play an outsize role in caring for the vulnerable, implementing federal programs and stewarding federal dollars, and delivering some of the most impactful services in government.

Even while state legislatures have become partisan battlegrounds when it comes to passing bills, they have also led some of the most meaningful oversight efforts in the country. The following three case studies exemplify this work and show what a force for good oversight can be. They also may help to explain why state and local governments appear to be retaining more of the public’s trust than the federal government.

Case Studies in State Legislative Oversight

1. Reforming Juvenile Justice in Connecticut

Juvenile justice sits at the fraught intersection of public safety, criminal and social justice, education, mental health, and youth development. Many states struggle to build juvenile justice systems that balance these priorities with limited resources, and Connecticut around the turn of the millennium was no different.

In the early 2000s, Connecticut’s rate of youth incarceration was higher than anywhere else in New England. Three-quarters of incarcerated youth were Black or Hispanic. Eighty-five percent had committed nonviolent offenses, and the number of youths sent to court for “status offenses,” such as truancy and curfew violations, was at an all-time high. Thousands as young as 16 were tried as adults every year, and a report in 2003 found that Connecticut incarcerated more youths in adult prisons than 29 other states combined. Add highly visible program failures, lawsuits, and even suicides among youth detainees, and it became increasingly clear that something had to be done.

A series of reforms in the next decade, including raising the age for automatic trial in adult court to 18 and ending detention for status offenses, made a difference. Incarceration and recidivism rates dropped, as did the number of youth inmates in adult prisons—but there was still work to be done.

In 2014, a new law established the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC), composed of state legislators along with officials from the state’s court system, the commissioners of relevant state departments, and advocates for youth and parents, among others. The new committee got to work gathering information, hearing testimony from experts, and building a bipartisan consensus on the facts and recommended actions, which were reflected in JJPOC’s reports.

In the space of a few years, the commission’s efforts influenced reforms in all corners of the state’s juvenile justice work. Schools began reporting on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests; they clarified their relationships with in-school police officers and restricted the use of restraints like handcuffs. Police received training on restorative and trauma-informed practices. The state closed some of its juvenile detention facilities, raised the age for trying young people as adults, and took steps toward reducing discrimination based on criminal history in much of public life.

Guided by JJPOC’s oversight findings, the state took well-informed, fact-based steps to keep young people out of the corrections system and break vicious cycles. The results speak for themselves. By 2018, Connecticut had reduced the number of young people in juvenile detention centers by more than 50 percent and increased the number of youths diverted to alternative community-based programs by more than 25 percent.

This is not to suggest that a consensus on the facts is a public policy silver bullet—or even possible in all circumstances. There will always be competing ideologies, points of view, and policy prescriptions in politics. In this circumstance and many others, though, meaningful change was possible not just because of a shared sense that things could be better, but because of a consensus informed by experts on the problems to be solved.

JJPOC has continued its work in recent years, and the evidence-based reforms it helped develop have made a tremendous impact. Ultimately, the story of juvenile justice reform in Connecticut is a triumphant one—for the thousands of young people who will never be incarcerated; for the policymakers whose work made it possible; and for the people of Connecticut, who have a living model of state government building trust through innovative oversight approaches that get real results.

2. Improving Nursing Home Safety in Louisiana

When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in 2021, 15 nursing home patients died and dozens more were hospitalized after a botched evacuation by their nursing home operator. More than 800 vulnerable adults from seven nursing facilities under the same ownership were evacuated, in line with a plan reviewed by the state’s health department, to a large warehouse in Independence, Louisiana. The former pesticide warehouse had inadequate sanitation and food facilities, and mattresses for evacuees were placed on the floor. The warehouse flooded with up to eight inches of water from the storm, creating conditions that the Associated Press called “squalid.”

Within a week, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) revoked the nursing homes’ licenses and terminated their Medicaid provider agreements, writing that the nursing home operator “failed to execute an evacuation plan that upheld residents’ human dignity.” To legislators, though, the move was not enough. Weeks later, at a meeting of the state’s Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee, members grilled LDH representatives but were unable to get a clear answer on whether the scenario could happen again. The hearing also revealed that, while LDH reviewed summaries of nursing homes’ emergency evacuation plans, it had no statutory authority to reject them and require better plans.

The committee’s fact-finding unearthed a policy gap that did not seem obvious but nevertheless contributed to the scale of the disaster. The legislature’s oversight laid the groundwork and built the consensus needed to fix the problem with legislation. By the first anniversary of Hurricane Ida’s landfall, a bill requiring nursing homes to get approval from LDH on emergency preparedness plans had become law after passing nearly unanimously in the Louisiana House and Senate.

The story of the reforms to emergency planning for Louisiana’s nursing homes shows what government can accomplish when it examines the details of a real, deadly crisis and makes changes to help ensure it can never happen again.

3. Reversing Failed Child Welfare Policy in Nebraska

In 2008, the state of Nebraska began privatizing parts of the child welfare system, issuing requests for proposals (RFPs) and hiring contractors in different regions. In the ensuing years, most of the contractors left the system. Even as the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) made adjustments to the contract arrangements, standards of care for children slipped and the privatization effort became a source of concern. In 2011, the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee published a report recommending that case management responsibilities be returned from private contractors to the state. The state’s dependence on private entities for an essential service, the report explained, “creates a high risk to the entire child welfare system.”

Despite these concerns, privately run case management in Nebraska continued. In 2019, the DHHS issued an RFP for a child welfare case management contract in the Omaha area. The low bidder on the RFP, Saint Francis Community Services of Nebraska, won the contract with a bid nearly 40 percent lower than the existing provider. A 2021 report from the Nebraska Office of Inspector General (OIG) for Child Welfare called the bid “questionably low and potentially inconsistent with state statute regarding caseload ratios.” The report observed that “Concerns about Saint Francis’ performance…surfaced early in the process and have continued to increase over time.” Chief among them were failures to meet contractual and statutory standards in hiring, caseload ratios, and the financial stability of the organization, and to arrange required monthly face-to-face visits with children and families.

In September 2021, caseworkers with Saint Francis publicly protested their large caseloads and difficult working conditions. Several were later fired. The report from the inspector general’s office outlined similar concerns, explaining that contracting out child welfare case management was “jeopardizing the State’s legal and ethical obligations to children in the system,” and noting that the disruptions to care “have real life effects on the children served.”

By October, the unicameral legislature took on the issue, holding hearings on the Saint Francis contract with testimony from DHHS and Saint Francis. Under pressure from lawmakers and constituents, DHHS terminated the contract with Saint Francis in December 2021. Nebraska lawmakers did not stop there, though. They took to heart not only the OIG’s finding that “Saint Francis has failed to meet the key terms of the contract,” but also the second assertion that the whole project “demonstrated unacceptable risk in the privatization of case management.” The following year, Nebraska’s legislature passed—nearly unanimously—legislation to end privatization in child welfare case management. Rather than hew to a preference for privatization and less government, Nebraska’s conservative legislature instead followed the evidence and expanded the public sector’s role in protecting child welfare.

Just as in Connecticut and Louisiana, evidence-based oversight—from legislators and their partners—exposed the facts and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for effective legislation to protect vulnerable people and deliver on the promises of government.

The Promise of Legislative Oversight

Our nation’s state legislative institutions are hardly immune from party conflict, but they are far more than partisan battlefields. Time after time, and often in a bipartisan fashion, state legislatures use oversight to build consensus about pressing problems that leads to effective solutions. These efforts also build relationships among legislators from opposing parties and widely divergent points of view, creating space for needed legislative compromises.

While increased attention and resources should be focused on both congressional and state legislative oversight, the opportunity in our state capitals is especially compelling. This is true because so much of the government work that is visible and relevant to Americans—even federal policy—is implemented at the state and local level. This includes not only public education, public health, utility and insurance industry regulation, licensing, public safety, environmental protection, and transportation, but also many of the federal government’s major responsibilities and recent initiatives—from the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, efforts to address the causes of climate change through the Inflation Reduction Act, and work to expand affordable housing.

These laws and programs rely, often heavily, on the effectiveness of state and local implementation. Oversight is critical, and without greater investment in institutions like auditors and inspectors general, and greater attention to oversight by legislators and the public, we are destined to repeat the frustrating history of promising, well-intentioned policies that fail in implementation. Perhaps nowhere is that history more painfully evident than in Carl Levin’s hometown of Detroit.

As Detroit City Council president in the 1970s, Levin witnessed firsthand how a mismanaged federal housing program designed to provide affordable homeownership to low- and moderate-income individuals resulted in a surge of foreclosures and abandonments that devastated the city. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) loan guarantee program in Detroit inadvertently saddled first-time homebuyers with artificially inflated mortgages. When thousands of buyers walked away from these unaffordable mortgages, HUD took ownership of the homes, allowing them to fall into disrepair and crippling an already weak housing market. Levin’s efforts to get Congress’s attention to the problems failed and led him to his lifelong commitment to legislative oversight and government accountability.

An expanded investment in state legislative oversight can also influence Congress to embrace its own oversight responsibilities. Typically, around one-half of U.S. House and Senate members come from the ranks of state lawmakers, and, like Levin, they can bring to Washington their passion for making government work for all.

Passing laws can create effective programs and positive change, but too often those programs are not carried out as intended or become disconnected from the needs of the people they are supposed to help. As Senator Levin often said, “Good government requires good oversight.” He also knew that, without good government, our democracy itself is unsustainable.

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Jim Townsend is director of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne State University Law School.

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