Mark Schmitt leads the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, which is a grantee of the Foundation’s Madison Initiative. He has a thoughtful essay in the current edition of Democracy, entitled “Democratic Romanticism and its Critics,” that everyone interested in democracy reform should read. Schmitt’s piece does a commendably fair job of summarizing the perspectives of a growing number of democratic skeptics for the readers of a journal whose self-professed mission is “to build a vital and vibrant progressivism for the twenty-first century.”
Schmitt notes that:
[T]his school of skeptics is less interested in an idealized democracy…than in effective governance. They worry less that government is pulled away from the public interest by money and concentrated power than that it can’t address problems in even the messy, transactional, and imperfect way that it once did.
Schmitt’s subtitle is a provocation, suggesting that, if the skeptics are right, then “everything you thought you know about fixing American politics might be wrong.”
In the end Schmitt doesn’t go that far, concluding that the skeptics’ perspective rests unsteadily on a nostalgia for party bosses, political machines, earmarks, and the like that is itself idealized and, in his view, fails to illuminate a practical way forward. To his credit, elsewhere Schmitt has sketched out a democratic reform agenda that seeks to reframe traditional arguments railing against corruption by focusing instead on elevating the value of what he terms political opportunity.
Digesting these two pieces together provides a great vantage point on the evolving debate on political reform. Kudos to Schmitt for his willingness to listen to and take seriously the arguments of those on the other side of the reform debate and to revisit the assumptions of the advocacy community that is closer to home for him. We will need more of this kind of critic and political boundary-crosser for the work that lies ahead.
The American Enterprise Institute hosted a terrific conference earlier this week, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, to unveil a jointly issued report and interactive data base entitled States of Change: Demographics and Democracy. You can find these resources on AEI’s website and CAP’s website.
Over the past year, the first of a planned three-year effort, the States of Change project has looked back across four decades to analyze the demographic trends in age, race, ethnicity, education, family structure, and political participation across the fifty states that have brought our society to where we are today. The project has also looked out through 2060 to project how these trends will evolve in decades to come.
When Ruy Teixeira of CAP and Karlyn Bowman of AEI first approached us with the idea for this joint project in late 2013, we were intrigued. We ended up funding it—and not just because of its substantive importance for our work and that of many others in the field of democracy reform. We also appreciated their aspiration, as representatives of institutions working on opposite sides of the political spectrum, to establish a shared set of facts and projections, then organize a series of wide-ranging discussions, debates, and white papers about the implications of what they found for our politics and policy. Given that so many think tanks presume they have a monopoly on truth, it was refreshing to encounter institutions that felt they could get to better answers by working together. Judging by yesterday’s effort, they’re off to a great start.
I won’t begin to do justice to the richness and depth of the information that you can find in States of Change; let me just encourage you to dig into it yourself. (If you’d like an overview, you might watch Gwen Ifill’s interview with Ruy and Karyln on the PBS NewsHour.)
Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t tip my hat to Ruy Teixeira of CAP and Karlyn Bowman of AEI and the colleagues they have engaged in this effort. Karlyn and Ruy, along with Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution, who joined forces with Ruy to drive the underlying demographic analysis, are adeptly pulling off this collaboration. I can imagine that it hasn’t always been easy, but their partnership has been a real credit to them and their institutions. Indeed, to my mind it is an example of think tanks at their best. It’s been our pleasure to support them thus far and we look forward to seeing what comes next.
The moment of truth came a few weeks back while I was driving around doing errands with my family. While we were stopped at a light, I snuck my phone out of my pocket and started scrolling through my feed, something that had increasingly become my habit when bored. My 11-year-old daughter busted me from the back seat. “Dad, are you texting someone while you are driving?” I quickly reassured her that I was just on Twitter, and anyway the light was red. My spouse was seated next to me in front, and in the midst of this shameless performance, I saw her left eyebrow rise up. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, the light changed, the car behind us honked, and we drove on.
But the moment stayed with me. It reinforced a growing sense that Twitter was distracting me in ways and at times that I shouldn’t allow. I had to admit that the man who had once taken pride in carefully reading and note-taking his way through the 69 volumes of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson for his dissertation research was now often waylaid before he could skim a three-paragraph blog post.
I contemplated going cold turkey. But as a grantmaker, I have found Twitter to be a highly efficient way to follow the activities and perspectives of current and potential grantees and co-funders—not to mention researchers and observers offering unconventional wisdom on the issues we care about. And it is a way for me to share what I am thinking and reading, not a bad thing given the value the Hewlett Foundation places on transparency.
So in the spirit of being helpful to others out there who might be wrestling with similar issues, here is my self-designed six-step recovery program:
1. Delete Twitter from my smartphone. This step has made the biggest difference by far, as it has more or less eliminated the mindless use of Twitter—not to mention the temptations that had me setting a very bad example for my children.
2. Cap the number of accounts I follow.I have gone from following more than 800 feeds at the height of my addiction down to a self-imposed cap of 200 today. If I add a new account, I stop following another. This has me making more intentional choices about whom to follow.
3. Puncture the filter bubble. In pruning my feed, I took care to keep and in some instances to start following people who see things differently than I do, including a few who routinely tick me off. I realize that if at any point I can’t identify such antagonists, then I am in the bubble.
4. Use the “lists” feature to organize my feed. This lets me group who I follow into categories and thus make more intentional choices about what I am seeing in my feed. If I want to read political scientists parsing President Obama’s budget, I don’t need to sort through sports columnists debriefing whether the Seahawks should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch—or vice versa.
5. Read before retweeting. This step slows me down so that I can actually process the rich information in my feed, and it ultimately helps me be more respectful of my tweeps. On a related note, if I say something is a “must read,” it really should be!
6. Make a list of a dozen books I need to read this year – and read one each month. Part of moving away from habits that have gone bad is replacing them with better ones that will help me get back on track. While I don’t want to drop Twitter altogether, I realize I need to renew my capacity for sustained reading and reflection or it will atrophy.
As the saying goes, I am trying to take things one day at a time. Thanks for listening. Would anyone else out there in the Twitterverse like to share their ideas for coping with this challenge?
Congratulations to the hardworking team at the Washington Monthly for an outstanding January/ February issue. Given how this magazine consistently punches above its weight, the Madison Initiative is pleased to be helping underwrite their efforts with a multi-year grant for general support. In this issue I’d recommend you be sure to read Donald Kettl’s “Ten Secret Truths About Government Incompetence,” (including my personal favorite: “half the time, when it looks like it’s the president’s fault, the problems really come from Congress.”) Next you might take in Kevin Kosar’s essay on how Congress is shooting itself in the foot, or really the brain, by chronically under-funding the work of the Congressional Research Service. Don’t overlook John DiIulio’s review of Frank Fukuyama’s masterwork, Political Order and Political Decay, for an extended treatment of “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Government” and what it would take for it to rise again. From there you can go on to understand how climate change is messing with polar bears’ food supply in ways that aren’t good—“to a starving polar bear, a human is just meat”—or learn about “Three Simple Fixes that Could Save Pro Football,” among other diversions.
The biggest must-read piece in the entire issue is actually the Editor’s Note from Paul Glastris: “Why a Second Progressive Era Is Emerging—And How Not to Blow It.” Pointing to the difficulties and dissatisfactions that are increasingly rampant, Glastris detects “a seed of hope” and suggests we are on the verge of an era of positive change—setting the stage for the kind of effective, responsive government that the Madison Initiative’s work is intended to support—that could rival that which occurred at the outset of the 20th Century. But he notes two fundamental differences between then and now:
The first is that progressivism between 1890 and 1921 was bipartisan. Each party had its progressive wing, and each competed with the other in articulating a reform agenda. Today, progressivism is profoundly one-sided. It is the dominant force within the Democratic Party and at best a tiny, rump, besieged minority in the Republican Party….The second great difference is the almost complete lack of attention being paid by modern progressives to public administration and government structure… for the most part today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks.
What I’m saying is this: there are energies being unleashed today that give the country a shot at reforming itself. But reform can’t and won’t happen until the left takes government—its structure and functioning—far more seriously, and until the right develops a stronger pro-government wing that can win over conservative supporters and compete with Democrats, challenging their blind spots while partnering on needed reforms.
Whether you are waiting to welcome a second Progressive Era or not—not all of us are—you have to admit that the man has a point.
Hillary, Jeb, Mitt, Rand—will they or won’t they? When and how will they? Twenty-one months out from the next presidential election, somehow we’re already caught up in the high drama of the campaign. Our democracy has a presidential fixation that rivals that of teenagers addled by the latest pop stars who also go by first names alone.
In some ways this popular obsession is understandable. It is much easier for the media (and thus the citizens consuming it) to focus attention on one person in the Oval Office than on the 535 members of Congress. And with each election and transition it is natural for us to get our hopes up that—at last—a leader will come along to heal our broken politics.
At the Madison Initiative, we’ve gotten plenty of constructive feedback on our Congress-centric view of the world. Our critical friends have told us that we need to make more room in our systems map for the role of presidential leadership in fostering constructive compromise. We are thinking through this input and its implications for our grantmaking. But we don’t envision moving Congress away from the center of our map anytime soon.
For all of the hopes we place in our presidents, in the current era they inevitably disappoint us. Consider that the last two occupants of the White House have come to office pledging to serve, respectively, as “a uniter, not a divider,” and as a leader elevating “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” However, as Richard Skinner has shown, both George Bush and Barack Obama came to exemplify what he has termed the “partisan presidency.”
Whether we like it or not, in an era of intense polarization the mantle of partisan-in-chief is inevitably handed over with the house keys at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, George Edwards has demonstrated that, far from rallying Congress, presidential efforts to publicly champion legislation actually work to deepen the partisan divisions that drive legislative gridlock.
If you think about it, the president—one person, the leader of one party—cannot practically encompass and represent the diverse and divergent viewpoints that drive our nation’s politics. Given how deeply and evenly divided we are, in the wake of a presidential election you can count on roughly half of the voters to see the chief executive as the person they voted against.
If you want representation, it has to come in and through Congress, where—despite the unseemliness of so many aspects of the sausage-making—the full diversity of the country is meant to be represented. And it is, more or less: whatever your political perspective, you can count on at least some members of Congress (if not entire party delegations) speaking up for it.
So even as we brace ourselves for the next two years of presidential pandemonium, we will continue to focus our efforts on supporting the ability of Congress and its members to deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that work for the American people.
It’s been a brutal week for representative democracy in the United States. First, we had the gruesome report (albeit better late than never) from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence describing the widespread program of torture undertaken by the CIA from 2001 to 2006. Presently, we’re watching an ungainly legislative mess—all $1 Trillion and 1,603 pages of the so-called “Cromnibus”—slouching its way through Congress at the eleventh hour. As different as they are, both episodes represent profound institutional failures.
My spirits were buoyed, however, by an email I received yesterday from my daughter Sophia, a senior at Georgetown. She passed on a letter to the community from the university’s President, Jack DeGioia—one that made her feel proud to be affiliated with the institution.
You might recall DeGioia’s resounding defense of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, and civil discourse more broadly, when she was attacked by Rush Limbaugh two years ago for her congressional testimony calling for health insurance plans to cover contraceptives. Needless to say, this was not an easy defense for the president of a Catholic institution (whose health plan did not provide for birth control) to give, but he offered it without flinching. After noting that Limbaugh’s critique could “only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student,” he went on to observe that “In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives.”
In yesterday’s public letter to the Georgetown community, written in the wake of the controversy surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, DeGioia offered some broader “reflections on citizenship and a just society.” As DeGioia put it, in the aftermath of these developments, “the fabric that we think of as America seems to be fraying.”
What can we do about this? I would encourage you to read DeGioia’s letter in its entirety to appreciate his assessment, but let me excerpt two central paragraphs for your consideration here:
Citizenship—participation in a just society—then, is predicated on more than the rule of law, on more than the privileges and rights bestowed through membership in a particular political order. It assumes a commitment to a common shared project—a civic project that entails a sense of belonging to something bigger than any one of us: the idea that together it is possible to build a commonweal. This possibility is predicated on the conviction that we are connected to one another by something deeper than transactions, economic or otherwise. Responsible participation in a just society presumes a deep belief that we can only realize our own promise and potential as individuals through our shared commitment to such a common project.
On other occasions, I have written to you encouraging civility in discourse and in our interactions with one another. The events of these past months reveal that much more is required. We need to engage in the work of rebuilding our commonweal; we need to reexamine our commitments to one another; we need to identify concrete projects through which, together, we can build for the common good—projects that will enable us to rebuild trust in one another and to justify belief in the principles on which our American democracy was founded.
President DeGioia has once again given all of us—not just the members of the Georgetown community—truths to ponder and a standard to live up to, both through his message and the example of his leadership.
Last week marked the public launch of the Madison Initiative’s systems map, version 1.0. This map captures our take on the key variables in our system of representative government, the causal links and loops that connect them, as well as where our grantees are working to improve the system. The map will serve as the framework for our evolving strategy. If you haven’t yet—and why haven’t you?—you can take a guided tour of our map and provide us feedback on it here.
By way of continuing the conversation, I’m sharing responses to three questions I recently put to Jeff Mohr, co-Founder and CEO of Kumu, the online platform we have used to develop and share our systems map. Jeff has been an essential partner for us on this part of our work, and Kumu has proven to be an exceptional tool. I think you’ll appreciate Jeff’s take on the power of systems mapping when it comes to tackling complex problems.
1) What prompted you to start Kumu?
Honestly, Kumu was born out of a frustration with how awful the existing tools were for tackling complex social issues. We tried to map relationships among actors in the Hawaii renewable energy space a few years ago and threw our hands up in frustration. Why do we have an abundance of beautifully designed, elegant tools for sharing pictures, fetching cabs, and keeping in touch with friends, and yet nothing for solving complex issues?
We believe better tools have a big role to play in making greater impact. US foundations deploy more than $47 billion each year and yet many things seem to be getting worse—not better. Sure these challenges are innately difficult, operate on long time frames, and are often unpredictable, but we’ve got to get better at solving them and stop wasting so much money.
Take any of the major issues of today (obesity, education, health care, or even ISIS) and you’re guaranteed to be working with complex systems that cross sectors, geographies, and communities. These issues are rooted in culture and require significant behavioral shifts to overcome, yet we approach them as if money, knowledge, and idealism will magically solve them.
Organizations spend little time mapping out the underlying structure of the systems they are working to change and often duplicate (or worse hinder) efforts by working in silos. Dr. Paul Betalden puts it best, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” We’re not mysteriously getting screwed out of making an impact. These are the results of the systems we’ve designed (intentionally or not) and if we expect to change those results, we need to intimately understand the structure of the systems, actors, and incentives holding the status quo in place. And that’s what we’re trying to help people do with Kumu.
2) Kumu doesn’t seem like your typical Silicon Valley startup. Most of them wouldn’t feel obliged to provide a social manifesto, like you do, the first three tenets of which are “Sh*t’s Broken, We’re all Responsible, All hope is not lost—yet!” Say a bit more about the determination driving your social mission.
Peter Thiel has a great question that he asks of possible investees, “What do you believe that few others do?” At its core, the manifesto is our response to this question. It defines the bias we operate under for building Kumu.
We believe it should be easier to be happy in this life—that it shouldn’t be a battle for anyone to have their basic needs met. Sure there needs to be incentives for people to go off and do grand things and make lots of money, but there also needs to be balance and compassion. Capitalism doesn't mean we're each on our own.
In a way, it’s getting back to the argument of the founding fathers—that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are very basic needs but needs that still aren't met in much of the developing world. What’s worse is they only grow harder to grasp as the world moves faster and gets more complex.
3) Any words of encouragement or advice you’d offer to teams that are doing mapping work for the first time?
Teams spend a lot of time worrying about whether their map is “right.” I can tell you right now, it’s wrong. The right approach is rarely intuitive. It’s usually incredibly messy and full of contradictions. But the good news is it’s not about getting it right. Creating a system map is as much about the process as it is the map. That’s why its important to be smart about who you engage in the process, how early you bring them in, and that you frame it as an ongoing, evolving understanding of the system. As Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab points out, “The only way these solutions work is when they’re developed in partnership with the people actually affected by these problems.” So be inclusive.
Set the expectation that this work will be complex, messy, and slow. Don’t expect that any one map will magically unlock the missing secret. There are no silver bullets when working on complex issues. As Ben Horowitz would tell you, it takes a lot of lead bullets. Mapping is more about how we can increase the odds that our lead bullets actually hit the target. And especially in large, cross-sector challenges, about how we can get everyone to at least aim at the same target and stop shooting each other in the foot.
Focus on discovering and changing the underlying system dynamics. Danny Burns, from the Institute of Development Studies, urges that “sustainable change requires changes in system dynamics.” Even if your intervention appears to have “worked,” without altering the core dynamic that brought about the problem in the first place, you’ve only kicked the can down the road a little further.
Finally, don’t forget to have some fun along the way. Ultimately this work is about building relationships and breaking down barriers, and laughter truly is the shortest distance between two people.
A year ago, as we were beginning to discuss the plans for the Madison Initiative with our Board, Larry Kramer and I wrote in a memo to them that “we must take care not to oversimplify an exceedingly complex and dynamic reality. This is a common mistake…resulting in a great deal of bad conventional wisdom.” We went on to observe that the system of representative democracy whose health we seek to improve “is more accurately described as a system of systems (and subsystems) on a national scale. These interconnect in ways no one fully understands, partly because the systems and subsystems are themselves dynamic. The Foundation’s usual approach, which rests on a model of linear causation (‘if we do X, then Y will happen’), is inapposite to this sort of problem.”
Fair enough. But if we weren’t going to use a conventional logic model or theory of change, what would we do to represent our view of the world and where, why, and how we were funding grantees to change it? If we didn’t feel like we knew enough to make a big bet on a particular intervention, how would we know where to spread the small bets that we were planning instead? What framework would we use to determine whether those smaller bets were paying off so that we could follow up accordingly?
Driven by these questions, and guided by the steady advice of Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, our developmental evaluators at the Center for Evaluation Innovation, last spring the Madison Initiative team embarked on a journey to develop a systems map that would help us understand the dynamic, complex, and decidedly non-linear system of systems in which we are making grants. Several months later, after some gnashing of teeth, plenty of good humor, and great technical support from Jeff Mohr, the CEO of Kumu, the online platform for developing systems maps we are using, we have finally arrived. We have our first draft map.
I say first draft because we know that there is much to be improved in it. We’ve included a number of diverse perspectives in creating this version, but we can do better. That’s where you come in: we need your help. You can take a guided tour and evaluate our map by hitting the link at the bottom of this post. Recognizing that systems maps can be notoriously difficult to navigate, we have created an accompanying narrative that walks the user through the map as it unfolds step by step. We then hope you will come back to us with any questions and feedback about what is missing or misconstrued. You can comment directly through Kumu, on this post, via email or phone – however you want to provide them, we welcome your thoughts.
We are publically sharing this systems map, along with an integrated “overlay” map detailing all of our grants and the network of grantees that are working to improve different parts of the system, so that others can see what we are up to – and help us see it more clearly and do it better. After we get the first wave of input, we will revise this map accordingly, and we will continue to do so periodically as our work unfolds. The map will serve as the framework for both our strategy and our ongoing evaluation of it, so it is imperative that we continue to refine it.
We will follow up next week with a post from Jeff Mohr on the potential for this kind of mapping work to support social change. Then we will hear from Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer about how they will help us use the map to evaluate our work and course correct as we go. In the meantime, you can start reviewing the map at this link. Thank you in advance for your insights!
What do the midterm elections mean for the Madison Initiative? As a private foundation, we are legally bound not to engage in or support any electioneering activities on behalf of (or opposed to) any candidate or party. But the outcome of the election obviously has implications for our goal of creating more space for negotiation and compromise in Congress. Here is my take on the results (and to be clear these are my views and not that of the Foundation or even other members of the Madison Initiative team).
First and foremost, it is getting harder to argue that the GOP is an asymmetrically polarized party after an election in which the Republicans captured seven seats (thus far) from the Democrats to take control of the Senate; increased their House majority to at least 60 seats (their largest majority in four generations); secured 31 governor's offices, including those of Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts; and now have majority control in 69 of the 99 state legislative bodies. That doesn’t look like a political party that’s thumbing its nose at the median voter to me.
Second, it will be interesting to see whether the GOP surge generates any doubts in the minds of those funders, observers, and advocates on the left who have been heretofore convinced that the only way for Congress to work productively again is to sweep progressive majorities into the House and Senate and sustain them over time. To my mind those holding this view are indulging in what David Brooks has aptly described as, “the No. 1 political fantasy in America today, which has inebriated both parties. It is the fantasy that the other party will not exist. It is the fantasy that you are about to win a 1932-style victory that will render your opponents powerless.”
Third, and picking up on Brooks’ theme from the other side: In their moment of triumph, Republicans would do well to remember that this outcome was more or less predictable, in direction if not entirely in scale, given the recurring tides of American politics. 2014 was, after all, the second midterm in an increasingly unpopular presidential administration with the nation confronting vexing problems at home and abroad. Just as George W. Bush had to acknowledge the "thumping" he and his party took in 2006, Barack Obama and his colleagues received one last week—whether they are prepared to admit it or not.
Fourth, I continue to be struck by the way we are sorting ourselves into a red America and a blue America. Consider the map developed by National Journal of party control of House seats in the upcoming Congress. We see a vast expanse of predominantly rural red hinterlands interspersed with blue enclaves on both coasts, post-industrial cities, and the Upper Mississippi Valley.
In sum, the midterms underscored the fact that the country remains deeply and more or less evenly divided. Both parties are in position to win significant portion of the offices in play at the federal and state level in any given election, and—lest we forget—this is not necessarily a bad thing insofar as it supports democratic responsiveness and accountability.
But these same developments underscore an urgent challenge: to figure out how our system of government can work when control of it is both shared and hotly contested by political parties of approximately equal strength that have substantially different visions for the future of our country and are pursuing them from different geographic bases.
We need to redouble efforts to support the ability of legislators in Washington to reach workable compromises—not because they are naturally inclined to, but because they need to if our system of government is going to be able to address the problems we face. I don’t see any other way forward.
Recent high-profile failures by the Secret Service and at the Veterans Health Administration have given plenty of ammunition to late-night comedians and conservative talk-show hosts who delight in riffing on the federal government’s stumbles. Less dramatic, but just as troubling to anyone who cares about effective government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided much more systematic and telling evidence of federal management malpractice in a report to Congress last month: “Managing For Results: Agencies’ Trends in the Use of Performance Information to Make Decisions.”
GAO’s report shows that when it comes to federal agencies using performance information to manage their work more effectively, things are not getting better—in fact if anything they are getting worse. Comparing 2007 and 2013 surveys of 4,400 federal managers across the 24 largest federal agencies regarding the use of performance information in their work, GAO found that “that most agencies showed no statistically significant change in use during this period….only two agencies experienced a statistically significant improvement in the use of performance information. During the same period, four agencies experienced a statistically significant decline in the use of performance information.” (It’s worth noting that one of the regressing agencies was the Department of Veterans Affairs.)
Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? It is tempting to point the finger squarely at the President. After all, he runs the executive branch, and the buck stops there, right? Certainly a big part of it does. And, as the botched healthcare.gov rollout showed, this administration has stumbled on the implementation of even some of its most important priorities.
But Congress is also to blame. GAO, the independent and scrupulously non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, has been observing and reporting shortcomings in how federal agencies use (or fail to use) basic performance information for years. In 1993, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which required that federal agencies for the first time engage in the basic disciplines of goal setting, performance measurement, and reporting. In 2010, Congress passed another law modernizing GPRA. A major thrust of both pieces of legislation was to ensure Congress has better information about executive branch performance to inform its own deliberations.
A wag might suggest that GAO should survey members of Congress and their staffs to ascertain just how much information about agency performance really matters to them when they are authorizing and appropriating funds for the work of these agencies. My strong hypothesis would be that such information is even less relevant in Congress than it is in the executive branch.
How can Congress better focus on and use agency performance information in its own decision-making? The problem here is that this requires qualities that are in increasingly short supply on Capitol Hill: deep policy expertise, inquiring minds, a functional committee system, a determination not just to surface problems but solve them, and—not least—a willingness to work with people with whom one disagrees.
We have been told by several observers and allies that these attributes are those of a bygone Congress, and that productive legislative oversight of the executive branch is dead in a polarized age. But we are not ready to write it off. It’s hard for us to see how we can have effective government, problem-solving in Congress, or representative democracy, for that matter, without it.
The Madison Initiative has thus made a set of grants to explore whether it might be possible to improve congressional oversight and the broader nexus between Congress and the executive branch. We are supporting a revitalization of the Project on Government Oversight’s well-regarded bipartisan Congressional Oversight Training for staff and committees. We are also funding the Partnership for Public Service to assess where and how executive branch dysfunction could be reduced by improving how Congress functions, and what it would take to bring this about. We will keep you posted on what we are learning through the work of these grantees.