1. To find the facts on challenges facing your state.
You’ve been elected to serve your constituents and your state, but first, you need to understand the facts. Campaigns rely on broad statements – “I’ll cut taxes!” or “I’ll bring manufacturing jobs back!” – but legislating is in the details. If you want to cut taxes, you need to understand why taxes are high. Where are the taxes going? Are there alternatives for financing the services supported by these tax revenues? Are these revenues being wasted or misused? What impact might a revenue reduction have on the state’s fiscal condition? To answer these questions and to best serve in your elected capacity, you need to utilize your oversight powers.
2. To leverage the power of your office and the legislature.
Your constituents gave you power to act on their behalf, and as an elected official, your name (and title) holds sway. Use it! Pick up the phone and start getting answers – people answer the phone when a state legislator is calling. Ask questions, request documents, and start putting the puzzle pieces together. If you serve on a committee with the jurisdiction to address the issue, start an investigation! If not, try to find a colleague on the appropriate committee who is willing to help.
Committees have additional powers for fact-finding. If you suspect a contractor is defrauding an agency, thus raising the cost of government, it will be easier to investigate if you have the resources of a full committee or subcommittee rather than trying to do it on your own.
3. To interact with legislators on the other side of the aisle.
This might not be the most intuitive reason to do oversight, but it could be the most important. No matter what’s on your legislative wish list, you are not going to get much of it accomplished if you can’t work with those holding a viewpoint different from your own.
Establishing a good relationship with members of all parties is an important part of lawmaking, and of oversight. Oversight requires an agreement to one set of facts, and to follow those facts wherever they lead your investigation. If you start an investigation with that one understanding, you may find yourself able to reach consensus more easily when other issues arise. You will need this consensus if the contractor refuses your request to review its books and you want the committee to further the inquiry.
4. To improve government performance: transparency, legislation, governance.
Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a proponent of big government or small, we all agree that government should work better – we just may not agree on how to make that happen. So, where do we start? That’s right – OVERSIGHT! We can’t expect to improve government functions if we don’t first pinpoint the pitfalls.
When you’re attempting to make change, it is important that citizens understand what you are doing, how you plan to do it, and why it should be done. Remember, you would not be in a position to make change if not for them! Be transparent from the very beginning of your oversight investigation and throughout the process – from audit to action! – so the public and your colleagues can see clearly how you identified the problem and then acted to solve it.
If, after your oversight investigation is complete, you’ve found that the problem needs to be addressed through legislation (perhaps you need to strengthen the requirements by which contractors report their accounting of taxpayer dollars), consider allowing time for public comment, or the option to submit written statements on your website. A legislature is the People’s House, and it’s important to hear from the people – it may also increase the public’s trust in you.
5. Because you came to the state legislature with a vision.
You worked hard to get to this place – why? Everyone’s answer is different, but there is probably at least one broad, common theme: you want to help people. Maybe you saw a specific problem affecting your community and decided you wanted to do something about it, or maybe you just knew you had the skills to make a difference where it was needed. Either way, you wanted to move us toward a more perfect union. It’s a big goal, but it’s manageable if you take it one step at a time. Start by identifying your problem, investigating it, and go from there.
And, if you have any questions or run into any trouble throughout your oversight pursuits, the State Oversight Academy is here to help!