Academics and Research

DU’s Strategic Issues Program issues recommendations for holding legislators accountable

In an era of polarized politics, finger-pointing and gridlock, U.S. citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with the performance of their legislatures, both at the federal and state levels — and many people feel powerless to hold these institutions accountable.

It is this troubling trend — declining public trust in a vital, but unaccountable social institution — that led the University of Denver to engage its 2015 Strategic Issues Program (SIP) in exploring legislative accountability and its relationship to regaining public trust. The nonpartisan panel’s conclusions and recommendations are contained in its report, Searching for Legislative Accountability: Rebuilding Trust in the Legislative Process.

“In an age of grave distrust of the fundamental institutions of our democracy — and amidst a crisis of political polarization and gridlock — it is as important as ever to talk openly and honestly about political processes and how we might move beyond the gridlock,” says DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp.

As with other SIP panels that have examined such critical issues as immigration, campaign finance and Colorado’s constitution, the legislative accountability panel spent several months gathering insights from former public officials, political scientists, journalists and various experts. After months of listening to a variety of viewpoints, panel members reviewed the information, added their own insights and formulated recommendations for moving past polarization and gridlock and for rebuilding citizen trust.

“The absence of collective institutional accountability is one of the reasons that legislatures are a prime target of the political dissatisfaction expressed by many citizens,” explains Jim Griesemer, director of the Strategic Issues Program. While the panel recognized the role of elections in holding individual legislators accountable, no such mechanism exists for the legislature as a whole.

In its final report, the panel recommends that legislative bodies adopt, by statute or constitutional amendment, a two-part legislative accountability process focused on identifying key issues facing the nation, state or locality — matters of strategic significance — and reporting on actions taken to address those issues.

This two-step process, Griesemer says, has the ability to offer citizens and voters consistent assessments of overall legislative performance. That, in turn, may strengthen public trust in legislatures and government at all levels.

To view the full report, visit the SIP website.


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