By Thom Little, Ph.D., SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

Last summer, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation to design a comprehensive study of the 50 state legislatures. With representatives from the National Conference of State Legislatures, we’ve assembled an accomplished team to explore how to assess how these venerable institutions could be better prepared for  the daunting challenges they are facing in the 21st Century. It is quite clear that state legislatures are struggling, along with all of us, to invent a new normal after more than two years of traumatic disruption. The inequities and upheaval felt by people and communities in every state, and the resulting challenges before state legislatures, have been magnified by the pandemic. We believe that addressing gaps in education, wealth, and opportunity, extreme partisanship or any of the other interrelated and volatile challenges before us requires transformational change in the nature of legislative work. 

For the past eight months, under the able guidance of the project’s director, Mitzi Johnson1, a diverse and bi-partisan group of scholars, former legislators, and non-partisan legislative staff have worked in small groups  to discuss what this comprehensive study would look like. We focused on the three broad functions identified by the late Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute: lawmaking, representation, and balancing the executive2.  We then added a fourth category to include items associated less with legislative functions and more with the capacity to meet those functions: Resources, Tools and Technology.

Those four task forces began by asking “What traits define an effective, successful legislature? How could we measure those characteristics?” We explored what the modern legislature is doing right, as well as  the challenges that make it difficult for the legislature to succeed. 

Last week, the entire project team, including members from all four task forces and folks from the NCSL and SLLF, gathered in person to review their preliminary findings and allow members of the various task forces to discuss the efforts of colleagues from the other groups. And what a spirited discussion it was! Imagine a room full of politicians and academics all wanting to share their thoughts and you get an idea of the potential chaos that Mitzi Johnson had to manage- herding cats might have been easier. But she did a great job and everyone left feeling good about the project and having had the opportunity to voice their unique perspectives.

So what’s next?  As we wrap up the design phase of this multi-year project we are collecting measures of legislative success that are readily available and refining what questions to research in later phases of the study. In addition, we are considering the most helpful ways to present our results for the legislative leaders and advocates tasked with protecting these institutions. By the end of the summer, our goal is to have a template for gathering data across the fifty state legislatures. We will then seek additional funding for the research necessary to help leaders and partners across the country protect and strengthen state legislatures, and build the reliance of those institutions to tackle the challenge facing the people they are built to serve.  Stay tuned!

[1] In addition to having served as the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives from 2017-2021, Mitzi holds a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

[2] Beyond the intuition that says “I know one when I see one,” how do you go about measuring the effectiveness of any given legislature?” State Legislatures Magazine (July/August, 1999)