by Karl Kurtz
American legislatures don't devote enough time or attention to legislative oversight. That's a nearly universal complaint about both Congress and state legislatures. Legislative surveillance and control of the executive branch is hard work, not very rewarding and not something that legislators can easily take credit for, say the critics by way of explanation for the neglect of this function.
But that's a one-dimensional view of legislative oversight, according to University of California Berkeley Professor Bruce Cain in testimony before California Assembly and Senate select committees on improving state government last week. Bruce was drawing on a distinction between police patrol oversight and fire alarm oversight, terms coined in the 1980s by political scientists Matthew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz.
Police patrol oversight, like its namesake, is the routine work of "patrolling" the executive branch looking for problems in program implementation. It is usually centralized in a legislature in an audit or program review committee with a staff agency that evaluates the performance of executive agencies. It relies on formal committee hearings on agency operations and on interim studies and reports on legislative performance. Police patrol oversight is usually initiated by the legislature and tends to be formal and systematic.
Fire alarm oversight of executive programs by legislatures occurs when interest groups complain about how programs are administered, the media expose programmatic waste or abuse, or constituents report problems with government services that reveal flaws in program design or implementation. It is highly decentralized, relies on outside actors to "sound an alarm", and is less than systematic.
Those who complain about legislators' lack of attention to legislative oversight are talking about police patrol oversight, according to McCubbins and Schwartz. But they make the case that legislators devote considerable effort to fire alarm oversight, in part because it provides media attention and credit-taking opportunities, and that it is an equally effective way of correcting problems with government programs. In "Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols versus Fire Alarms" (American Journal of Political Science 2: 165-79) they conclude:
The widespread presumption that Congress has neglected its oversight responsibility is a widespread mistake. Congressional scholars have focused their attention on police patrol oversight. What has appeared to many of them to be neglect of oversight is really a preference—an eminently natural one—for fire-alarm oversight. That a decentralized, incentive-based control mechanism has been found more effective, from its users' point of view, than direct, centralized surveillance should come as no surprise.
I confess that I had never heard these terms before Bruce presented them to the California committee hearing. But just a couple of days later, Gary Vanlandingham, director of Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, brought these ideas up to me as we were preparing for an upcoming workshop for the Algerian National Parliament. Gary says that these distinctions in types of legislative oversight are widely understood among legislative program evaluation staff around the country but that they're not well-known by legislators and non-program evaluation staff.
I find the concepts to be very useful and figure that if Algerian legislators need to know about them, maybe the American legislative community should be aware of fire alarm and police patrol oversight, too.
You can watch Bruce Cain's testimony (on a panel with several others) on The California Channel beginning at about the 2 hr. 7 min. mark.