Legislatures of the Future: Implications of Change

Complete Document Contents

  • Legislatures of the Future Task Force
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Executive Summary
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. America in the Year 2025
  • 3. The Harassed Legislature 2025
  • 4. The Circumvented Legislature 2025
  • 5. The Traditional Legislature 2025
  •  6. The Diminished Legislature 2025
  • 7. Conclusions and Implications
  • Appendices
    A. State Legislatures 1960-1999
    B. Driving Forces: Demographics
    C. Driving Forces: Economics
    D. Driving Forces: Technology
    E. Driving Forces: Political
  • Glossary
  • References

Related Document

A Practical Guide to Futures Study

NCSL Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee

A Report of the Task Force on Legislatures of the Future

July 2000

The Legislatures of the Future Task Force was created in 1998 to study how legislatures may change in the future and develop ideas to meet the challenges caused by change.  The task force developed scenarios that describe possible futures that legislators, legislative staff and other observers can use to identify and guide future changes in ways that are most beneficial to state legislatures.

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Executive Summary

In the summer of 1998, the Task Force on Legislatures of the Future began a study of the future of state legislatures.  The focal question for the study was: What actions will be required to keep state legislatures relevant to the democratic process in the year 2025?  The task force charge was to return to the NCSL Executive Committee with observations on what can be done to ensure that the legislative institution will be prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century.

The task force wrote four possible scenarios of the future of the legislature based on three critical uncertainties:  society’s use of direct democracy, confidence in the legislature as a problem-solving institution, and demand for governmentally provided services.  The four scenarios are:

  • The Harassed Legislature, where direct democracy challenges the fabric of the institution;
  • The Circumvented Legislature, where direct democracy initiatives dominate a weak legislature;
  • The Traditional Legislature, where the legislative institution has maintained public confidence and has reduced the perceived need for direct democracy initiatives;
  • The Diminished Legislature, where a loss of interest and confidence in representative government has allowed strong political personalities to assume unchallenged leadership.

All four scenarios suggest the potential for a marked change in the level of public involvement in and support for state legislatures. As political activity is dispersed through strong voter initiatives or a move away from traditional representative democracy, there is always the accompanying possibility of decreased confidence in the legislative process, especially if the alternatives to traditional policy-making are seen as more responsive to citizens’ concerns.

Based on an analysis of the scenarios, the task force arrived at the following general implications of change:

Legislatures Must Take a Positive Approach to Change While Protecting the Core Values of a Representative Democracy

In the face of impending change, legislatures must be prepared to assess carefully the factors that are leading the public to a desire for change and must use the knowledge gained to bring legislatures into closer alignment with the will and needs of the people.

The future strength of the institution depends on how well legislatures of today are able to act in accord with the following nine core values and to transmit the benefits derived to their constituencies.  To remain strong, legislatures should:

  1. Be ethical institutions.
  2. Be committed to representative democracy as opposed to democracy by polls and other forms of direct democracy.
  3. Be responsive and open to the needs of the people.
  4. Be committed to collegiality among their members.
  5. Have a clear sense of themselves as institutions and be active in advocating on their behalf to the public.
  6. Be committed to being independent, coequal branches of government.
  7. Be committed to a deliberative process of making public policy.
  8. Be committed to being high-quality institutions, including attracting high-quality legislators and staff.
  9. Value leadership that promotes the core values of the good legislature.

Legislatures Must Help Improve the Quality of Public Participation in All Forms of the Democratic Process

The implication for the legislature is that it should not fight the trend toward greater direct democracy, but should seize the opportunity to find ways to inform the people’s choices, taking every opportunity to promote the core value of deliberation in the process.

Legislatures Must Help Improve the Quality of Policy Debate on Public Issues, Showcasing the Advantages of the Legislative Arena Where Possible

Technology will make it easier for legislatures to get information out to the public about policy issues.  The task will be to win the public’s attention and to help citizens understand how the institution of the legislature provides a desirable arena for solving complex problems and for bringing together competing interests to arrive at solutions that are sensitive to the interests and needs of a broad range of stakeholders.

Legislatures Must Continually Reassess and Refine Their Public Policy Role

Legislatures should carefully consider the role they may be asked to play when initiative processes lead to conflicting or competing laws or, more importantly, what role they can play to keep such conflicts from arising.

Legislative leadership will be especially important in setting up communication processes and deciding when and how to provide a quick response to public concerns.

Legislatures Must Protect the Balance of Power

The more dynamic the political environment, the more critical the legislature’s role in providing an effective check on the executive and its accompanying bureaucracy.  Under most scenarios, both the legislative and executive branches will face increased pressure as the “information age” reaches maturity and wide-ranging access to information has its ultimate effect.

Legislatures Need a Renewed Commitment to the Institution, Better Education for the Public and the Membership, and Expanded Communication and Technological Capability

Commitment, education and communication are the keys to whether the legislative institution remains as a major conduit for policymaking or whether it declines.  As information overload threatens to consume legislators, even in part-time legislatures, the institution must find ways to compensate, giving legislators at least a fighting chance to be effective policymakers. Legislatures must provide leadership to ensure a broad public understanding of the role and benefits of representative democracy. Legislatures must find ways to communicate to the public that the legislative process is contentious because it encompasses different and competing values, interests and constituencies, all of which are making claims on government or one another. Effective legislative performance in representing and
resolving competing interests in society is the best defense of representative democracy.


The health of state legislatures is crucial to the future of representative democracy.  What will the future hold for state legislatures and what can they do to prepare for it? How will demographic, technological, economic and other changes in society affect the legislative institution in the 21st century?

To answer these questions and to help state legislatures prepare for the future the Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures created the Task Force on Legislatures of the Future.  Over the course of two years the task force conducted a futures study to identify those driving forces that are likely to shape the nature of state legislatures in the 21st century and the environment in which they will operate.

Based on different projections for these driving forces the task force developed four potential scenarios that describe legislatures in the 21st century. The goal of this effort is provide legislators, legislative staff and other observers with visions of the future that they can use to prepare for the implications of future changes.

NCSL hopes that legislatures will use these materials, supplemented with information that describes how the driving forces may affect their specific states, to identify the implications of future changes for their legislatures.  Rather than predict the future, the goal of the task force is to provide legislatures with information to begin considering how future changes may shape the legislative institution in their state.  Legislatures may also want to use the companion report, A Practical Guide to Futures Study, to conduct a futures study for their own state legislature. Legislatures can use these materials to identify the potential results of future changes and develop strategies for promoting those that are positive and avoiding those that are negative.

The following sections of this report identify future changes likely to affect state legislatures, describe four possible scenarios of future legislatures and lay out the implications of these future changes for legislatures.  Chapter 2 describes how the driving forces will shape America in the year 2025. Chapters 3 through 6 each describe a different scenario for future legislatures.  Chapter 7 discusses the implications for state legislatures of these changes. A history of state legislatures from 1960 through 1999 is presented in appendix A, information describing the driving forces is contained in appendices B through E and a listing of references and a glossary of terms appear at the end of the report.

posted December 10, 2009