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4 Ways to Boost Your Legislature’s Efficiency in 2024

Every legislature is unique, but your state constitution, chamber rules, judicial precedents and legislative history can be your guide.

By Mari Henderson  |  January 18, 2024

Constitutions across the country—and the folks at “Schoolhouse Rock!”—define a legislature’s primary job as enacting laws. Most legislative institutions, however, must balance doing the job with meeting the time constraints of legislative deadlines.

This often leads legislators and staff to wonder how to make the legislative process more efficient. As a new year full of new sessions approaches, it might be helpful to define (or redefine) what legislative efficiency means, emphasize the importance of context, and pinpoint factors to consider on your quest to becoming more efficient.

(Re)Defining Efficiency

Defining an efficient legislature seems simple enough, but who decides what “efficient” means? Consider efficiency and effectiveness—two concepts often conflated. Management consultant and theorist Peter Drucker said, “Effectiveness is doing the right things, while efficiency is doing things right.” Legislatures must be successful in their primary jobs of passing laws while working under time constraints with limited resources. But speeding up the process must be balanced with doing the right things.

In thinking about how to make a legislature work better, “efficiency” is in the eye of the beholder.

Noted legislative scholar Alan Rosenthal’s 1999 book “The Good Legislature” examined three functions to measure legislative effectiveness: balancing power; representing constituencies; and making law. A legislature’s ability to perform those functions, he argued, can help determine how “good” it is. Nearly 25 years ago, Rosenthal also noted that legislatures “will be influenced by forces over which they have little control—technology, in particular.” NCSL has also identified questions lawmakers should ask themselves to be more efficient.

In a nod to Rosenthal, and in the spirit of embracing new technology, we asked ChatGPT to define an efficient legislature. Its answer included the following characteristics: transparency, accountability, timeliness, collaboration, responsiveness, well-organized committees, adequate resources, clear rules and procedures, inclusivity, public engagement, avoiding corruption, flexibility, adequate debate and discussion, regular sessions and consistency.

These are familiar metrics of measuring legislative efficiency. But in thinking about how to make a legislature work better, “efficiency” is in the eye of the beholder. What the minority considers important to the legislative process might stand in opposition to the majority’s idea of efficiency. For example, slowing down or stopping proceedings using a filibuster might be considered an impediment to efficiency—or an opportunity for comprehensive debate.

Legislative staff who help draft legislation might define efficiency as timeliness of responses to requests. In contrast, personal staff might define efficiency in terms of constituent requests and the systems the legislature has in place to handle them.

In Pursuit of Legislative Efficiency

Efficiency is one thing. Perfection is quite another. In a perfect world, the governing process is a well-oiled machine that has all the exact characteristics that a body needs to do the jobs it wants to do. It’s a beautiful world, but it fails to consider all the history and contexts for legislatures in the real world. Efforts to improve efficiency falter when these are not considered.

Legislatures, and those who work within them, tend to look to their colleagues in other chambers and states to see where they might find ways to improve—a time-honored strategy. But when comparing “efficiency measures,” legislatures must recognize that every legislature operates under different rules, norms and political restrictions. It’s easy to conclude, for example, that Legislature X was more efficient than Legislature Y because X passed 900 measures in a session compared with Y’s 300. However, this fails to consider factors such as session length, requirements that every introduced bill receive a hearing, bill introduction limits, rules and precedents around debate and committees, the number of members and so on. So, while it is possible to compare two or even 50 states, it doesn’t necessarily provide any meaningful conclusions or analysis about how they can improve their efficiencies.

Becoming More Efficient

Here are some key factors chambers might consider to improve efficiency:

1. Acknowledge your legislative norms: When considering the adoption of strategies such as a longer session or bill introduction limits, let the state constitution, chamber rules, judicial precedents and legislative history be your guide.

2. Learn (responsibly) from other chambers: Observing the workings of other chambers can be helpful in devising and applying strategies to streamline the legislative process, but remember that all legislatures operate differently. Adopting the same strategies might not yield the same results.

3. Consider multiple perspectives: Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. Legislators of another party or staff may have different ideas about what is efficient. Including the opinions of a variety of stakeholders not only improves the quality of actions taken but also protects the legislative institution by ensuring greater longevity.

4. Look beyond the chamber: The job of a legislator is a big one, and there are many off-the-floor strategies lawmakers might use to achieve greater efficiency, including relying on staff, creating more robust constituent services strategies, and using the interim differently.

Big, sweeping changes to improve efficiency are tempting, but iterative, targeted steps may be more tangibly helpful. Likewise, remember that legislatures were founded on principles that encourage deliberation to balance efficient governance with thoughtfulness and farsightedness. As new sessions convene, and with them renewed efforts to improve the institution, remember that legislating is a bit like ice cream on a hot day: It might be messy, but ultimately, it gets the job done.

Mari Henderson is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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