Deciding What to Investigate

Government is expansive and oversight authority rests in the legislature. It can be difficult to know where to start. Some oversight, such as budgetary and contract issues, is routine, but investigations can spring from anywhere you find a concern. Here are a few places you might find your next oversight investigation:

  • Committee jurisdiction. The rules of your legislature will outline the responsibilities and authorities your committee has to conduct oversight. In California, all standing committees (except the Committee on Rules) “have and may exercise all the rights, duties, and powers conferred upon investigating committees” in their jurisdiction (H.R. 2, 11.5-c). If your state allows you similar authority, this is a great opportunity to conduct general oversight of agencies and look for issues that exist in your committee’s jurisdiction.
  • Leadership concerns. Likely, your party leaders will have oversight priorities they want you to address. Share your oversight ideas with leadership, and together develop an oversight plan that reflects the three C’s: conscience, constituents, and caucus. In that order.
  • Scandals, events, news, problems. Sometimes, an event grabs public attention and your constituents demand answers. These problems can come from the public or private sector. Some examples include:
    • In October 2022, a video of two children being violently removed from their homes in Santa Cruz, California by Assisted Interventions, Inc. went viral. Santa Cruz County called on the California Legislature to provide regulations and oversight of the transportation companies.
    • Arizona’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the Department of Child Safety met in September 2022 following a murder at a Phoenix group home.
  • Agencies/reports. The Legislature doesn’t conduct oversight in a vacuum. There are many government agencies doing their own oversight, such as inspectors general and state auditors. Sometimes, an agency will release a report that will require further oversight or legislative action on your part. For example, last year in California, the State Auditor  and Little Hoover Commission released reports detailing the racial disparities of the system meant to provide services to people with developmental disabilities, bringing it to the attention of the State Assembly.
    • Another example is from Michigan. The Auditor General released a report on the performance of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. This led to legislative committee hearings and increased scrutiny on veteran home operations in Grand Rapids and across the state.
  • Constituents. If there is a problem in your district, the citizens may very well be the first to tell you! It was the residents of Flint, Michigan, who sounded the alarm on the water crisis just weeks after their water source was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014.
  • Whistleblowers, advocacy groups. We’ve seen plenty of whistleblowers testify before Congress recently, particularly from social media companies, but legislatures are even more likely to interact with advocacy groups. Sometimes, they will work with you, like these legislators and advocacy groups in Washington trying to make it easier for non-English speakers to easily access interpreter services when testifying before committees. Other times, you may be in disagreement – for example, the nonprofit Babe Vote is currently suing the state of Idaho for removing student IDs as accepted identification at election polls, which it argues will decrease voter turnout and disproportionately affect low-income students. Either way, the issues whistleblowers and advocacy groups bring to your attention present opportunities for oversight.
  • Lawsuits. There are instances when lawsuits show us that our laws aren’t working as they should. A glaring example comes from Utah, where 94 women sued their OB-GYN for sexual assault. The case was dismissed because the Utah law was interpreted to mean that sexual assaults by health care providers fell under “health care” and thus had to be filed as state medical malpractice. Legislators were appropriately outraged by the dismissal and took action to change the law.
  • Personal experience. You probably ran for office because you recognized that there was at least one problem in society. Use your oversight authority to get to the bottom of the issue and find a solution!
  • Legislator concerns. Just as you ran for office because you identified a problem you wanted to fix, so did all your colleagues. Find out what issues they are worried about and see if it inspires any ideas for investigations – plus, it doesn’t hurt to start with an ally!
  • Oversight plan, long-term vision. If you are chairing an oversight committee, it is a good idea to create an oversight agenda for the legislative term. This keeps your routine oversight matters, such as compliance and budgetary issues, on track. You’ll have unforeseen circumstances that require your attention, of course, but you’ll be much better prepared to juggle investigations when the need arises! If you need some tips on creating an oversight agenda, you can check out the slides from the Levin Center’s masterclass, “Crafting Your State Oversight Agenda for the Coming Legislative Term,” or contact the State Oversight Academy for help!