When they picture oversight, most people might imagine a hearing room with Oppenheimer-esque drama unfolding or a group of accountants with green visors and Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils poring over financial statements. Those are important parts of oversight (though most C-SPAN content never makes it to IMAX and most accountants prefer Excel), but oversight at its best is more holistic. In fact, good oversight belongs in every part of legislative work. This is particularly true in the world of casework and constituent service which, when it is done right, can be a critical part of any oversight operation.
Constituent casework is a familiar concept for anyone in a legislative office. It is a simple idea: a constituent contacts their elected official to get help with some government function and the elected official helps them resolve it – usually in tandem with a contact within the department in question. The scope of casework is as wide as the scope of government itself – at the state level, it can involve anything from pothole repair to tax questions to health insurance appeals. Casework is about as old as our system of government, too. Work from the Congressional Research Service points to diary entries from John Quincy Adams during his time in Congress, who noted that he assisted constituents with a date correction on a military pension certificate, as well as appointments to certain government positions. Representative James A. Garfield, later to become the president, intervened in the case of lost mail and a delayed patent extension (Petersen and Eckman 2021).
Casework is an important part of the American legislative tradition and a familiar fixture of almost any office, but what is the point? The easy answer is that it is good politics, and that is not wrong. A track record of small bureaucratic victories for constituents can have a “substantial effect” (Yiannakis 1981) in electoral performance, but it would be cynical to suggest that casework is only a thinly veiled campaign strategy. Done right, casework is more than just a political tactic or an intern task; it is a critical exercise of oversight powers.
Casework cuts to the most important question we can ask in oversight: beyond simple adherence to policies and procedures, is government delivering on its promises to people?
This question – the one of actual service delivery – is important in any large operation. It is the same reason we all receive an astonishing number of interminable emailed surveys every day asking whether we would recommend our electric toothbrush to a friend or colleague, if the airplane flight attendant smiled with sufficient enthusiasm at the end of our flight, or how satisfied we were with the cleanliness of our apartment building’s stairwell during the month of April.
In government, though, those questions are even more important. With all due respect to the enthusiastically smiling flight attendant, the stakes are higher when it comes to delivering timely health benefits or caring for vulnerable people. The benefit of a legislative environment is that legislators and staff are in a unique position to learn whether government delivers on its promises – even without a survey. After a few years in office, their phone number or email address has worked its way onto fridge magnets, sticky notes, and Facebook groups in every corner of the district. The consequence of this is that when unemployment checks do not arrive, potholes appear on the expressway, or the Tax Department sends out an even more cryptic and threatening mass mailing than usual, they hear about it.
Casework is always a challenge, even at its most basic transactional level. The special challenge in getting it right, though, is treating it like the valuable oversight mechanism that it is. In that spirit, here are a few tips for legislative offices looking to do just that.
- Collect data and use it wisely. It is possible to run a casework program on sticky notes, but it is not advisable. By developing a good system and collecting standardized data about each case – the basics of the problem, how it is resolved, where the constituent lives, and so on – it is possible to find new insights that are helpful both for constituent service and for larger oversight operations. Do people who live near a particular DMV office have a higher chance of delays in renewing their driver licenses? Do you always hear more about unemployment insurance problems in the fall after agricultural workers lose seasonal work? Is there a more effective way to handle a process than the one an agency publicizes on their website? Good data collection and analysis are easier than they sound and can help answer these questions.
- Casework is for everyone. It can be tempting to think that constituent service is a task for interns and newer staff, a bad habit that is often perpetuated by staff hierarchies. That does not mean that moving on to a policy position is a license for a staffer to cut their phone cord or disengage with casework data, or for a legislator to treat casework as staff busywork. Casework, oversight, and legislation are all closely related. Oversight and legislation benefit enormously from people who have first-hand experience interacting with the systems being overseen or regulated.
- Keep good records on people and keep those people in mind for other projects later. Constituents call legislative offices because they care, they want to have their story heard, and they want systems to work better for themselves and others. It helps to make a note when a constituent has a unique case or a compelling story. They can make a great case study or even a witness at a hearing if their story is relevant for a broader oversight project or for legislation. They will often be glad to be included in the process.
Every legislative office has done constituent casework in one way or another, but it takes real work – a complete reframing, even – to realize the full potential of casework. Used as an oversight tool, casework embodies the very best of good government in a democracy. It transcends the noise and complexity of minute details to ask the single, persistent question at the core of all oversight: Is our government delivering on its promises to people, and how can we do it better?
Petersen, R. Eric, and Sarah J. Eckman. 2021. Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL33209/29.
Yiannakis, Diana Evans. 1981. “The Grateful Electorate: Casework and Congressional Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 25(3): 568–80.