Consider for a moment the kinds of information that normally come to you concerning state and local government in your state. If your state is typical, you usually get newspaper regurgitation of press releases, 30-second “analyses” on local TV news programs, stories about politicians’ plans for the next election, in-depth investigations of the latest scandal, and newsletters from countless special interest organizations. Now, ask yourself if this is the sort of information that makes you feel comfortable in forming independent judgments about the level and quality of public services you receive, the amount of state and local taxes you pay, and the basic direction of government in your state. If you feel uneasy, please read on. You are the kind of person who should know about governmental research agencies, why they exist, and why you have a stake in what they do.
What is Governmental Research?
Governmental research, as it is performed by the many organizations across the United States that engage in it, has two basic functions:
1. Objective analysis of state and local government problems.
Through the use of information and statistics from both governmental and private sources, governmental research organizations develop objective, timely analyses of major problems facing state and local government. Generally, those analyses cover the following subjects:
Finance — What is the financial condition of the governmental unit? What are the long-term trends? Will revenues be adequate to cover expected expenditures? Is debt under control and is it being used properly? What are strengths and weaknesses of the tax structure of the unit?
Organization and administration — Is the governmental unit structured to provide for accountability and effective, efficient management of public programs? Are programs effective in accomplishing their intended results? Do program managers select the lowest-cost means of providing given services?
Policy — How are public dollars allocated among competing functions and purposes and what are the trends? How has the state chosen to provide for the distribution of revenues to local units? Are there better alternatives? What effect are state and local policies of taxing, spending, and regulating having on the economy of the state?
2. Decision-oriented reporting of facts and conclusions based on those facts.
Governmental research takes as a given that governmental decisions will be better if they are based on good information. “Good information” consists largely of facts relevant to the issue and conclusions based on those facts. It is surprising that major governmental decisions are made any other way. But often — too often — they are. Frequently, they are based on vague, unanalyzed impressions of a condition that may warrant public attention or on the basis of facts that have been selected in order to lead to predetermined conclusions. Governmental research organizations argue that governmental reform will be more successful if it is achieved through the objective presentation of factual research. Frequently, governmental research organizations are the only reliable sources of that kind of information.
What Makes Governmental Research Organizations Different?
If you were to ask several individuals familiar with governmental research to name the single most distinguishing attribute of governmental research organization, they would probably agree on one — credibility.
Credibility doesn’t come easily or quickly. It is earned over a long period of time by adherence to three paramount principles.
Governmental research reports must be accurate in the smallest detail. Figures are checked and rechecked, charts reviewed, statements verified, and conclusions challenged to sure that each fact can be supported, and each conclusion and recommendation defended. Governmental researchers know that one small error, however trivial, can cast doubt on an otherwise well-researched report. As a result, the goal of governmental researchers is to develop facts and conclusions whose accuracy is beyond challenge.
Governmental research reports must be fair. This does not mean that they cannot come to conclusions — even strong conclusions. But those conclusions must be supportable and must take into account others that are possible, even though they may be entirely opposite. Moreover, the conclusions of governmental research reports flow from the facts developed in the research, not the other way around. Governmental research organizations do not select or tailor facts to fit preordained conclusions. If the facts don’t support a conclusion or recommendation, it isn’t made.
Perhaps the most important aspect of credibility for a governmental research organization is its independence. It is also probably the most difficult to maintain. In a world of interest-group politics and paid consultants, it is often difficult to convince anyone that there actually are organizations that exist to take the point of view of the citizen in public affairs. Skeptics continually seek to find hidden motives in the work of governmental research organizations, to prove that the agency really represents this interest or that group of contributors. But when a definitive, reliable answer to a question or problem of public policy is sought; when policymakers conclude that a truly unbiased, nonpartisan, independent judgement is needed, it is then that they turn to the governmental research organization, secure in the knowledge that, although they may not like the answer, it will have been arrived at honestly and openly.
Is Governmental Research For You?
To a substantial degree, support of a governmental research organization represents an act of faith on the part of a contributor – faith that at some point government will be more accountable, more efficient, more tolerable to its citizens because of the actions of the organization. Government does not, however, often respond quickly to the result of objective research. To an individual accustomed to the direct techniques of advocacy groups, the methods of governmental research may appear indirect and plodding.
This appearance is the price that is paid for credibility. Credibility requires that a certain distance be placed between the governmental research organization and the “fray.” While a governmental research organization cannot retreat to an ivory tower, neither can it risk the loss of its credibility by continual immersion in political maneuvering. Thus, while attainment of some immediate objectives may be foregone, the ultimate goal of governmental reform through objective presentation of factual research will not be sacrificed.
Credibility does not require the entire audience of the organization to agree with the conclusions of the research, but does require agreement that the research was honest and that any conclusion drawn from it was a reasonable deduction. To assure continued credibility, a member of the organization must be willing to put up with a fair amount of independence on the part of the organization. Individual directors or contributors may, from time to time, disagree with some conclusions or wish that they had not been developed. It is at this point that the faith in the methods and objectives of the organization must be renewed or continued participation examined. After all, governmental research is not for all tastes and only those who “share the faith” and values of the organization should be encouraged to take an active role in governmental research.
Is governmental research for you? If you believe that citizens will be better served by their governmental units if there is an organization that continually asks whether we are getting our money’s worth and then seeks to answer that question in a fair and reliable manner; if you believe that a professional agency that places accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness in government at the top of its agenda is a valuable asset to a community, then governmental research probably is for you.
If your state or locality already has a governmental research organization, find out about it. Staff members are always ready to explain their goals, program, and accomplishments.
If your state or locality does not have a governmental research organization, why not take a part in forming one? But how? Help is available. The Governmental Research Association, the national organization of governmental research agencies, can provide ideas, contacts, and moral support. Contact GRA at the address below:
Governmental Research Association
c/o Civic Federation
10 N. Dearborn Street, Suite 800