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Analysis

Study Shows POGO’s Oversight Trainings Increase Congressional Capacity

Research shows the growing need for and interest in more oversight training opportunities for congressional staff.
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

Since 2006, POGO’s Congressional Oversight Initiative has worked to help Congress perform one of its most important constitutional responsibilities: overseeing the executive and judicial branches. Over the past 16 years, we have trained thousands of congressional staff — Democrats and Republicans from both the House and Senate, and from nearly every committee office as well as many personal offices — on the best practices of oversight and investigations. Recently, a multi-year academic study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that our oversight trainings have helped improve Congress’s role in conducting oversight.1

POGO’s Congressional Training Program

Our Congressional Training Program is comprised mainly of monthly training seminars and biannual oversight boot camps. These trainings aim to provide congressional staff with the skills necessary to conduct effective oversight investigations, directly contributing to a more accountable government.

Designed for veterans and beginners alike, our monthly seminars feature lessons from some of the most accomplished current and former congressional oversight experts and practitioners, and provide opportunities for congressional staff to ask questions in an off-the-record environment. Although seminars are generally targeted toward committee staff, much of the information shared during these seminars is also helpful to staff in personal offices in their investigations. These nonpartisan training sessions are open to Hill staff regardless of party, chamber, or position, and we also welcome staffers from the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service. These seminars feature current and former members of Congress or congressional staffers from both parties, and we do our best to get panelists from both the House and Senate.

To date, more than 300 congressional staffers tenure have completed this training on how to conduct fact-based, bipartisan, in-depth investigations.

In addition to monthly seminars, at least twice per year, POGO, in conjunction with the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy and The Lugar Center, offers two-day, intensive training sessions for congressional staff about the art and practice of oversight and investigations. Each of these Oversight Boot Camps combines staff from the U.S. House and Senate, committees and personal offices, and the Democratic and Republican parties to produce a bipartisan, bicameral experience. To date, more than 300 congressional staffers tenure have completed this training on how to conduct fact-based, bipartisan, in-depth investigations.

Congress’s Decreased Capacity

Congress doesn’t have enough staff to meet the growing size of the federal government, which means its oversight capabilities suffer. The staffing issue is compounded by the high turnover rate of existing congressional staff, which has led to a decrease in office work capacity. According to LegiStorm, turnover among House staffers in 2021 was at its highest rate since at least 2001, when LegiStorm began tracking staff turnover rates.2 As staff turns over, Congress loses expertise and institutional knowledge in how to conduct oversight.

Congress should do more to ensure existing oversight staff receive continuing education and training. It’s in Congress’s best interest to have the most skilled oversight staff available. Without the proper knowledge and tools to conduct oversight, congressional staff may miss opportunities to evaluate various government programs and make legislative recommendations for improvement. Absent congressionally run oversight training opportunities, congressional staff interested in learning more about how to conduct better oversight are forced to look outside of Congress at programs like POGO’s Congressional Training Program.

Study Shows POGO Trainings Increase Congressional Staff Tenure

In August, researchers at the University of Michigan completed a multi-year study on our Congressional Training Program. The results were very positive. The authors found that “staffers who receive training stay in the institution substantially longer than those who do not.”3 Given high congressional staff turnover rates, it’s encouraging to know that staffers who attend POGO’s training events are more likely to stay and work on the Hill longer than those who don’t receive any additional training. The extra time they spend on the Hill increases their capacity to conduct better oversight as they accumulate more experience on how to carry out Congress’s important oversight work.4

It’s worth noting that the authors of the study also found that congressional staffers who expressed interest in POGO’s boot camp trainings but did not attend stayed in Congress even longer than those who did attend a POGO training. In short, those who expressed interest but did not attend one of our trainings stayed longer than those who attended a POGO training, and those who attended a POGO training stayed longer than those who received no training at all. The reasons for a staffer not attending a POGO training could include not being accepted into the application-based boot camp training, inquiring about the training but not applying, or simply receiving another form of training through an organization other than POGO.

The study seems to show the link between a desire for oversight trainings and a longer tenure on the Hill. This means that more training opportunities would likely increase a staffer’s tenure on the Hill.

It’s clear that there’s an interest from congressional staff in more training, even among those who were unable to attend POGO trainings specifically. The study seems to show the link between a desire for oversight trainings and a longer tenure on the Hill. This means that more training opportunities would likely increase a staffer’s tenure on the Hill.

There are encouraging signs that Congress is taking steps to provide staffers with more trainings, but these offerings have yet to include oversight training. In the 116th Congress, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress issued 16 recommendations calling for improving congressional capacity.5 Central to this was empowering the Congressional Staff Academy, a program run by the House’s chief administrative officer, which delivers a variety of seminars and trainings for House staff. Despite the academy being around since 2018, the committee found that many Hill employees weren’t aware of their course offerings.6 On December 8, 2021, the Modernization Committee also recommended that the Congressional Staff Academy “offer voluntary training to members and staff to promote civility, leadership, and collaboration skills.”7

While the Congressional Staff Academy has since begun8 offering trainings and certification programs around House positions, there are no offerings on how to conduct oversight — a critical responsibility of Congress. Given the link between congressional staffers interested in trainings and increased tenure on the Hill, as found in the University of Michigan study, it would be beneficial for the Congressional Staff Academy to work with outside organizations like POGO along with the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy and the Lugar Center. We could work with Congress to provide effective oversight workshops that offer educational and professional development opportunities about conducting high-quality, fact-based, bipartisan oversight investigations.

POGO Trainings Increase Staff Knowledge

We were also pleased to see that the University of Michigan researchers “found some evidence that the training increased [congressional staffers’] knowledge of basic oversight procedures.” In February 2020, the researchers conducted a survey of staffers that either did not apply, applied, or attended our oversight trainings. The survey included questions related to congressional oversight. Survey respondents were eventually given a follow-up survey to measure what they learned at the boot camps. The researchers found that staffers who attended the trainings “tended to get more oversight knowledge questions correct in the second survey.”9

We were also pleased to see that the University of Michigan researchers found some evidence that the training increased [congressional staffers’] knowledge of basic oversight procedures.

Moreover, boot camp attendees “got about one additional correct answer after the boot camp, relative to those who did not receive the training.”10 This data indicates that those staffers learned relevant oversight information from the training and may indeed be advancing their foundational understanding of oversight compared to staffers who did not attend.

Congressional staffers who have a greater oversight skillset are better equipped to conduct congressional investigations that oversee our growing federal government. This staff knowledge means Congress is better positioned to oversee how appropriated tax dollars are spent and examine the effectiveness of the vast number of federal agencies and programs. At the end of the day, better trained congressional staffers can help create a more accountable, effective, and ethical federal government.

Conclusion

We are pleased to see that after training thousands of congressional staffers on the power and importance of oversight over the last 16 years, it appears our training program is producing positive results. Despite Congress being a co-equal branch of government and being responsible for overseeing the other two branches, the legislative branch is the smallest in terms of staff, leaving them at a disadvantage when it comes to conducting oversight.11 Compounded with the lack of a formalized training program and high staff turnover rates, Congress’s capacity to conduct effective oversight is severely constrained.

The study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan demonstrates that fact-based, bipartisan oversight trainings are needed and desired by congressional staff. POGO is committed to continue and hopefully grow our training programs to ensure Congress has all the tools it needs to oversee the federal government.