Further from the People? The Puzzle of State Administration

April
2018
Miriam Seifter

Civil society today vitally supplements the traditional legislative and judicial checks on the powerful federal executive branch. As many commentators have observed, individuals, interest groups, and media outlets actively monitor, expose, and impede federal executive misdeeds. But much of government administration now occurs in the states. State executive branches have burgeoned in size and responsibility in recent decades, and state and national leaders advocate further expanding state authority. Underlying such calls is a notion that states are “closer to the people” than the federal government, and thus more attentive and responsive to the public’s needs. Yet commentators seldom question these premises, and there is scant attention to whether and how civil society constrains administration in the states.

This Article identifies and theorizes the role of civil society oversight at the state level. It finds that state agencies frequently lack the civil society check that commentators celebrate at the federal level. State agencies are, on the whole, less transparent than their federal counterparts, less closely followed by watchdog groups, and less tracked by the shrinking state-level media. These insights complicate certain tenets of federalism theory—those that assume a close connection between state governments and their citizens—while strengthening theories concerned about state-level faction. As a practical matter, civil society oversight is one factor that can help explain serious regulatory failures in the states—and more optimistically, success stories. Finally, attending to civil society oversight can highlight reforms available to those who seek a state government that is more visible to and constrained by its people.

 

This article appears in the April 2018 Issue: Volume 93, Number 1