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Retaining Institutional Knowledge in the State Legislature

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Written by Dr. Brittany Whitley
Published on November 3, 2020
Research Highlights

Across the United States, states have started to improve institutional knowledge by developing robust, interagency data management systems, combined with sufficient access to nonpartisan research staff and training.

  • States with legislative term limits tend to rely heavily on lobbyists, interest groups and state agencies to provide the information needed for policy making. There is also evidence that these states spend more money and encounter difficulty making long-term and efficient budgetary decisions.
  • In order to improve evidence-based decision making, some states have recently improved their data management strategies to encourage easy access to information and information sharing across agencies, boards and commissions.
  • Another way to improve institutional knowledge has been to support hiring, training and retention of legislative staff, especially nonpartisan research staff.

Executive Summary

In 1992, Missouri voters approved lifetime term-limits for General Assembly members, limiting members to serving a maximum of eight years in each chamber. In light of state legislative term limits, there is a significant need for improved systems to access and maintain institutional knowledge. Across the United States, states have started to improve institutional knowledge by developing robust, interagency data management systems, combined with sufficient access to nonpartisan research staff and training.

  • While it is clear that spending patterns differ in states with legislative term limits, we do not yet understand the mechanism through which term limits influence these spending differences. Additional research can help to highlight the specific strategies that might lead to the largest improvements in evidence-based budgeting.
  • Because many of the strategies to improve institutional knowledge were recently implemented, it is too early to understand the extent to which legislators utilize these programs to fill institutional knowledge gaps when there is legislative turnover.

Research Background

Institutional Knowledge in State Legislatures

Institutional knowledge consists of the information, expertise, data and resources that state legislative bodies rely on to make policy and budget decisions. Greater institutional knowledge is typically associated with increased productivity, fewer mistakes, increased transparency, and more teamwork and collaboration. The extent to which legislators rely on institutional knowledge varies depending on the political and technical complexity of the issue, as well as the time needed to make a decision (committee vs. floor debate).1 Legislators often consult several sources of information and expertise— state agencies, veteran legislators, organized groups and lobbyists, partisan and nonpartisan staff. Missouri lawmakers especially depend on the Senate and House Research Offices for an unbiased, historical perspective on past legislation and debates. However, the relatively few nonpartisan staff in these offices are primarily focused on bill and amendment drafting, leaving limited time to respond to informational requests.

Term limits were introduced in several state legislatures (Figure 1) in the 1990s to restrict the impact of interest groups and reduce the incumbency advantage; however, opponents feared that term limits would disrupt the connection between constituents and elected officials, incentivize short-term solutions, and reduce institutional knowledge and power of legislatures.2 In Missouri and other states with legislative term limits, there is no evidence that term limits have decreased the impact of interest groups or made open seats more competitive.3 There is evidence, however, that term limits increase the influence of lobbyists, interest groups, and state agencies on information gathering and decision making, shifting some policy-making power away from the legislature.2-4 Additionally, states with term limits tend to spend relatively more money than states without term limits. The effects of term limits on fiscal policy are more pronounced in the lower chamber, where Missouri's budget process begins, since senators tend to have more legislative experience.5 With less experience and expertise, new lawmakers may be prone to making short-term fiscal decisions. Indeed, there is evidence that states with term limits encounter challenges in balancing budgets and declines in state general funds.5 Additional research is needed to understand how term limits lead to these fiscal outcomes and what approaches could be used to improve spending decisions in states with term limits.

Strategies to Retain Institutional Knowledge

Improved data management systems and interagency collaboration: Because many publicly funded programs depend on input and data from a range of state agencies, legislators must be able to easily access this information to make evidence-based decisions. Some states have bolstered their data sharing by creating integrated data hubs that pool and analyze data across agencies. Ohio’s state data systems were consolidated in 2019 to form the InnovateOhio Platform. The Lieutenant Governor oversees the program, along with a Chief Data Advocate who collects, analyzes and shares data to improve state programs. Less than a year after launching, the Ohio Office of Budget and Management announced that the InnovateOhio platform was able to use data analytics to identify 107 duplicate payments across 27 state agencies, boards and commissions, resulting in almost one million dollars in savings.7 Similarly , the Indiana Management Performance Hub (MPH) integrates data from a range of state agencies to inform complex policy debates. For example, the MPH contains the Education and Workforce database, which brings together data from twelve state agencies and addresses the connections between education, workforce development, health, corrections, and social services. A Chief Data Officer and their staff have a budget to coordinate data analytics across state agencies and oversee the MPH. According to a 2018 annual report, the Hub has generated an estimated return on investment of $40 million for the state.8 More recently Indiana launched the Indiana Data Partnership to expand data and technology sharing by connecting government, nonprofit and private sector entities to address important issues like education, workforce, and healthcare.

Evidence-based budgeting: When considering how states should spend limited funds, it is useful to understand which programs are the most effective and identify areas of unnecessary or harmful spending. In 2018, Missouri released the Missouri Budget Explorer, an online resource where legislators and the public can access detailed information about the state budget. Beginning in 2019, the Budget Explorer also tracks performance measures for each publicly funded program using the Program Description Forms, which require that agencies provide information about program activity, quality, impact, and efficiency (Figure 3).

Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina and New Mexico have used a similar approach with specific checklists to ensure that budget requests are based on research, consider return on investment and provide plans to evaluate the efficacy of programs.6 These budget requests can then be used to inform future legislators (and legislative committee analysts) who can compare expected effects to actual outcomes to make better budget decisions. In states with term limits, these requirements may provide a robust record to retain institutional knowledge, even with the turnover of veteran legislators with budget expertise. In addition to budget checklists, Tennessee and Minnesota have implemented program rating systems that rate publicly funded programs as: proven effective, promising, mixed effects, no effect, proven harmful or theory based. These ratings are publicly available and create a quick and understandable way for legislators to evaluate programs in subsequent years.

Staffing & Training: Staff who carry over between legislative leadership have been cited as a strategy to retain institutional knowledge at the state and federal level. In a 2019 report, the National Association of Public Administration partially attributed a decline in institutional knowledge in the U.S. Congress to staff declines in member offices, on committees, and at congressional support agencies, like the Congressional Research Service.10 In Maine, committee staff have found it easier to respond to the increased demand for their services by maintaining detailed files on bills considered, testimony received and amendments offered for several sessions before the files are transferred to state archives. This information is useful to legislators who wish to determine how a particular issue was handled in the past. California also hosts the Capitol Institute for Training which is required for all legislative staff. To ensure additional staffing consistency, the California Senate does not permit committee chairs to change committee staff until six months into the legislative session. Even then, they may only replace one staff member at a time.


  1. Sarbaugh-Thompson, M., & Thompson, L. (2018). Evaluating the effects of term limits on the Michigan legislature. Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Retrieved from https://crcmich.org/wp- content/uploads/rpt401_Term_Limits-1.pdf
  2. Miller, S. M., Crotty, J. N., & Crotty, S. N. (2011). Reexamining the Institutional Effects of Term Limits in U.S. State Legislatures. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 36(1), 71–97. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939- 9162.2010.00004.x
  3. Richardson, L. E., Jr., Valentine, D., & Stokes, S. D. (2005). Assessing the Impact of Term Limits in Missouri. State and Local Government Review, 37(3), 177–192. http://doi.org/10.1177/0160323X0503700301
  4. Carey, J. M., Niemi, R. G., Powell, L. W., & Moncrief, G. F. (2006). The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 31(1), 105–134. http://doi.org/10.3162/036298006X201742
  5. Cummins, J. (2012). The Effects of Legislative Term Limits on State Fiscal Conditions:. American Politics Research. http://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X12461270
  6. Padrino, D. (2020). Blueprint for Delivering Results in State Government. Results for America. Retrieved from https://blueprint.results4america.org/
  7. InnovateOhio. (2020, June 16). InnovateOhio, OBM Identify Approximately $1 Million in Savings. Retrieved from https://innovateohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/innovate/news/news-and-events/06162020
  8. Indiana Management Performance Hub. (2018). 2018 Annual Report. Retrieved from https://www.in.gov/mph/files/MPH-2018-Annual-Report.pdf
  9. Missouri Office of Administration (2019, August). Why Performance Measures and Targets Matter. Retrieved from https://oa.mo.gov/sites/default/files/20190822_Budget_kickoff_Performance_Measures_and_Targets_refe rence_placemat.pdf
  10. Fretwell, E., Rejeski, D., Hendler, J., Peroff, K., & McCord, M. (2019). Science and Technology Policy Assessment: A Congressionally Directed Review. National Academy of Public Administration. Retrieved from https://www.napawash.org/uploads/Academy_Studies/NAPA_FinalReport_forCRS_110119.pdf
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