Approach to Analysis

Senate Committee On Governance and Finance


How do policy analysts approach legislative proposals? What criteria can legislative committee consultants use to evaluate bills? Analysts should organize their thinking about proposals by applying four criteria:

Policy both explicit and implicit.
Powers both fiscal and regulatory.
Procedures fair access to decisions and decision-makers.
Oversight to see if the decision did what legislators expected.


Some bills contain explicit policy statements. Specific findings and declarations of legislative intent are the most obvious ways for legislators to send signals to colleagues, constituents, and judges. CEQA's policies, for example, influence court decisions. A bill may enact a new section that overtly recites findings and declarations. Bills that create major programs often place these recitations immediately after the title of the new division. For lesser measures, a legislator may relegate these statements to an uncodified section. On rare occasions, bills state that they incorporate the changes recommended in outside reports, even citing the studies by name.

More often, legislative policy is implicit, to be detected and interpreted from the new statute's context. The ways that a bill arranges procedures, defines terms, limits authority, or raises revenue are clues to the author's intent. For example, the Cortese-Knox Act requires petitions for city annexations to carry signatures from 5% of the affected voters, while a petition to incorporate a new city requires 25% of the area's voters. That Act implies that state law favors annexations over incorporations. When a bill's intent is not plain from its own wording, the courts may look at secondary sources, such as committee bill analyses and reports from interim hearings.

As analysts review bills, they should ask:

How can we tell what policy this bill is trying to advance?
Are the bill's policies explicit? Where can we read them?
Or are the policies implicit, buried in the text of the bill itself?
Is the bill consistent with the California Constitution? Other laws?
Do the bill's policies conflict with other, more important goals?
Do the bill's policies directly match its powers and procedures?


Policies and powers must match. Governmental power can be both fiscal and regulatory. If the Legislature sets ambitious policies but fails to provide sufficient power, then administrators can't deliver the program that legislators wanted. Conversely, if the Legislature doesn't explain its policies, then public managers lack guidance on how to use governmental powers. A new program to feed hungry children won't succeed if the budget is too small to fit the statute's goals. A new program to control dangerous chemicals won't succeed if administrators don't have tools to enforce the law. But Californians and their legislators distrust powerful governments. Legislators search for the balance between providing governmental powers that fulfill legitimate public policies and protecting their constituents' rights and incomes.

As analysts review bills, they should ask:

Does the bill adequately fund the demands it makes on state agencies?
Does the bill adequately fund new state mandated local programs?
Does the bill's funding source match its policies?
Does the bill give administrators the regulatory power to achieve legislative goals?
Does the bill protect citizens' rights against the abuse of regulatory power?
Do the bill's powers match its policies?


The reformist impulses of the Progressive Era and several Populist movements are still strong in California government and politics. Californians insist on fair access to decisions and to their decision-makers. State statutes that regulate procedures include the Brown Act (local officials' meetings must be open and public), the Public Records Act (insuring access to government documents), the Political Reform Act (banning economic conflicts of interest), and a myriad of statutory requirements for public notice, public hearings, protests, and elections.

As analysts review bills, they should ask:

Does the bill allow enough time for public review and comment?
Does the bill give the public enough information to help them comment?
Does the bill require officials to consider and act on public comments?
Does the bill keep public officials free of real and perceived conflicts of interest?
Is there an appeal to other public officials, or to the voters themselves?
Are the procedures so unwieldy that they drag out key decisions?
Who really makes the final decision?


Spawned in righteous enthusiasm, some public programs outlive their usefulness but continue only because legislators forget them. Institutional inertia, changing social and political climates, and automatic budgeting can combine to allow archaic and ineffective programs to persist. One of the politically least attractive but potentially most powerful legislative duties is to oversee existing programs. As Proposition 140 accelerates legislative turnover, the legislators who originally authored new laws may not be around to monitor their implementation.

Legislators can avoid creating perpetual programs by insisting that new programs contain oversight mechanisms: regular records and reports, special studies, and sunset clauses. One common practice requires administrators to evaluate a new program after its sixth year (allowing them to review five years of experience), and to include a sunset clause that repeals the program after the seventh year. This practice forces legislators to examine a program, react to its evaluation, and then consider its future. Legislative inaction automatically ends the program.

As analysts review bills, they should ask:

How will we know they did what we said we wanted them to do?
How will future legislators know if the new program succeeded or failed?
How can future legislators measure the program against its original goals?
Are there agreed-upon ways to measure the new program? What's the test?
Are the measures practical? Are the data available? Is the study expensive?
Who is responsible for evaluating the new program?
Is there a deadline for evaluating the new program?
Should there be a report, then a sunset clause, to force the evaluation?

An infinitely variable approach to analysis. I developed the "PPPO" approach while analyzing and drafting bills over the last 20 years. Sometimes I've had the luxury of time to research, draft, and revise my work. In the late 1980s, my colleagues and I spent months thinking about how to approach growth management issues. On other occasions, I've had only a few hours on the last day of a legislative session to figure out what a hastily drafted bill really does. Regardless of the amount of available time, I use the "PPPO" approach. I used it to draft the "Fire Protection District Law" in 1987, and used it in 1995 while scrambling to write a last-minute analysis for the Committee. I use "PPPO" because the approach allows me to ask the right questions.

This practical approach is infinitely variable. An analyst can use the "PPPO" approach to write a 20-page policy paper or apply the "PPPO" approach when scratching notes on the back of an envelope. Regardless of the amount of time or writing space available, the "PPPO" approach allows analysts to ask the questions that legislators need answered. Legislative committee consultants, like all policy analysts, succeed when they adapt their techniques to fit their clients' real needs.

Helping legislators find the right answers starts by asking the right questions.

Peter Detwiler

November 30, 1995

Committee Address