What can we do about governmental and political dysfunction?

The Project on Political Reform investigates the sources of political and government dysfunction and identifies pragmatic solutions. PPR addresses topics such as legislative decision making, lobbying, political accountability, campaign laws and practices, political polarization, erosion of democratic norms, structural incentives influencing candidate and office-holder behavior, and the relationships between governing institutions. PPR focuses primarily on local, state, and federal government in the United States but, at times, may also address governmental dysfunction in other Western democracies.

PPR is nonpartisan and strongly committed to thoughtful, evidence-based policy making without regard to political party or ideology.

Why Support PPR?

At present, it is not at all clear that the U.S. government is up to the task of solving the problems of a modern, complex society.  In fact, in this era of hyper partisanship, the one thing that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents agree on is this: our government is broken. A more effectual public sector will be required if we are to meet this nation’s growing economic and social challenges.  

Moreover, improving governmental functionality and accountability are essential for maintaining and strengthening support for crucial democratic institutions in the U.S. and other western democracies.  Indeed, the rising antagonism toward democratic values such as an independent judiciary, a free news media, and a capitalistic economic orientation underscore the increasing urgency of addressing dysfunctions that undermine confidence.  Unfortunately, to date, the national response to this emerging challenge has been more akin to hand-wringing than to serious and informed remediation.  

PPR, however, is well-position to perform a constructive role in addressing this imposing and increasingly urgent challenge.  Specifically, PPR addresses three important needs:

  1. Galvanizing Academic Resources:  Numerous reform ideas have been proposed by a wide variety of sources, but there has been little effort to use data-driven scholarship and evidence to appraise the merits of competing proposals or identify new approaches. Part of the reason lies in academia’s failure to focus on this national challenge.  The university-based scholars who do study various aspects of potential reforms tend to follow independent and uncoordinated trajectories. Interdisciplinary communication is insufficient.  There is little discussion – let alone consensus -- on research needs and priorities.  The national conversation is well-served by a trusted non-partisan entity that provides greater focus, urgency and coordination among relevant independent researchers. To this end, PPR has developed a network of prominent scholars from across the country who study democracy and governance and who find opportunities for collaboration through PPR initiatives.  These scholars include faculty from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA, Columbia, Michigan, Syracuse, Chicago and other major academic institutions. 
  1. Facilitating Extended Bipartisan Discourse:  Any meaningful dialog about our governmental crisis must be bipartisan.  However, in this highly polarized environment, meaningful dialog among partisan elites, influencers, and decision makers will likely occur only in special circumstances – on non-partisan turf, in off-the-record and protected environments, with trusted arbiters or conveners. PPR has hosted (in cooperation with the Center for Survey Methodology and other partners) a series of unquestionably unique multi-day tri-lateral conversations between scholars and elite partisan political practitioners of both parties for the purpose of discussing crucial challenges to democracy in which the practitioners have direct involvement, including political polarization, electoral dysfunctions and proposed reforms, and political campaign practices.  
  1. Bringing Evidence and Data to Bipartisan Discussions:  The involvement of the scholars in these conversations is as important as the involvement of the Republican and Democratic practitioners. Taking seriously the idea of reform means giving consideration to science and evidence.  As we search for solutions, differences in values and priorities should be anticipated and respected.  But biases (confirmation bias, groupthink, stereotypes, etc.) that needlessly impede the search for common ground must be overcome.  The participating scholars keep the discussions grounded in data and evidence.  Their involvement is important given the general paucity of communication between scholars who study democracy and governance and Republican and Democratic decision makers and influencers who may determine the nation’s future.

Partial List of Current PPR Initiatives:

  • Bipartisan Conference on the Use of Social Media in Political Campaigns and Advocacy (May 2019)
  • Bipartisan Conference on Democratic Norms and Political Guardrails (Sept. 2019)
  • Academic Conference on Democratic Norms
  • Across the Aisle Dinner Discussions
  • Data Journalism Training Initiative
  • Certificate on Political Campaigns
  • Course on National Intelligence led by Congressman Mike Quigley
  • Campaign Website and Social Media Content Analysis Research Project
  • Panel Discussions, Guest Speakers, and Special Events
  • Political Campaign Simulation Experience
  • Student Advisory Board
  • Client-Driven Research Opportunities for MPP and Political Science Graduate Students

For more information on these and other PPR initiatives, email Marc Farinella.


7 reasons to Come to Harris for a PhD in Political Economy

If you are currently considering a PhD in political science or political economy, or if you are advising students in this position, we encourage you to consider Harris Public Policy at the University of Chicago. In particular, if you want to study political institutions, political behavior, the political economy of democracies (including American politics), or the politics of the policy making process, and if you want to develop skills in formal theory or design-based causal inference, this is the program for you.   Here are 7 reasons.