Springfield veterans’ exit interviews could light a path to real reform

The exit interview is fairly common in the corporate world. If it happens in electoral politics and government, we don’t hear about it much.

In Springfield, Jennifer Morrison put the exit interview on steroids and what she came away with deserves some significant consideration.

Morrison has seen Illinois government and politics from just about every possible angle. She started walking precincts with her family when she was 8. She worked in the Illinois House. She worked in a department during former Gov. Jim Thompson’s administration. She worked as an assistant to former Gov. Jim Edgar and managed or staffed several campaigns. And finally, she spent years as a contract lobbyist before retiring a year ago after 40 years.

But Morrison couldn’t just walk away. As much as she loved the work, the process, the frenzy and the long hours, she said she kept dwelling on how she frequently felt uncomfortable. And she wanted to determine if other women did, too, and see what a fix might entail. So, she conducted 11 exit interviews with highly successful, retired women lawmakers whose identities she promised to keep confidential so they could be candid.

Morrison said she didn’t set out to trash men in government, nor is she interested in exposing more of the seedy underbelly of corruption. Rather, she hopes people will reflect on what she and her interviewees found when they stepped out and stepped back. She hopes that hard-won wisdom can be used to help Illinoisans, improve democracy and produce better policy outcomes.

Morrison suspects she and her 11 interviewees are a microcosm of many more women and men in the system. As a group, the women are bipartisan and come from the city, suburbs and downstate. Her interviewees believe a more collaborative, collegial, less personally ambitious approach to shaping policy would result in a government more residents could get behind.

Morrison’s resulting essay, “The Value of Collaborative Policymaking,” refers to residents, voters and all of the people of Illinois frequently. In this echo chamber age of hyperpolarization, Morrison and the women lawmakers understand the consent of the governed needs to be re-prioritized.

She notes Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with a cabinet of rivals. Top aides to Thompson and Edgar regularly held listening sessions where conflicting views and perspectives were shared and heard. That focus on listening, on finding consensus to get to the right thing for the most people, seems to have been lost to a system consumed with maintaining power.

“What are we here to do? Are we coming to work every day to maintain the leader’s power over the Senate or the House?” Morrison wrote. “Or are we coming to work to solve real problems that people at home are experiencing?”

“Somebody has to stop and say, ‘OK, enough,’ ” she added in an interview. “We know we’re politically divisive. We know we’re perceived as corrupt and uncaring, and we’re going to start talking about” fixing that.

Of course, plenty of good policy still does become law, but Morrison and her interviewees offered up a series of ideas they agreed could help us choose better lawmakers and give those lawmakers a greater shot at achieving greater good for more of us.

“You really want to encourage candidates who are coming out of their communities with strong ties,” Morrison said. “It puts them on a path at the beginning to care about that more than their personal career-building.”

It’s easy to lay blame at the feet of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Morrison said, but changing one person at the top isn’t enough. The structure at the base also has to be altered, she said.

Like it works in Congress, Morrison and her cadre believe state lawmakers and committee chairs should hire and develop their own staff, rather than staffers owing their loyalty to the leaders. “If you’re the committee chair, but the staffer is the speaker’s staffer, it makes it harder for the committee chairs to have real independence,” she said.

New members need much more extensive orientation, training and mentorship from people like Morrison and her fellow retirees, they said.

Other ideas? Some kind of public campaign financing would diversify the candidate pool.

“You need to take map drawing out of the hands of the people who benefit from drawing their own maps,” Morrison said. “It’s crazy.”

Ranked-choice voting in elections “gets rid of the extremes and opens the pathway for moderate representation.”

Now, how can we take this and the rest of the exit interview wisdom and work to improve the entrenched system? Slowly, incrementally. Morrison shared her work with current women in the Illinois General Assembly and the four legislative leaders. She’s hoping some of the women who responded will want to talk, listen and start work on some fixes soon.

“Women, in particular, are a source of hope because a little bit of that modeling of democratic ideals would help tremendously,” Morrison said. “It’s time. It really does take somebody to stand up and say it and model the way to do it.”

This column was originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on Monday, April 24, 2023. Read the original column here.