What effect does initiative have on public policy?

Ideally, public policy should match the aggregate desire of a politically savvy public. Naturally, public opinion changes and policy lags behind. Initiative permits public policy to catch up with public opinion (as measured by polls) more quickly than in a purely representative system of government.

Matsusaka (2004) summarized his empirical results from looking at the years 1970 to 2000: "First, over the last three decades, the initiative has had a significant impact on state and local governments. States with the initiative spent and taxed less than states without the initiative, they decentralized spending from state to local government, and they raised more money from user fees and less from taxes. Second, opinion surveys throughout the period show that a majority of people supported each of these policy changes: the voters wanted less spending, more local disbursement of funds, and greater reliance on user fees compared to board-based taxes. The facts, then, do not support the view that the initiative process allows special interests to distort policies away from what the public wants" (p. 3).

There are many indirect effects of citizen initiatives beyond the superficial ability of citizens to propose and vote on law. Since the public could overturn unpopular policy, representative lawmakers will be more careful about which proposals they advocate. Policy decisions would have greater legitimacy. More people would be involved in setting public policy. Citizens will be educated about the challenges of governance and a greater diversity of ideas would be opened to consideration, fostering more creative solutions to the problems we face. By acting directly as legislators, We, the People will assume the responsibility and accountability for our self-governance. We will no longer have the need or right to blame the failure of public policy on others.