Building Bridges Through Legislative Exchanges

  • Katrina Negrouk

Before I began working at IRI, an exchange was simply an opportunity to travel while earning academic credit.

However, after implementing legislative exchanges at IRI, I now see that they are not only a valuable foreign policy tool, but more importantly serve as a unique opportunity to build diplomatic bridges between legislators in the United States and abroad.

In September 2015, IRI facilitated a study exchange for a delegation of seven delegates from Panama, Colombia and El Salvador as part of its Institute for Representative Government (IRG) program funded through the U.S. Department of State. The delegation met with U.S. government officials and a broad range of organizations involved in promoting citizen security and trade in the United States. These meetings provided the visiting legislators with case studies and best practices for shaping policies related to citizen security and promoting economic stability within their respective countries.

The study mission helped elected officials identify successful strategies used in the United States to create policy that is inclusive, representative and sensitive to political, economic and social realities on the ground. In return, U.S. legislators had the opportunity to learn how legislators in Panama, El Salvador and Colombia addressed the problem and the challenges they’ve encountered. The face-to-face exchange of ideas was the starting point of a dialogue between the exchange program participants and their U.S. counterparts.

In order to continue the discussion following the exchange, IRI conducted a series of follow-up meetings in Panama and El Salvador as part of the IRG program. IRI brought a consultant from the United States to each country to meet with the program participants and discuss how to apply lessons learned from the consultant’s professional experience to the challenges the legislators are facing in implementing effective change. Prior to the follow-on exchange, the legislators identified citizen security as their top priority and a policy area where they were interested in learning form the consultant’s experience.

However, each country chose to approach the topic differently. In El Salvador the focus was on decreasing gang violence through preventative programs that would target youth and discourage them from a life of crime. The consultant, Robert Bermingham, Director of Court Services, Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, shared his experience implementing effective juvenile crime prevention programs. In his presentations, Mr. Bermingham emphasized the importance of gaining trust and starting preventative programs at a young age.

In Panama, the legislators were interested in creating an independent institution that would be responsible for addressing complaints made against police officers. Michael Tobin, Executive Director of the District of Colombia Office of Police Complaints (OPC), discussed the importance of an independent body serving as a mechanism to penalize police officers who are breaking the law. During the meetings Mr. Tobin stressed the importance of having an independent body, which would help ensure accountability within the police force.

In a time when we can find all the information we need from a google search, we often overlook the importance of human connection and face-to-face exchange of information. While online search engines are a valuable source for reference material it ultimately comes down to asking the right questions. An online search might provide you with all the statistics you need to asses a problem, but without understanding a foreign legislator’s perspective and how they prioritize those statistics, you likely won’t be able to find a solution that will effectively address the problem.  Increasing the amount of candid facetime with foreign legislators will help the United States ask the right questions and in turn jointly find solutions to problems we all share, such as citizen security.  

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