Mock Congressional Hearing

Students conduct a mock congressional hearing on the dilemma of state secrecy and experience the challenges of policymaking.


(1)   Understanding the Dilemma of State Secrecy. Students will gain a keener understanding of the dilemma of state secrecy as outlined by Sagar. They will recognize the tension between the necessity of secrecy and the need for democratic oversight. They will understand the advantages and disadvantages associated with oversight by courts, by Congress, and by whistleblowers and leakers.

(2)   Appreciating the Challenges of Policymaking Before an Audience. Students will gain a visceral experience of the difficulty of making policy in public. They will recognize the possible tension between trying to appeal to constituents on the one hand, and honestly assessing the strengths and weaknesses, or costs and benefits, of various policy options on the other.

Class: Gov 95jb: Secrecy and Transparency


In this activity, students conduct a mock congressional hearing on the dilemma of state secrecy. The class is broken into two teams: the policy experts and the members of Congress. Students will convene the hearing and discuss various oversight mechanisms with reference to their assigned readings. The instructor will act as the public audience. This activity not only seeks to promote a stronger understanding of the dilemma of state secrecy but also a visceral sense of the difficulty of policy deliberation in the public eye.



    1. Before Class. Students should have completed the assigned reading: pp. 1-50 of Rahul Sagar, Secrets and Leaks (Princeton 2013).
    2. In Class. The activity will begin with a very brief summary of the reading by a student volunteer, with restatement as necessary by the instructor
    3. In this activity, students will conduct a hearing before a congressional committee on the dilemma of state secrecy. With reference to the assigned reading from Rahul Sagar, Secrets and Leaks (Princeton 2013) (pp. 1-50), students will interrogate the various oversight mechanisms available and identify their strengths and weaknesses. The challenge posed by Sagar is to locate an oversight model that is:
      1. (i) effective at protecting against abuses of state secrecy;
      2. (ii) credible as an independent check on the national security state; and
      3. (iii) legitimate as an exercise of public power. Can we meet that challenge in this activity?
    4. Split the students into two groups. The first group will act as members of Congress presiding at the hearing. The second group will act policy experts who will testify as witnesses at the hearing.
    5. Give each group of students 10-15 minutes to prepare by discussing the reading and their ideas. The first group should brainstorm questions they wish to ask the policy experts about the various oversight mechanisms. The second group should identify which proposals they wish to recommend, analyze, and/or criticize. It is fine (and actually helpful) if students within each group disagree amongst themselves.
    6. Allow the students acting as members of Congress to convene the hearing. They should call witnesses in whichever order they see fit. For a full conversation in which each student has a chance to participate, allow at least 30 minutes.
    7. The instructor should act as the public audience, watching but not interrupting the proceedings. In order to help the students appreciate the burdens of deliberating and trying to make policy in the public eye, they should imagine that the proceedings are being broadcast and recorded for all to see (including their constituents, colleagues, etc.).
    8. After the mock congressional hearing concludes, students should have a chance to reflect as a group about the substance of the discussion-- which oversight model is best-- and about the experience of public policymaking. Allow 10-15 minutes for this final portion of the activity.

Follow Up: 

Students will not be evaluated except at the level of participation. It is important that they not feel they will be graded, in order to reduce inhibition and timidity. The instructor should however ask for students' feedback on the activity. Bruno did this using an anonymous midterm course evaluation about two weeks after completing the activity. Students' comments were very positive.


The benefits of using this activity are several. First, it puts students in the driver's seat, and helps them to take the lead in their learning process. Second, it stimulates participation by every student. Third, it provides a memorable way to explore the dilemma of state secrecy. Fourth, the role play allows students to experience the "phenomenology" of political transparency from the perspective of policymaker. Instructors should consider using this activity because it could be modified and applied successfully to a wide range of other topics, and it is an effective active learning tool.

Bruno’s advice to instructors who want to follow this activity is to answer students' questions at the outset, and be available to help out during brainstorming. In addition, instructors should resist the temptation to intervene during the mock hearing itself. It is important to empower the students to feel in control of and responsible for the proceedings.


The students may wish to consult the reading this activity. Otherwise, they need only their concentration and pen and paper.

For detailed information on the assignment, see attached handout. 

mock_hearing_activity.pdf84 KB