Washington – good or evil?
© Greg Nash

A politician of some notoriety recently made a comment about Washington that some Americans would agree with. “A lot of evil there… [a] lot of evil, a lot of bad people, a lot of bad people.”

On the contrary, Washington is filled with lots of good people – but we often don’t hear about them.

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The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) works with hundreds of congressional staff and members each year and has firsthand knowledge of how they work, what drives them, and what challenges they face. One of the most challenging aspect of their jobs is that they have to face on a daily basis a public that believes the worst about Congress and Washington: it’s filled with lawmakers and lobbyists who have the worst character flaws (greed, lust, selfishness) and that no one in Washington cares about the rest of the country.

Let’s counter that narrative with some facts (no fake news here!). I’ll recount an experience I recently had with the best of Congress: the finalists for CMF’s first annual Democracy Awards. We held a lunch for the finalists of our new awards to recognize excellence in congressional operations. Finalists were selected in four categories: Constituent Service; Innovation; Transparency and Accountability; and the “Life in Congress” award for Workplace Environment. Our team selected 20 finalists from more than 70 nominees, using objective criteria. The eventual winners will be chosen by former members of Congress and staff in a blind review (the names of the finalists will be redacted).

The goals for the Democracy Awards are basic. We want to recognize legislators and staff who truly deserve acknowledgment for their best practices in Congress. We also want to provide aspirational examples for congressional offices to emulate, in order to enhance the entire institution. We hope that we might improve public understanding and trust in Congress – even if only by a small measure.

CMF research and experience has shown that Congress is comprised of an amazingly dedicated workforce. With the Society for Human Resource Management we surveyed congressional staff, seeking to gauge their level of employee engagement – and the numbers were off the scale. In comparison to 35 percent of typical U.S. employees who cited “meaningfulness of job” as an important part of their work, an impressive 75 percent of congressional employees described their job as important, equivalent to first responders and the military. The staff of the legislative branch of government are as dedicated to public service as those who wear the uniform of our nation.

At the recent finalists’ lunch we asked the congressional staffers to talk about their work to tell us the stories of why their offices are different. We heard stories of offices using innovative technologies to better interact with their constituents; offices committed to retaining great staff (thereby serving constituents better) by employing modern “work-life” personnel policies; offices conducting genuine customer service surveys to improve how they help citizens; and offices going above and beyond expectations in transparency to build greater trust amongst their constituents. They were heart-warming and affirming accounts of public service at its best, which most Americans will never hear.

These types of stories, of Congress actually working, run counter to the general narrative that Washington is evil. But in this media environment, it’s pretty difficult for a good news story about the Congress to break through and reach audiences. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, CMF works to help explain how Congress functions, not to promote individual members or their agendas. Even when we publicized this positive story about Congress in the local districts of each member, we struggled to get newspapers, radio stations and TV stations to pay attention.

The idea that Congress is actually doing something good might have been so unexpected that people do not believe it could be true (or it could be that these awards are new). Yet it is true. The finalists of the CMF Democracy Awards – as well as many other staffers and members of Congress - work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents and do deserve recognition.

We hope to succeed in eventually showing the media and citizens that there are examples of excellence in public service, right in their backyard. Given the incessant drumbeat that Washington is evil, I would hope that Americans would appreciate the story of good emanating from Capitol Hill. We hope that the Democracy Awards can do just that, and, who knows, someday the program might even make citizens a little less cynical about their government.

Bradford Fitch is the President & CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. He has thirteen years of experience working as a congressional staff member and is the author of “Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials.”