The logistics of changing the world: why new members of Congress should treat their offices like businesses
At 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2019, there will be 110 brand new CEOs in Washington, DC. None of them interviewed to be a CEO, many may not even think of themselves as running companies. But in addition to their jobs as advocates for their constituents and the public good, the 100 new members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 10 new U.S. senators who get sworn in at noon on the third day of the new year are now in charge of what amount to small businesses in the form of their congressional offices.
All of these women and men came to Washington to advocate on behalf of their constituents and to make our world a better place. Before they can do that, they have to hire staff, rent computers and copiers, and take care of all of the rest of the logistics involved in starting a $1 million-plus operation from scratch. The reality of managing the day to day of doing the people’s business can be daunting. It is also the part to which members of Congress pay the least attention and unsurprisingly are the worst at. I say this not as a cynical academic, but as someone who has served in senior positions for two first-term and one second-term member of the House (and one long-serving senator, which is a different matter entirely). With this in mind, I offer the following unsolicited advice.
First: the most important to remember is why you’re there. Your party’s leadership and your consultants will tell you that your fist job is to get re-elected. That’s partially true – you can’t vote for good legislation if you’re not in Congress – but you need to be sure that you are getting re-elected because your constituents see you doing what you promised you would do. Getting re-elected requires being seen to be doing good, which means you have to do some good. You might not be there long, so make sure the time you do have is well spent.
Making your office as effective as possible comes down to management. The best managers establish a clear goal, build a system to achieve that goal, and fill that system with people who reflect your values and who will work hard for you – and each other – to achieve that goal.
Pick two or three things on which you will relentlessly focus for your first two years. These things should matter to your district and matter to you. Have a clear idea of what you want to be different in November 2020 because of what you start doing in January 2019. Then relentlessly focus on those few things. If you and your staff cannot draw a direct line from what you are doing at any moment on any day to those two or three goals, you shouldn’t be doing it. This focus will ensure you’re doing what you were hired to do, make it easier to make the case to your voters you deserve another term, and make it much easier to sort through the endless invitations and entreaties in which you are already drowning.
You then need to establish a system to do the work. That system needs to account for your strengths and weaknesses, the strengths and weaknesses of anyone you have already hired (for example your chief of staff), and for the realities of your district and budget. A system is not an org chart, a system is a network that works together to achieve a shared goal.
With a goal set and system in mind, hire to make the system work to reach your goal. It is tempting to hire the job titles you see in other offices. But you are not filling in boxes on a chart – you are connecting parts of a system. Make sure you’re getting the right parts for your system.
By hiring into a system, rather than hiring to fill line-items, you ensure you’re hiring people who want to work as part of a team to advance a shared goal. In a system everyone works with and for everyone else. Everyone is brought in because they have a specific skill set, and they have to support everyone else’s job as well. Legislative staff need to keep up with local issues to see connections between opportunities in Congress and lived realities of the district. District staff need to track legislation so they can flag threats and opportunities for constituents. Communications staff need to highlight issues and actions tied to the goals of the office. And everyone can answer a phone, meet with constituents, and answer mail. Mutual support is not anarchy – legislative interns shouldn’t take the lead on local editorial board meetings and caseworkers shouldn’t spend a lot of time with legislative counsel. But everyone should be looking for ways to support each other and to advance the office’s goals. Similarly, everyone should find ways to back each other up. There may be times when caseworkers are on the phone with leg counsel to make sure legislation does what it should do, and if the comms person needs legislative support for an editorial board meeting then an intern may need to step up.
Finally, and critically, you need to make sure you take time for yourself and make sure that your staff takes time for themselves. Washington puts a premium on appearing to be busy, but looking frantic and being effective are not the same thing. If you don’t take time to let your body and mind rest and recover you will not be at your best when you are needed most.
Now go do good.
Peter Loge is an Associate Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. Over a 25+ year career in Washington he has served in senior positions in the House, Senate, and Obama administration and in a range of organizations. His book, “Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game,” was published last summer.