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A Worldly Fellow

Hill Staffer Will Head to Japan for Mansfield Program

As he watched his boss, Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.), take the House floor to help introduce the Transportation appropriations bill early last month, Bob Letteney experienced one of those moments where a Member throws his staffer an unexpected curveball.

Listening to Olver discuss the bill he had helped formulate, Letteney suddenly realized that Olver had diverted from the prepared statement. The Congressman was suddenly singing Letteney’s praises and speaking about the unique opportunity the former legislative director will undergo as one of the seven candidates picked for this year’s Mansfield Fellowship Program.

Since then, Letteney has begun full-time coursework for the unique immersion program, which places federal employees inside the Japanese government to build a core group of U.S. officials who can serve as resources on Japanese issues.

The program, named after the late former Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), was created to fill a gap in the Japanese and American educational trade, said Mansfield Fellowship Deputy Executive Director Paige Cottingham-Streater.

“The Japanese government has for years been sending its best and brightest … to learn about our government,” Streater said. The program, which was established in 1994, seeks to broaden American expertise and help balance that educational trade, she said.

Since its inception, 60 fellows have entered the two-year program.

“As the program has grown it has become extremely wide-known through the Japanese government — and well thought of,” said 1996 Mansfield Fellow Scott Feeney, who now works in the Asia Pacific Affairs office of the Defense secretary.

While Mansfield fellows have represented 19 different governmental agencies, Letteney is only the fourth fellow selected from the legislative branch.

“When people first started thinking of the program they were going to isolate it simply for legislative staff because that’s where we lacked the most knowledge about Japan,” said Feeney, who was the first legislative branch staffer to join the Mansfield Program.

But, as the program has evolved, Mansfield applicants from the legislative branch have become a bit of a rarity.

“The Hill perspective is a little different because the vast majority of the people who’ve done this come from the executive branch, and when they come back, they don’t have to separate from service, they are still considered federal employees,” Letteney said. “Whereas for Hill staff, because the offices are so small, you can’t expect that your position can be left open for two years — it’s just not practical.”

Letteney left Olver’s office last month but hopes to return to the Hill when his fellowship ends — at least two years of federal service after the immersion in Japan is mandatory.

Letteney said he hopes to gain a better understanding of Japan’s experience with railroad privatization and public transit when he heads to Japan this time next year. His plans are to work in the Japanese Ministry of Transportation’s railway bureau and to serve with the committee on transportation or the committee on budget within the Diet, the nation’s parliament. When the fellowship ends he said he would like to work for a member involved in transportation policy or on a Congressional legislative committee.

He said he and his wife are excited to begin their adventure oversees. But before that happens, Letteney will spend five hours a day in class, and an equal amount of time outside of class, studying Japanese language and government issues so he can function effectively when he gets to Japan. He described the intense two-person class experience as “one of the harder things I’ve done.”

But Feeney says the year of study is necessary because once a fellow gets to Japan, he or she is expected to function just as any other employee in the assigned job.

“The first three months I was there I was doing nothing but listening to people and opening dictionaries,” said Feeney, who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during his time in Japan. “Nothing prepared me for the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs-ese’ that they spoke there. Just like on the Hill there is a certain amount of jargon that people aren’t going to understand off the Hill.”

He added that the extremely long hours and a stigma attached to the first person to leave the office were adjustments he had to learn to live with.

But, for Feeney, the experience has paid off in the contacts he still has in the Japanese government and the understanding and insights he has gained. And Letteney said he’s eager to have that same kind of immersion experience.

“Branching out and meeting new people has always been a personal interest to me,” Letteney said. “It’s more exciting than anything else. The more you push your comfort level, the more doors you’ll open and the more you learn.”

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