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Maximizing Intern Contributions in Your Hill Office | Commentary

Congressional interns are a valuable asset for Capitol Hill offices, performing many administrative functions. However, most offices do not have successful intern programs by any objective measurement. Interns are sometimes selected for the wrong reason (personal connections to the legislator), given very little training and are often supervised by the person who has the LEAST experience as a manager (the 22-year-old staff assistant — who was last year’s intern).

The need to have a successful intern program has only increased as a result of the budget cuts to congressional offices in the past three years.

This means having professional interns who contribute to the office’s productivity is not only desirable for congressional offices, it is now an absolute need. The Congressional Management Foundation has identified a variety of strategies and practices offices can use to ensure that offices create and sustain outstanding intern programs.

The CMF has found that the key ingredients to managing a successful intern program are: developing a clear purpose; creating a formal orientation and training program; providing clear guidance and structure; and balancing interns’ administrative duties with more substantive work.

The purpose of the program is to alleviate paid staff from performing administrative/research work that can be done by interns, while providing interns with a valuable learning experience.

The most common mistake offices and managers make is not fully integrating the interns into the meaningful work of the office.

“It takes too long to train them — I can do it faster myself.” Now, multiply that statement/task/activity a few thousand times in a year and you’ll realize it takes much less time to train a smart college student than to continuously perform the same task hundreds of times.

Building a consistent orientation and training regimen requires some upfront investment, but it pays huge dividends. Create a clear written manual that includes a welcome from the member, a confidentiality notice, office rules and policies, staff positions and responsibilities, intern duties and evaluation criteria. Give the interns a crash course in how to work in a congressional office.

If they are to interact with constituents (such as answering phones), train them on how you want this done. This is easier to do than you think and is essential for constituent interactions. I had one manager who continued to disregard my requests to train our interns on phone duty. They slurred the office name when answering the phone, sounded harried and came off as generally not interested in the caller’s concern. I finally told the manager, “Look, either the interns are trained by Thursday or on Friday you’re answering the phones.”

Effectively managing interns requires providing them clear guidance and structure, which can reduce the fear and anxiety associated with working in a new and intimidating environment. It should clearly define who the intern supervisor is and provide a regular forum for interns to ask questions, voice concerns and receive feedback. Staff may be reluctant or uncomfortable to provide feedback, but of-the-moment feedback is critical to interns’ performance.

Additionally, acknowledging good performance and letting interns know when they have met office expectations is just as important as critiquing performance. The key to effective feedback — whether positive or negative — is to provide it quickly and objectively to clearly identify the specific behavior you seek to reinforce or improve.

One way to do this is to use the “10-50 Rule.” After a staffer gives guidance on the assignment, the intern checks back in with the staffer after 10 percent of the work is done. This allows the staffer to make adjustments and ensure the intern is on the right track. Then, the intern checks back in at 50 percent of project completion. At this point, maybe the staffer sees unforeseen developments but can again make changes to ensure both the supervisor’s satisfaction with the work product and the intern knowing that the job genuinely contributed to the needs of the office.

Finally, the CMF estimates that less than 20 percent of offices conduct formal evaluations of their interns. Letting them know at the beginning of the internship that they will be evaluated, and on what criteria, contributes to a more professional internship. A management expert once opined, “That which gets measured gets done.” Let interns know up front the metrics you’ll use to assess their performance and you’ll not only give them a more valuable experience, you’ll get the work product the office needs to enhance your effectiveness.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and co-designed the intern orientation program currently used by the House.

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