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How Congress Can Combat Staff Brain Drain | Commentary

Congress has undergone significant changes to its operations in the past three years. To demonstrate its frugality during difficult economic times, Congress cut its own office budgets by up to 20 percent (much more than any federal agency). Most offices have implemented salary freezes, eliminated bonuses and downsized staff. Additionally, Congress shifted nearly all personal office staff from the health care plans used by other federal employees (and committee staff) to the Washington, D.C., small-business health care exchange.

It’s not surprising that changes this fundamental to the work environment are taking a toll. In a survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation, 81 percent of senior managers felt they would lose staffers as a result of the salary freezes and 79 percent said staff would leave because of the health care benefit transition. Equally unsettling, when asked if they would look for another job in the next 12 months, 4 in 10 chiefs of staff and state/district directors said yes. One senior manager responding to the survey said, “This is a business. And we keep punishing ourselves by eliminating the tools necessary to run our businesses properly.”

If these predictions come to pass, it would likely be the largest brain drain of talent Congress has ever seen. But managers still have some options to retain good staff, if they are willing to make some difficult decisions. These practical actions might be the difference between saving or losing a key staff member.

Free Up Funds for Raises and Bonuses

When an office has already shaved funds and shifted responsibilities, it’s time for a more sweeping strategy. Managers could reorganize the office to reflect the lower budget, with fewer staff and expenses, freeing money up for merit raises and bonuses for targeted personnel. This might seem harsh or non-egalitarian, but when you consider the most likely departures will be the best of your team (as they are the most attractive to other employers), it might be the only strategy to keep them on board.

Members and managers also should consider consolidating district/state offices. After labor, office rent back home is often the largest line item in a congressional office budget. With advances in telecommunications and technology, field representatives and caseworkers no longer need to be tethered to a desk. Yes, there will be a short-term political hit from the community that might feel abandoned. But managers who have made this move report the damage is not permanent, and offices often find their impact in the state increases as staffers cover more territory and connect with more constituents.

Maximize Efficiency in Operations

Improving efficiencies in the office has a dual benefit: In addition to getting more done, your highly motivated staff usually will feel more accomplishment in their job. Take time to examine labor-intensive tasks, such as casework and constituent mail, and identify ways to eke out every productivity enhancement.

Another double-winning strategy is to encourage staff to engage in training. Research of congressional staff indicate they crave professional development opportunities. But, while not explicit, the culture of congressional offices rewards staffers who never leave their posts! Managers should encourage staff to take classes, attend seminars and use online resources to grow professionally. The office also benefits from a better-trained employee.

Engage the Staff More Frequently

In a previous CMF survey conducted with the Society for Human Resource Management, staff were asked about aspects of their work contributing to job satisfaction. While 70 percent noted that communication between employees and senior management was “very important,” only 22 percent said they were “very satisfied.” It is especially important for the member to appreciate his/her power to enhance employee retention and satisfaction through interaction. More regular performance feedback, both formal and informal, or just the occasional “thank you” is the best, low-cost strategy to enhance performance and retention.

Finally, the biggest obstacle to employing these strategies will be the toughest to overcome: the member. Politicians hate saying no, and they have high expectations for themselves and the people they hire. But having that uncomfortable conversation with the legislator, asking what the office will not do, is the most critical component to adapting to these major changes to the office environment.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

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