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The Cures to Freshman Office Headaches | Commentary

Freshman lawmakers come to Washington with a full head of steam, armed with the belief they can change the world. They have grand photo opportunities in January on swearing-in day, surrounded by family and burdened with the great expectations of their supporters.

Soon after the cherry blossoms fall from the trees surrounding the Jefferson Memorial, reality sets in. They start to experience what the Congressional Management Foundation calls “The Freshman Blues.”

The member and staff have their first district scheduling snafu, a missed press opportunity lands the communications director in hot water, or a minor dust-up occurs between and legislative assistant and district caseworker. Congressional leaders, campaign committees and well-intentioned friends such as the CMF try to warn freshmen that these management glitches will happen and can be avoided. But as new members and staffs are beseeched by so many stakeholders, it’s difficult to get their attention until they feel the pain. Said another way, you can’t sell aspirin to someone without a headache.

Like the biennial clock of a new Congress, the freshman headaches have arrived. Here are some of the pains freshman offices are likely experiencing right now, and how to cure them.

Inefficient staff meetings and project management. Two of the biggest challenges to congressional offices are how to run a staff meeting, and how to set up communications/reports systems that gets everyone the information they need to do their jobs. The common system for congressional staff meetings usually involves everyone getting together Monday around 9:30 a.m. for this: “Now let’s go around the room and have everyone tell everyone else what they did last week and what they’re working on.” It doesn’t get more inefficient than this. Instead, clean weekly reports should be produced by Friday afternoon — organized by project, not person — tracking progress on the legislator’s strategic goals. Staff meetings should be for coordinating projects, resource allocation, and decision-making — not to review everyone’s task list.

Hiring too many campaign staff. Running a congressional office is not like running a campaign. Some offices may have tilted too heavily in hiring campaign staff for the congressional office. This can lead to dysfunction and dissatisfaction by employer and employee alike. If you still have people from the campaign frustrated in their new roles, work out a fair and decent transition. The best offices have a mix of former congressional staff and campaign staff.

Scheduling problems. The CMF and the Society for Human Resource Management produced a report a few years ago, based on a survey of House members, that showed the average length of a work week during session is 70 hours per week; during recess it’s 59 hours per week. (I have a hunch this research is not part of the campaign committee candidate recruitment packets.) Despite that extraordinary sacrifice by the legislator, freshman offices sometimes don’t use their time wisely. Recess schedules should be mapped out three weeks in advance, with two or three “proactive anchor events” tied to the legislator’s goals (accompanied by “reactive” invitations from groups). And family expectations should be clear and expertly managed. Chiefs of staff and schedulers should know which birthdays, anniversaries and parent-teacher conferences are must-do’s. Regrettably, the member is usually the one who can’t say “no” to “just one more meeting.” Staff can help them by engaging in a healthy conspiracy with the boss’s spouse to ensure appropriate personal time is scheduled.

Members trying to do too much. The most common problem freshman offices face is curtailing the new member’s appetite to do everything. Every meeting they have, every trip they take, even simple visits to the House gym can result in a raft of new projects for staff (on top of last week’s raft of new projects). Freshman senators have more time and resources, but House members do not. They need to craft three to five strategic goals and stick with them. If they don’t, they’ll end up becoming one of two kinds of members of Congress.

If they’re from a safe district, they’ll become an ineffective member; if they’re from an unsafe district, they’ll become a former member.

Ask your boss, “What kind of member would you like to be?”

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

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