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Fitch: New Members, Avoid These Office Mistakes

5. Hiring a friend as “counsel.” We occasionally see someone on a House personal office staff listed as “counsel.” Usually, this is a lifelong lawyer friend of the Member who has come to Washington believing they’ll think big thoughts on great policy challenges. Problems arise after they realize they don’t get an office, don’t get a secretary and that half their job is answering constituent mail. If you’re looking to keep this trusted adviser in the loop, create an ad-hoc advisory committee in the district.

6. Hiring your whole staff at once. In January you need a skeleton staff, but Members-elect should not plan on completing the hiring process until February. Once you learn your committee assignments and engage in a little early planning, then you can hire your legislative assistants and caseworkers.

7. Making an early promise to give back some of your budget. Giving back some of your office budget to the Treasury is a largely symbolic gesture, and that symbolism may be very important to you. However, it is best to assess your needs before you make that promise. Also, while you might get a political benefit from the gesture, know that it comes with a political cost as well. In other words, how much could your constituents benefit if you were able to hire another caseworker or legislative assistant with that money you plan not to use?

8. Not investing enough in communications. Congress has experienced an explosion of interest in the last decade. Measured by the number of constituents who contact their legislators, Congress is actually quite popular. According to a Congressional Management Foundation national survey, nearly half of adult Americans contacted their Member of Congress in the last five years. To manage that infusion of interest and opinion, Congressional offices need solid correspondence management systems, sophisticated e-mail newsletters and highly interactive websites. You don’t need all these by January, but by early spring 2011 you will.

9. Trying to answer the mail before you’re ready. In January, you get the keys to your office and the big stack of mail that’s been piling up for you since Election Day. Being a politician, your natural inclination will be to say to your skeleton staff, “We have to answer these all individually!” Here’s the rub: you can’t.

A constituent-mail operation is a mass-communications system. Until you have the resources and systems in place, you’ll have to bite the bullet and reply with a form letter or e-mail. Keep in mind what the constituents really want: to know you’re listening. Do everything you can in both the form-letter reply and in all your media interactions to communicate that while you may not be able to respond individually for the first couple of months, constituents’ voices are heard.

10. Setting up your district offices all at once. New Members need to think strategically about office locations. It’s easy to open an office — ribbon cutting, pats on the back from the mayor, coffee and doughnuts for guests. It is very difficult to close a district office, as it sends a message to the community that “I don’t care about you anymore.” Think about the best locations to deliver services to constituents and plan carefully.

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