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Fitch: New Members, Avoid These Office Mistakes

Former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) once said, “It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.” Running a campaign and creating a Congressional office are vastly different tasks. Setting up a House or Senate office includes all the challenges of starting a small business with all the red tape of a bureaucracy.

You have to buy furniture and computers, hire staff, set broad goals, create personnel policies, while complying with a dizzying array of rules established by the legislative branch of government. And, if that’s not enough, constituents will expect a freshman Member of Congress to articulate a vision that solves all of the nation’s problems — in less than 24 months.

Here are 10 mistakes to avoid.

1. Hiring someone you can’t fire. This is a good rule in any business, but in politics you’ll be under pressure from political supporters, friends and key stakeholders to hire the mayor’s daughter or your cousin’s nephew by marriage. Resist the urge with all your strength. You have very limited personnel resources when weighed against the mountain of work you’re expected to tackle. You’ll need the best and the brightest to get the job done.

2. Placing an early emphasis on policy and not enough on operations. You are about to start a policy wonk’s dream job. The world’s experts will parade before you. Brilliant minds await your phone call. And you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. To top it off, the world’s largest library (the Library of Congress) is across the street. However, you must avoid jumping into the deep end of the policy swimming pool and soaking it all in.

Yes, you have to get up to speed on some key issues and certainly be knowledgeable about what you’re voting on. But you also have to set up a constituent communications system, create office policies, hire staff and set up district offices. Getting things off to a smooth start will actually save you time down the road so you’ll have more time to devour that 40-page Government Accountability Office report on Mexican cattle inspections you’ve been dying to get to.

3. Not establishing clear communication and decision-making systems. If you’re like most freshmen, sometime around April next year your office will have its first mini-meltdown. A dispute will erupt between a district caseworker and a D.C. office legislative assistant, a crucial scheduling request won’t get answered, or a great opportunity will be missed to score a solid press hit back home. To juggle all of the demands on a Member, both internal and external, staff need clear guidelines on how decisions are made and communicated.

4. Not hiring enough D.C. veterans. Despite what you’ve been told, Congress is actually staffed by some pretty smart, dedicated public servants. While you may have campaigned “against Washington,” hiring some veterans of Capitol Hill offices will increase your likelihood of success in your first term.

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.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Building your freshman office is like writing the first chapter of your Congressional biography. And keep this final thought in mind: When they go to the polls in 2012, voters won’t be thinking about your first six months in office, they’ll be thinking about the last six months. Starting your first term well increases the likelihood you will end your first term well.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and the author of “Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials.”

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