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Congress is not just a political institution, it’s a workplace. To outside observers, that comes as a bit of a surprise. But to the Capitol Hill community, we see the challenges of managing employees every day. This is getting even harder in an era of shrinking congressional budgets, looming changes to employees’ health care benefits and consistent criticism of Congress by constituents and the media.
The Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management recently shed new light on this workplace with our latest report, “Life in Congress: Job Satisfaction and Engagement of House and Senate Staff.” Among the key findings is that congressional staff are highly engaged — more than the broader U.S. workforce. Four out of five staffers report that their work gives them a sense of personal accomplishment and three out of four report having passion and excitement about their work.
However, the research also suggests that senior managers (chiefs of staff, district/state directors and legislative directors) and members of Congress aren’t doing enough to communicate with and guide staff. While 70 percent of congressional staffers reported that “communication between employees and senior management” was very important, only 22 percent said they were very satisfied with this aspect of their job. Similarly, 72 percent said “opportunities to use your skills and abilities in your work” was very important, but only 32 percent said they were very satisfied with this aspect. And 70 percent said that their “relationship with [an] immediate supervisor” was very important, while 41 percent said they were very satisfied with the relationship.
These are not just irrelevant numbers to Congress or the American public. Having an engaged workforce means constituents get better service when they reach out for help; members get a better work product when crafting legislation; and staff stay in their jobs longer, adding experience and institutional memory to the work process.
In the past three decades of working with congressional offices, we’ve identified three key recommendations and areas of improvement that members and managers can employ.
Set a clear direction for the office. Operating a congressional office is like running a small business, with the member of Congress serving as the CEO. In the best-managed offices, the member is the leader of the office, setting the overall direction, while the senior management staff manage the day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, many members fail to set priorities because it means saying “no” to something when they want to do everything. Unable to balance their aspirations with their resources (budget and staff), they overburden themselves and their staff. Consequently, they often find that, despite their efforts and ambition, they have accomplished little because they are spread so thin.
Foster a positive organizational culture. In Congress, the member’s political ideals, personal values and professional ambitions are the basis for the office’s culture. How members and managers interact with staff is the glue that binds those factors and produces the results. Those who bestow a sense of trust, respect and appreciation on their staff are more likely to enjoy the incalculable benefit of loyal, committed and motivated staff. Those who don’t tend to experience high turnover, loss of office productivity, insufficient institutional memory and a lack of office continuity and teamwork.
Institute a performance management system. Most congressional offices use a haphazard approach to managing staff, intervening only when problems arise. By investing wholeheartedly in the development of staff, members and managers can create a better office and achieve greater goals. This is not a once-a-year review process — it requires year-round communications and feedback to employees. The system should focus on the professional goals of the staff and the office and how they interrelate. Employees should work with managers to set personal goals, and review meetings are those opportunities to assess progress.
There’s good news and bad news for members and managers as they assess the job satisfaction and engagement of their staffs. The good news is that congressional staffers are a highly engaged workforce. The bad news is they’re highly engaged employees who also require a commensurate level of engagement by their bosses.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization serving Congress and its members with operational guidance and research.