‘No training’ is a common staff complaint. Meet the Congress coaches

The program is part of an effort to beef up support resources in the sprawling workplace that is Congress

Amy Smith, one of four new CAO coaches, talks with Eliana Goodman in the new location for the CAO Coach Program in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Amy Smith, one of four new CAO coaches, talks with Eliana Goodman in the new location for the CAO Coach Program in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 13, 2021 at 6:00am

Roddy Flynn has been worried about burnout in the office, as staffers return to Capitol Hill on the tail end of the pandemic and begin a busy summer of legislating.

“I was sort of out of ideas,” said Flynn, who serves as chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania.

When he first took the job in 2018, he looked around for places to get training and advice. He didn’t find many, and he remembers joining a text chain instead, crowdsourcing answers with his fellow freshman chiefs of staff.

“To have people you can call, in a more formal way, would have been wonderful,” he said.

This time, he found a more official place to go — a new coaching program run by the House chief administrative officer, part of an effort to beef up support resources in the sprawling workplace that is Congress.

Flynn got on a call with Jessica Mier, one of four coaches now tasked with helping staffers navigate the decentralized structure of Capitol Hill, where every lawmaker’s office can feel like its own tiny world.

“There wasn’t a specific question, if that makes sense,” said Flynn, who was just seeking to get his employees excited, despite some lingering nervousness about returning to pre-pandemic norms.

But talking to Mier was easy, because — like all the new coaches — she’s a former congressional staffer herself.

“We understand, intimately, what they are asking themselves in their mind, but haven’t been able to articulate to someone,” said Mier, who once served as district director for Democratic Rep. Susan Davis of California.

Mier will work remotely from San Diego, but some of her colleagues will hold face-to-face meetings in their Capitol complex office, room B241 in the Longworth House Office Building. To kick things off, the CAO Coach Program will hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Knowing the lingo and how Congress works is key to building trust, said Amy Smith, another of the coaches.

“There isn’t a place for most House staff to go and get advice, to ask questions. There’s no training,” said Smith, who has worked as chief of staff for Republicans including Pennsylvania’s John Joyce and New Jersey’s Scott Garrett. 

She described a common complaint on the Hill, where policies and customs can vary significantly from one lawmaker’s office to the next. “A lot of us come here to the Hill. We’ve got a poli-sci degree. We don’t have a degree in how to run a small business; we don’t have a degree in how to do the human resources part of things,” Smith said.

The coaching program can’t fix all of Congress’ human resources challenges, but it can help staffers answer everyday questions, like how to manage a Members’ Representational Allowance or how to deal with constituent requests.

It’s the next step in the CAO’s Congressional Staff Academy, launched in 2017, whose offerings range from optional classes to mandatory ethics training. Attendance at the non-mandatory classes has expanded every year since 2018 and last year topped 8,500, CAO Catherine Szpindor told the House Modernization panel in May.

“Our hope is staff will learn the things no one ever tells you about to actually get things done,” Szpindor said in her testimony. “We will use a mixture of best-practice panels, internal and external speakers, quick tips, emails, videos, one-on-one coaching, quick lunchtime classes, and traditional courses to provide a full spectrum of content to our staff.” 

The new coaches have a combined 64 years of experience working for Congress, both on the Hill and in district offices, and they are evenly split between the two parties. Joining Mier and Smith are Daniel Chao, former chief of staff to Democratic California Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, and Chad Story, former district director for West Virginia Republican Rep. Alex X. Mooney

Just because the House is made up of 435 different offices doesn’t mean there can’t be some central resources, and having these coaches is a big step in the right direction, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. 

Surveys have found that staff tend to rank the importance of professional development close to on par with earning a good salary, he said, which means that coaching could also help with retention. 

His foundation in the past contracted with the House to provide training services to congressional staff and had at times been informal advisers but was not recently involved in advising the CAO on how to develop the coaching program, Fitch said.

In his view, one-on-one coaching is the “ultimate in the highest standard of training,” and it represents a “sea change” in attitude. It doesn’t hurt that as former staffers, the new coaches know the Hill well — the good, the bad and everything in between.

“You can turn a former staffer into a trainer,” Fitch said. “You can’t turn a trainer into a former congressional staffer.”