Congress has an essential role to play in addressing the nation’s challenges and serving the needs of the American public, but as an institution, it has neglected its own organizational health and seldom invested in its capacity to listen, legislate and lead.
But the future is hopeful.
The Partnership for Public Service is premised on the knowledge that good government starts with good people — and that is as true for Congress as it is for the executive branch. There are committed staff members working in Congress and we were fortunate to have talked with many of them about their experiences.
The first report for the Alliance of Congress, entitled “Serving the people: congressional staff perspectives,” offers a glimpse into how the staff who work on Capitol Hill view the health of Congress. While our research identified a number of shortcomings from the staff perspective that have hampered the effectiveness of Congress, we also found a strong commitment to public service by staff that has contributed to the institution’s strengths and enabled it to create pockets of success. Here is what we learned.
Congressional staff are dedicated to serving the public, have a passion for learning and a desire to make a difference. For many, their immigrant, military or first-generation college graduate backgrounds propelled them to pursue a career in public service by working in Congress, Democratic and Republican staffers at all levels also spoke of a commitment to giving back.
“ I loved working there. The pace was intense, but it was great to be doing something that matters.”—Wilsar Johnson, former director of digital strategy, Congressional Black Caucus
Others told us about how working in Congress provided an opportunity for hands-on learning about the complexities of the legislative process. It was a place where they could work with individuals committed to the mission of making people’s lives better:
“It was chance to make an impact and to work for somebody I really respected and knew I could learn from and do productive and important work with. At the end of the day, there’s no greater honor than being able to serve the public in some way.”—Will Quinn, former professional staff member, Senate Armed Services Committee
Interviewees also told stories about the people they met, the meetings they were part of and the instances when they presented opportunities to their bosses to act that led to real, tangible changes:
“Regardless of your political party or your philosophy about governing, members and staff come to Congress to make people’s lives better, to improve the country as a whole.”—Ananda Bhatia, clerk and research associate for the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress
We also learned about the many instances where the staff commitment to public service made Congress work better. When Congress is effective, leaders put their egos aside to lead change by being self-aware and by engaging with staff as experts. When leaders become champions of diversity, equity and inclusion, they can open doors to new voices and perspectives, thus making the work stronger and more representative of the diversity of the public.
Our report highlights profiles of success where the commitment of individuals to public service helped Congress deliver on its promises, as well as other, institution-level developments that will help Congress fulfill its mission. These efforts include the work of House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Congressional Staff Academy, among others. These three entities are example of Congress of investing in itself and seeking to improve operations, diversity and staff capabilities.
The Alliance for Congress is a new Partnership for Public Service initiative that will work to build a forward-looking Congress that functions more effectively and is capable of tackling big problems for the people it serves. Congress has the opportunity to modernize, and there are talented people inside and outside the institution committed to helping it do so. That’s good news.