By Holly South
With legislatures gearing up for the 2019 session, it’s a good time to highlight some best practices of legislative internship programs discussed at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Los Angeles this summer.
Internship program directors in Arizona, California, Kentucky and Washington were on hand to share reasons for their programs’ successes before an audience of internship coordinators, legislators and others hoping to launch programs.
All four legislatures manage full-time internship programs that provide participants with academic credit and stipends. They require a significant investment in time and money on the part of both students and legislative offices. Students invest their tuition and at least one semester of their time; the offices commit full-time staff and resources to these programs.
Katy Proctor, who oversees Arizona’s House Majority Research Office, refers to its internship program as a “major pipeline” into Arizona’s legislative workforce. She discussed recruitment strategies via website, an increased emphasis on social media, email, word of mouth, and a tried and true method: snail mail. University partners have sent marketing letters to parents of eligible students to make sure parents are aware of the program and encourage their students to apply. She also emphasizes the importance of recruiting students with good communication skills; the application process includes multiple rounds of interviews and a writing exercise.
Geared towards graduate students, the Capital Fellows Program in California has been around since the 1970s (though the legislature has offered internship programs since the 1940s). Fellows, who receive fully paid enrollment at California State University (CSU)-Sacramento, are onsite for 11 months.
In addition to working as full-time staff for legislators or committees, they earn credit for graduate-level seminars taught by CSU faculty. An important component of this program, according to executive director Leonor Ehling, is mentorship: Fellows are formally mentored by program directors at the university and senior legislative staff in their placement office. They’re also encouraged to network and seek out additional mentors from among other legislative and executive branch staff.
Internships offer a way for students to immerse themselves in representative democracy. The focus of Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission (LRC) program is civic education—and, in fact, started in 1980 at the request of the governor, who felt the legislature should teach students about these concepts.
“My job,” says Sheila Mason, who directs the program, “is to make the student intern paramount.” The program combines academic coursework with relevant work experience. Interns work full-time as LRC staff and attend classes in the Capitol, some of which are taught by legislators.
“It’s the best laboratory a student of civic education could have,” Mason says. Several other benefits of the program for its intern, she adds, include career guidance, skills development, and preparation for graduate school or the workplace. All this work pays off for the LRC, as it allows them to vet potential employees. “We’re very comfortable [hiring them], because we know they’ve had this training.”
The other presenters agree. “Bringing in young people to immerse them in the process also allows us to evaluate them. It’s our single best recruitment tool,” says Brad Hendrickson, secretary of the Washington State Senate (and a former Senate intern himself), of his chamber’s internship program.
The biggest measure of success? State government as a viable career option. Although very few had any ties to politics within their family or friends, 41 percent of Arizona’s 2017 interns are now interested in a career in this area; 68 percent of Proctor’s staff is composed of former interns. And in California, many have gone on to serve as legislative staff and as local and statewide elected officials, including current Assemblymen Jordan Cunningham, James Gallagher, Patrick O’Donnell and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
Learn more about legislative internship programs here.
Holly South is a policy specialist in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program.