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Online Program Covers Everything New Staffers Should Know

By Wendy Jackson and Taylor Dybdahl | May 4, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

When NCSL launched the Legislative Staff Certificate Program in 2020, the initiative was already years in the making.

The idea for the program, which is organized by the Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee (LSCC), was born in 1998, when Bill Marx, director of the Minnesota House Fiscal Department, chaired the LSCC Sub-Task Force on Legislative Certification. The sub-task force chose not to pursue the program at the time because of a determined lack of interest among legislative service agency directors.

But the idea percolated and—as staff demographics and available programming and technology had changed over time—NCSL Staff Chair Raúl Burciaga, director of the New Mexico Legislative Council Service, asked an LSCC subcommittee focused on staff professional development programs to “begin a new conversation” about a staff certificate program for the 2016-17 NCSL conference year. The subcommittee believed that such a program would help staff perform their jobs with more proficiency and gain awareness about the legislature as a whole, increase staff recruitment and retention, and improve service to the legislature.

For the 2016-17 NCSL conference year, NCSL Staff Chair Raúl Burciaga asked an LSCC subcommittee to ‘begin a new conversation’ about a staff certificate program.

In the 2017-18 NCSL conference year, Staff Chair Chuck Truesdell, a former fiscal analyst with the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, asked the subcommittee to continue exploring the idea of establishing a staff certificate program. During that conference year, the idea gained traction: The subcommittee felt that a certificate program could be the modern training model for less-experienced staff, many of whom find careers with a legislature via an indirect path. The subcommittee developed a certificate program with a curriculum structured around five core competencies and recommended starting with a pilot program and then evaluating it. At the 2018 Legislative Summit in Los Angeles, the LSCC approved the pilot program and directed NCSL to prepare for implementation in the fall of 2020.

Landing the Plane

In the 2019-21 conference year, current NCSL Staff Chair Martha Wigton mobilized a special LSCC work group to “land the plane.” The work group and NCSL staff spent the first half of that conference year planning for an in-person, full-day staff certificate pilot program to take place the day before the NCSL Staff Hub in Atlanta in October 2020, with a cap of 50 participants.

But in spring 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work group and NCSL staff swiveled (we’ve all heard the term “pirouetted” enough at this point!) from planning an in-person, full-day program to planning a live, online program that would take place over five two-hour sessions, each of which would be devoted to one of the core competencies. During this period of decision-making, we laughed, we cried, we meditated, and we kept planning.

With a clear vision, careful planning, strong collaboration and leadership, and necessary resiliency, the LSCC successfully launched the inaugural Legislative Staff Certificate Program in October 2020.

Designed for newer legislative staff, the program’s core competencies include:

  • The Legislative Institution: A snapshot of the role of state legislatures and how legislatures have evolved.
  • Legislative Fiscal Concepts: An overview of key concepts of the state budgeting process.
  • The Model Code of Conduct for Legislative Staff: A review of NCSL’s model code of conduct for legislative staff and discussion about how it may apply in the legislative workplace.
  • Effective Communication Skills: Understanding different communication styles in the legislative environment.
  • Leadership Skills in the Legislative Ecosystem: An engaging and interactive leadership training.

Held entirely on Zoom due to the pandemic, the inaugural program had 104 participants, split into two cohorts. Participants convened each Friday during October 2020 to engage in trainer-led sessions and connect with others in guided small-group discussions.

Staffers Respond

Accompanying the lessons related to the core competencies were conversations regarding the varying nature of work specific to each legislature. Kimberly Madsen from Utah noted that the program “encouraged me to consider the unique contribution I could make in my state in my role as a financial analyst.”

Participants had the opportunity to engage in peer-to-peer learning and networking with colleagues from across the country. Christopher Joseph, a legal counsel from North Dakota, said that “actively participating in the discussion topics and listening to the experience, expertise and opinions of other state legislative staff on different methods to resolve legislative affairs and matters, was the key component of the program.”

Tom Elder, a policy analyst for the Maryland General Assembly said, “I was able to apply what I learned during the most recent legislative session.” Particularly useful, he noted, was the module on effective communication in which he learned “to offer information to the legislators, their staff and the media in a manner they could understand.” Madsen, the financial analyst from Utah, valued this session’s message of “communicating with a focus on understanding others.”

I was able to apply what I learned during the most recent legislative session. —Tom Elder, policy analyst, Maryland General Assembly

Madsen also highlighted a leadership session led by NCSL trainer Curt Stedron in which participants were asked to identify knowledge and skills they already had that could be further developed. “I chose performance measures, an area I had studied and lectured on during my doctoral program,” Madsen said. “Just last week, I was able to co-present with a colleague from my office and our counterparts in the executive branch to state agencies on developing meaningful performance measures, a new and exciting collaboration our office has undertaken with the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.”

Madsen added, “I received great advice from NCSL on how to host a virtual training!”

When asked about his experience in the program, Paul Bergelin, a research analyst with the Arizona House of Representatives, cited the modules on parliamentary procedures and budgeting in different state legislatures. “Learning how these bodies operate also deepened my understanding of how my own legislature works,” Bergelin said, “similar to how learning another language made me appreciate the nuances (and occasional oddities) of English.”

A Program That Works

For those involved with planning the program over the last few conference years, the overwhelmingly positive responses and rave reviews from participants validated what we believed all along:

  • Jobs with legislatures are specialized, and legislative staff need specialized training.
  • Earlier access to professional development on topics such as the legislative institution, state budgeting processes, ethics, effective communication, and leadership in legislative careers can help staff think beyond their specific roles and develop more awareness about how they fit into the legislature as a whole.
  • With this awareness, legislative staff can be more proficient in their jobs, experience greater job satisfaction and better serve the legislature.
  • NCSL is the organization best equipped to train legislative staff.

For an idea that has percolated since 1998, the staff certificate program is an event to celebrate—so much so that the LSCC is currently planning a second online certificate program for October this year.

Wendy Jackson serves as the Administrative Services Manager for the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau and is a member of NCSL’s Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee. Jackson was instrumental in the development and implementation of the certificate program. Taylor Dybdahl is a senior staff assistant at NCSL and successfully served as the program moderator and “guide” for one of the first two cohorts in 2020.

If you’re a newer staffer with one to three years of legislative experience and have a desire to obtain a broader context about legislatures, and an interest in learning from your peers from across the country, consider applying, with your director’s support, to participate in the 2021 program. Applications open June 21, 2021.

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