Legislative work, as any staffer knows well, is not easy. Public service is rewarding, but legislatures are unique and demanding workplaces and it takes time to learn to navigate them successfully. On the eve of the 2021 legislative sessions, NCSL sat down (virtually) with five staffers—who between them have more than a century’s worth of experience—to learn their top tips for being effective legislative employees.
1. Know Your ‘Why’
Whether it’s a commitment to public service or a passion for a particular policy area, being clear as to why you choose to work for the legislature will help you stay focused and energized.
The driving force for Steven Ogle, assistant director of reviews and general counsel for the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, is the knowledge that if he and his colleagues do their jobs well, “citizens in Texas will have better experiences and services.” He recalls the commission’s recommendations for a prescription drug monitoring program, which served as the basis for the legislature’s actions to combat the opioid crisis. “I get to say I helped with that,” he says. “To me, that’s worth it.”
Helping people has motivated Sheron Violini, deputy secretary of operations in the California Senate, for nearly 30 years—that and the “dynamic, daily, never-ending change” of the job.
Miriam Fordham, legislative fiscal analyst in Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission, relishes the sense of accomplishment she gets from “helping legislators achieve their goals and do their job.” She “finds joy” in conveying complex information in an understandable way.
2. Build Relationships
The excitement of examining fiscal policy attracted Eric Nauman to legislative service, but it’s the people he works with who motivate him to stay. Now the lead fiscal analyst in the Minnesota Senate, he views his interactions with the state’s 67 senators as opportunities to develop connections and foster trust.
“Connections are super important and we, as nonpartisan fiscal staff, are salespeople for our work,” he says. “If members don’t find us approachable, don’t use us or won’t use us, we can’t fulfill our value.”
Relationships with staff are key to Charlotte Carter-Yamauchi, director of the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau. As a leader, she’s driven to “encourage and empower employees” and to create the type of environment in which she herself wants to work. Camaraderie and collaboration are important and she emphasizes that knowing “we’re all in this together” helps everyone during long and stressful days.
Because of the unique nature of the profession, both Nauman and Carter-Yamauchi recommend expanding your connections to colleagues in other states. Nauman observes that his work can feel isolating at times, so he checks in with fiscal staff in other states to learn how they handled particular challenges. It’s “very affirming,” he says, to know “that you’re not in the soup alone.”
3. Listen Carefully
Listening is one of the most important characteristics of being an effective staffer in the legislature, but it’s a difficult one to master. As Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” put it, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
Legislative staff are most effective when they listen and observe. For Fordham, listening and observing are ways not only to build relationships with members but also to be more effective in your work. “Sit back and listen. … These conversations with them will help you,” she says.
Look at the “breadcrumbs” of what members are saying publicly, Nauman adds. Pay attention to what they’re telling you and what they aren’t telling you. And ask a lot of questions. He values a free exchange of ideas with members, a nonjudgmental space for them to share their thoughts and feel that they’re being heard. Both he and Violini advise that active, careful listening can help staff avoid passing judgment too quickly or jumping in with solutions.
“After 26 sessions, it’s easy to assume problems legislators want to solve are not new,” Nauman says. But each lawmaker deserves individual service and help with policy problems. “It’s “important to get to know them, their motivations and why they ran,” he adds.
4. Be Curious
Most legislative staff are subject-matter experts on complex policy topics. How did they become experts? By being curious, asking questions and through in-depth exploration of issues.
Carter-Yamauchi counsels her staff to “always be curious and want to learn,” because “you never know what’s going to be important at the legislature.” Along that line, Ogle and his staff do the following to anticipate what might be important in an upcoming session:
- Review House, Senate and committee rules and note changes.
- Skim high-level summaries of each of the bills, which provide insight into members’ priorities and the “flavor of the legislative session.”
- Look at agencies’ appropriations requests and budgets to identify patterns of concerns (such as aging infrastructure or cybersecurity).
Asking a lot of questions, Violini says, “will help you understand the issues … (and) have a better understanding of whatever you are working on or whomever you are working with.”
5. Remember Self-Care
“Public service is demanding work,” Violini says. “These positions can often leave staff depleted.” She practices mindfulness and other mental-fitness techniques to keep from getting overwhelmed. She also recognizes when she needs a break and looks to her colleagues: “I have a good team of folks I work with, so we try to laugh a lot and find joy in our day.”
Fordham recommends being “cognizant of how you handle stress … what you say or do.” Learn to recognize signals, whether it’s neck pain or irritability, that it’s time for a short break.
And be sure take advantage of opportunities for down time, so that you have enough energy left for the long days toward the end of session. Ogle advises staff who are not in committees or on the floor to take a lunch break or leave early. “There are going to be days we need to be there until 2 or 3 in the morning, but decompress … when you can,” he says.
Carter-Yamauchi encourages her staff prior to session to take time off, connect with family and get plenty of rest so that they are both mentally and physically prepared for the days ahead. She also acknowledges that it’s essential for managers to recognize the emotional and mental toll on their employees and support them.
Violini suggests that managers implement cross-training to further encourage self-care among their staff. Cross-training “provides flexibility,” she says. “If someone needs time away from the office, then someone else can fill in.”
6. Respect the Institution
“Check your ego at the door,” Fordham says. Legislative staff represent the legislature. In a variation on the golden rule, Ogle advises staff to consider the dignity of the institution and the level of respect it commands and treat everyone they encounter with that same dignity and respect.
In every situation, staff need to remember that their goal is to help legislators achieve their goals. Because you represent the legislature, your work is ultimately on behalf of the people—the constituency of the members for whom you’re providing research, a bill draft or a press release.
In short, Ogle says, “the bosses are the legislature and the public each member represents.”
A century’s worth of advice to keep in mind as you prepare for the upcoming session: Asking questions and listening closely will help you build relationships and gain expertise, and those relationships, a little self-care and, perhaps most of all, your “why” will add up to success in the days ahead.
Holly South is with NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and serves as liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries. Angela Andrews directs NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and serves as the co-liaison to the National Legislative Services and Security Association.