A new Congress is open to new ideas

Experts in congressional relationships say agency leaders should seize the opportunity

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A currency of trust

The new Democratic-controlled Congress creates opportunities for agency leaders to sell lawmakers on their programs and priorities, said Grace Cummings, who spent 25 years working in congressional offices and political campaigns.

Agency officials cannot lobby congressional staff members, but knowing how to work with them and the committees they represent can help leaders communicate the value of information technology to the government, she said.

Building relationships and sharing information with staff members early in the legislative process is crucial. “When a hearing is called or a bill is introduced, about 50 percent of the game has already been played,” said Cummings, founder of Working With Congress, a consulting firm. She is also an adjunct faculty member of the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute.

Cummings, who spoke at a recent Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM) luncheon in Washington, D.C., said officials who want to share information with Congress should work with appropriators, authorizers and staff members in lawmakers’ personal offices.

Agencies haven’t adequately conveyed to Congress how IT helps government do its job better, faster, cheaper and simpler, said Richard Burk, the Office of Management and Budget’s chief architect and president of AFFIRM. “We need to include the Hill in the heart of this conversation about how information technology contributes to the mission of government,” he said.

In starting that conversation, remember that the employees in members’ personal offices are focused on constituents, Cummings said. “In the personal offices, tell the story of what you do to a member of Congress or [his or her] staff in human terms,” she said. “Don’t talk numbers, don’t talk theoretical. Say, ‘Here’s what we do to touch peoples’ lives.’ ”

But Cummings advised agency leaders to spend less time with members and more time providing information to appropriations and authorizing committees. “I wouldn’t start with the members,” she said. “When they’re in Washington, they have schedules that go every 15 minutes and they’re double- and triple-booked.” Committee staff members are the ones who craft legislation that authorizes programs and appropriates the money for them.

Committee staff members are quite different from personal staff members, Cummings said. “They feel themselves to be experts in the field and if you’re an expert in their field, you will be talking back and forth at a personal level,” she said. Agency officials can provide information that staff members need to do their jobs.

Experts in congressional relations say now is an optimal time for agencies to communicate their message. Members of Congress are “working more hours, holding more hearings and introducing more legislation,” said Kathy Gille, a training associate for Working With Congress and a former senior policy adviser to former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.). “They’re trying not to just catch the political waves but to chase them. It is a time when they’re trying to plant seeds for new ideas and new innovations.”

Cummings added that working with Congress is a game of policies, personalities and politics. “There’s never an issue that doesn’t include elements of all three of those,” she said. “It’s almost like you’re playing three-dimensional chess up on the Hill. Each level is one of those Ps. Since the previous election, everything is being shuffled: policies, personalities and politics.”

Another dimension of working with Congress is time, Gille said.

The House’s two-year electoral cycle, for example, has a profound effect on members, Gille said. The day after members are sworn in, “they’re back in campaign mode.” Then there’s the annual budget cycle, which keeps members focused on appropriations.

“It’s important to think about the timing of the appropriations process when you’re working with the committees,” Gille said.
Lessons from the HillFederal agencies must do a better job of communicating with lawmakers, short of lobbying Congress, of course, said Richard Burk, chief architect at the Office of Management and Budget. Speaking as president of the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, Burk said the federal information technology community knows that IT helps government do its job better, faster and cheaper, but that is not enough.

“We need to include the Hill in the heart of this conversation about how information technology contributes to the mission of government,” he said.

How to proceed? Take two tips from ex-congressional staff members about communicating with Congress.
  • Build relationships with committee staff members early in the legislative process, before they put words to paper.
  • Be aware of the timing of the appropriations process when working with congressional committees.
— Richard W. Walker

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