Orientation: What We Learned

Congress is a unique place.  It’s got its own culture, its own vocabulary and even its own barber shop.  In short: it’s a not a place you can parachute into easily.

For this reason, every Congressional Fellowship has an orientation program at the beginning of its program.  Some orientations are as short as three days; others, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship, last as long as three months.

We allocated two weeks for our orientation, which ran from January 11 - 22, 2016.  Our challenge was to build an orientation program that could convey the basics about Congress in a short time—its procedure, its politics and its people, and adding some basics about current tech policy issues.  

Since we're a startup, we only had the month of December to design, build and schedule our orientation programming for our first class of Congressional Innovation Fellows.  Here’s What We Learned in that process.

  1. The best way to learn is to be there.  Our most effective day of orientation was the day we spent entirely on the Hill, viewing things up close.  We saw a Senate confirmation hearing.  We ate breakfast in the Russell cafeteria and walked through the halls of each House and Senate office building.  We saw a markup of a handful of telecom subcommittee bills and talked to the Committee staffers that managed the markup.  We read through hearing memos and background on a House Oversight Hearing about cyber-security export controls, and then watched it up close.   Our fellows said that viewing the process in person, which included watching Members question a witness during a hearing and seeing how staff interacted during a Committee markup, was an order of magnitude more effective than reviewing Congressional process on paper.
  2. Use CRS, and schedule early.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS)—which exists to serve Congress with nonpartisan, neutral expertise—provides free training for fellowship programs and teaches the fundamentals of Congressional procedure, rules and budget and appropriations. Sadly, I didn’t learn CRS provided this support to fellowship programs until December, at which point I wasn’t able to plug the fellows into any substantial CRS programming.  We’ve already met with CRS staff to begin planning for 2017.
  3. It’s hard to understand House and Senate rules without context.  I put together a binder of relevant reference materials for the fellows, which included the full rules of the House and Senate.  On day four of orientation, we read through each read set of rules.  It was wasn’t very productive, frankly.  First, the Congressional rules are incredibly dense.  But more importantly, it’s hard to understand the suspension calendar, or the Motion to Recommit, without context.  A better process, I think, would be to visit both the House and the Senate galleries and watch procedure up close and connect the rules on paper to the process viewed live.
  4. The AUMF is a great case study.  We used the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed immediately following September 11, 2001, as one case study for how a bill becomes a law.  It was a great primer about the importance of legislative language.  For one, the resolution is just 60 words, so you can look at each word of the bill.  The Global War on Terror is also an issue that every American already knows a lot about, so there’s no issue-specific expertise necessary to understand the bill.  We used the Radiolab episode 60 Words to guide the conversation, and it was a great framework for understanding how and why legal language matters.
  5. Launching on the Hill is worth the cost.  Events on the Hill aren’t cheap.  The most bare-bones catering (no food, minimal drinks) still costs $2,000.  We thought about having the launch at the New America offices instead of the Hill to save money but we decided to have it in Congress since it was our first class.  I’m glad we did.   Because the event location was convenient for Congressional staff, we had 50 show up, the vast majority of whom were TechCongress supporters working in relevant committees.  Fellows were able to meet several dozen staff quickly, informally and all in one place, which made arranging placement interviews a lot easier.   It’s worth paying for the over-priced catering to have the fellowship launch event in a Congressional office building.
  6. Skip the tech policy and focus on process.  The issue-specific programming I organized largely fell flat.  And the feedback from the fellows was that the most helpful part of the program was understanding the how part of Congress.  The what—the issues themselves—are harder to teach, and are relevant to some fellows, but not others.  Given the limited amount of time, next year we’ll focus more time on the process side of policymaking, rather than the tech policy itself.
  7. Two weeks for orientation is okay, but we could do more.  In the end, we were able to cover the basics of how Congress works in the two weeks we had for orientation.  We were able to cover essentials like the legislative process, Congressional Committees the political geography of Capitol Hill.  But there were other key topics that we could have spent more time exploring, including federal agency process and the budget and appropriations cycle.  Next year, since we’ll start with CRS trainings, I think we should expand the orientation to include a third week, to cover a few missed topics and allow fellows more time for networking. 
  8. Crowdsourcing ideas is hugely helpful.  I planned a lot of the orientation by crowdsourcing ideas from friends on the Hill on Facebook.  Among the questions I posted were:
  • What do you wish you'd known about Congress as a workplace before you started?
  • If you were putting together a list of the couple things someone should do to better understand how Congress or Washington works, what would be on it
  •  What inside-advice [about Congress] would you share with a new hire?

I got excellent feedback on how to prep our fellows for life in Congress.  A number of staffers said the Almanac of American Politics was an incredibly helpful resource for learning about Members of Congress and their histories, so we bought a copy of the book for each fellow.  People suggested quiet locations (Madison building cafeteria, Upper Senate Park) that are great escapes to work and think.  Others talked about the importance of explaining the office number and address system in the House (no digit=Cannon; 1=Longworth, 2=Rayburn).   We incorporated all this advice into our onboarding process and I believe it helped with the fellows’ acclimation to the Hill.