Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.
Many Americans think they know Congress by reading the news and watching House and Senate floor activities. What most people don’t know is that Congress is made up of 535 small businesses, each managed by a lawmaker who makes all the decisions a small-business leader must make. Everything from establishing salaries to managing employee benefits to setting the strategic direction the office will take.
And like small businesses, each congressional office has a “customer service” operation to cater to the needs and requests of its constituents. The Congressional Management Foundation has been studying the business aspects of running congressional offices for decades and has recognized the best in Congress through our Democracy Awards. These “Oscars for Congress,” co-founded with the Bridge Alliance (which operates The Fulcrum), is the only nonpartisan objective assessment of the individual performance of members of Congress and of their staffs’ accountability to constituents.
The Democracy Awards were designed to identify those public servants who rise above their colleagues in vision and practice responsiveness to constituents. Just like a business provides customer service, members of Congress and their staff all have constituent service operations. Here are five characteristics of congressional offices that successfully serve the American people.
One common characteristic of successful offices is leadership vision. One winner, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), has established “stewardship” as one of the top values the office follows. This manifests itself in several ways, including connecting constituents with the governor’s office for state-related matters and helping constituents find access to food and shelter through local agencies and support systems.
A second characteristic is the establishment of metrics. In less than four years in office, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) has closed 5,573 cases, recovered $24,628,317 on behalf of constituents, and hosted close to 20 virtual workshops. Her office has guided constituents through interactions with the federal government, such as signing up for Medicare, filing taxes or achieving a small-business certification.
The third characteristic of great constituent service in Congress is establishing a culture of service. Underwood’s staff report they are guided by the following values: service, integrity, responsiveness, productivity, accessibility, kindness and excellence. In Johnson’s office, part of the customer service culture is based on creativity. During the pandemic, with face-to-face contact unavailable, the office set up “Drive-Thru Dusty Town Halls," where the congressman met constituents in parking lots and they yelled questions while he answered from the back of a pick-up truck.
A fourth characteristic is to offer diverse means and channels to access. Rep. Barry Moore (R-Ala.) has fun with the “B” in his name, inviting constituents to "break bread" with Barry by hosting public events at local restaurants, naming them "Breakfast with Barry," "Burgers with Barry" and "Buffet with Barry." Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) hosts regular virtual and mobile district office hours, which is an opportunity for constituents to meet one-on-one with their representative.
The fifth characteristic is a willingness to accept criticism. If DeSaulnier finds someone on social media disagreeing with him, his staff will reach out to set up an appointment so he can hear their point of view. He also refuses to leave any town hall meeting until every question (and questioner) is exhausted. After completing work with individual constituents, Moore’s office sends them a survey to provide feedback – both good and bad. This enables the staff to change and improve their processes so that they can provide better constituent services.
It's hard to have a positive view of Congress with the barrage of news stories touting their imperfections and foibles. Yet Americans must understand that even though they rarely see the good side of Congress, public servants are tirelessly aiming to respond to the needs and aspirations of their constituents. I’m not saying they’re all saints – they’re not. Yet nearly every member of Congress feels both a moral and a political obligation to provide the best service they can to their constituents.