Chapter 4: Overhaul the Onboarding Process and Provide Continuing Education for Members

The months leading up to Election Day—for any candidate—are usually a whirlwind. For newly elected Members of Congress, a victory on Election Day is just the beginning. Soon after winning their congressional election, new Members attend an orientation process, are required to find and lease district offices, hire staff, and figure out living arrangements in Washington, D.C. This is done in a matter of weeks right before the busy holiday season, without paid support staff and before they are officially sworn-in to office in early January. As a result, many newly elected Members begin their congressional careers overwhelmed by the constant flow of new information, from learning about the budget and appropriations process to leasing an office in their district. Members are required to make a number of immediate decisions with little-to-no training or guidance. Despite their varying lengths of service in the House, Members of the Committee all vividly remembered their orientation experiences, and recognized the need to examine and improve the current onboarding process to better support freshman Members during this critical transition period. Doing so will help new Members hit the ground running upon their swearing in, ready to work on behalf of the American people.

Chair Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves met several times with bipartisan groups of freshman Members to hear their firsthand experiences and recommendations for making Congress more effective and efficient. Additionally, the Committee’s extension through the 116th Congress was supported by a bipartisan group of nearly 40 freshman Members, who sent a letter to House leadership encouraging continuation of the Committee and its mission.[135] During the Committee’s Member Day hearing in March 2019, many of the Members testified on the importance of this onboarding period, and several freshmen Members shared their own ideas for reform. A number of these ideas were discussed and highlighted during the Committee’s hearings, meetings, and briefings. In a July 2019 hearing about continuing education and training for Members of Congress, Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and William Timmons, the Committee’s two freshman Members, chaired the hearing and described their orientation experience as follows:

Image 4.1: Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon listens to a witness during a Select Committee hearing.

Image 4.1: Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon listens to a witness during a Select Committee hearing

“We came to Congress with different backgrounds but with a similar goal, and that’s to solve problems for the American people. By improving the support, resources, and tools available to new Members of Congress, we can help the next generation of leaders get to work as soon as they set foot in our nation’s capital.”
Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and William Timmons, July 11, 2019

Committee Members also recognized that onsite educational opportunities must extend beyond freshman orientation. Many Members come to Congress with no formal training in office or administrative management, leadership and negotiation skills, or the intricacies of policymaking. Learning should be an ongoing process and Members would benefit from having readily available opportunities to build the skills and knowledge they need to be effective leaders. The Committee identified this gap in services available to Members, knowing the American people would be better served by a Congress that invests in on-the-job training and education for the people they’re elected to serve.

The recommendations put forth by the Committee in this chapter address the issues and concerns expressed by many of the freshman class about their onboarding and orientation experiences, as well as the need for continued education. The recommendations reflect the expertise shared by witnesses before the Committee, as well as best practices and guidance. The Committee’s overarching goal was to find ways to make orientation a nonpartisan experience that eases the process of setting up offices and provides training so that newly-elected Members are better equipped to prepare for their first term in Congress. The Committee also addressed additional training and continued education opportunities for all Members.

This chapter begins with an overview of the current onboarding process for newly elected Members, then turns to the need to provide continuing learning opportunities beyond a representative’s first year of service. These recommendations were passed by the Committee on July 25, 2019, under the package titled “Recommendations to Streamline House Human Resources, Overhaul the Onboarding process, Improve Member Continuing Education Opportunities, Modernize House Technology, and Review Accessibility.” A detailed review of the Committee’s recommendations for orientation process reforms and continuing education follows.

When the Committee held a hearing titled, “Fostering the Next Generation of Leaders: Setting Members Up for Success,” on July 11, 2019, the Committee’s two freshmen Members, Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and William Timmons stepped in as Acting Chair and Vice Chair, a rarely-seen practice on Capitol Hill.

“We were thrilled to hand the reins over to our freshmen colleagues today. Historic in their numbers and diversity, Reps. Scanlon and Timmons bring the collective vibrancy and fresh perspective of the freshman class to our Committee. This hearing provided a lot of ideas on how to better prepare new Members of the House to hit the ground running as we take on the biggest challenges facing our country.”
Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves, July 11, 2019

During the hearing, Reps. Scanlon and Timmons shared their own experiences with the new Member onboarding and orientation process, as well as the perspectives of their freshman colleagues. Arriving in Washington after winning election, according to many freshmen, is like drinking water from a firehose. 

Approximately one week after Election Day, new Members arrive on Capitol Hill for orientation. Their schedules are packed with tours, briefings, and opportunities to meet with their new colleagues. Many of the sessions are meant to introduce Members to the mechanics of the job like setting up an office, hiring staff, and learning the official House Rules. The briefings are primarily organized by the Committee on House Administration and cover topics like office budgets, personnel regulations, and travel limitations. New Members also learn the ethics guidelines. In 2018, orientation included a new session on workplace rights and responsibilities, including sexual harassment.[136]

In addition to the orientation programming conducted by the Committee on House Administration, Members of the class of 2018 could attend the Harvard Kennedy School orientation program at Cambridge, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) orientation program in Williamsburg, Virginia, and programming by the Heritage Foundation. Members could also choose from dozens of panel discussions provided by internal experts and outside groups. Overall, orientation programs were provided on 18 of the 57 days between Election Day and the January 2019 swearing in.[137] Newly elected Members can also seek assistance from outside organizations that provide resources and guidance on setting up a new congressional office.[138]

In late November, office suites are allocated by lottery. After their senior colleagues have claimed their offices, freshman Members draw numbers and are assigned offices based on the luck of the draw. To facilitate this process, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) coordinates closely with in-house stakeholders, including the Committee on House Administration, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Sergeant at Arms. Following the 2018 elections, there were 87 departing Member offices that moved out, 288 seated, new Member, and leadership office move-ins, and 38 majority and minority committee office move-ins. There were also hundreds of district office closures and openings to facilitate.[139]

Once offices are assigned, Members begin the process of figuring out how to furnish and organize a small space to fit the staff they have yet to hire. Though many Members serve in their state legislatures prior to serving in Congress, the experience of “setting up shop” on Capitol Hill is unique and for many, surprisingly burdensome. The logistical and support work involved for Capitol complex staff is undoubtedly immense, especially when an incoming class of new Members is large. The class of 2018 was the second largest in history, with 92 new representatives and one new delegate elected. In his testimony before the Committee, House CAO Philip Kiko said:[140]

“From November elections through the start of a new Congress, there is far too much time spent by Members and Members-elect on administrative items, such as executing a lease for a district office, outfitting the offices with the necessary furniture and equipment, and facilitating the setup of the office’s IT systems.”
Philip Kiko, July 11, 2019

Over the course of the transition, House Information Resources configured hundreds of computers and mobile devices for new Members and their staff, and processed thousands of technical service requests. According to Mr. Kiko, the CAO’s team “moved 13,033 pieces of equipment, cleaned and/or refurbished 1,797 furniture pieces, and installed close to 13,000 yards of carpet” during the transition. The Office of Payroll and Benefits processed nearly 60,000 transactions between October 2018 and January 2019 and conducted over 500 one-on-one consultations with new and departing Members and staff.

The CAO works with the Committee on House Administration to simplify some of the office setup processes, such as automatically providing each new office with a fully functional website from day one. Member offices can later decide if they want to redesign their website or use an external vendor. While this ongoing move toward streamlining processes is positive, there is more work to be done. In his testimony, Mr. Kiko acknowledged the importance of the CAO’s office handling as much of the new office administrative work as possible in an effort to relieve some of the burden on newly elected Members.

There are additional onboarding processes that can be automated to save time and frustration. The CAO planned to develop a comprehensive transition playbook based on feedback gathered from a post-transition survey of Member, committee, and leadership offices, as well an in-depth examination of the transition at the beginning of the 116th Congress. Past CAO surveys have focused on collecting “customer service data” from freshman offices on services like the provision of furniture, equipment, and technology. While this data is important, it does not include freshman feedback on broader topics outside of the CAO’s jurisdiction. A holistic approach to setting up new Members for success should include a mechanism for collecting freshman perspectives on their first year in office.  The House could use this feedback to better support new Members as they begin working in Congress on behalf of the American people. 

Continuing education for Members was another important issue that was raised often during many of the Committee’s conversations. While the learning curve for newly elected Members is steep, the challenges presented on the job don’t end after the first few months or even the first year in the office. Many Members lack experience in managing an office and navigating the administrative tasks that come with overseeing multiple offices, often great distances apart. The personnel issues that come along with hiring and overseeing staff are new to many Members, as are often the leadership, negotiation, and public speaking skills they need to do their jobs well. As Richard Shapiro, former CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said before the Committee on July 11, 2019:

“How can we promote professional development for everybody in this institution? Because if everybody’s getting better, the institution is going to get better.”
Richard Shapiro, July 11, 2019

Many Members of Congress—including four Committee Members—began their careers in state legislatures.[141] While there is no formal training for how to be an effective legislator, some states are beginning to expand their legislative training programs beyond orientation. Wisconsin, Maine, the Hawaii House, the Colorado Senate, and the Washington House provide ongoing professional development to new legislators in at least one topic (for example, Colorado provides ongoing parliamentary procedure training, Idaho provides civics education, and other chambers and caucuses assign mentors).[142]

In addition to these state-based training programs, organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) develop valuable programming to help legislators develop the skills they need to be successful. Because every state legislature is unique, NCSL customizes its training to reflect the environment and norms of individual states. For Members of Congress, no such formal training exists. As Committee Vice Chair Tom Graves noted in a July 11, 2019 hearing, he’s chaired committees but has had zero training in how to be a committee chair—procedures and day-to-day operations have been learned on the job in real time.

On-the-job training is essential for Members of Congress to learn the mechanisms of committee hearings or floor proceedings, for example. But other skills are more nuanced. The art of negotiating or effectively leading can only partially be learned through observation. By providing Members with opportunities to develop these skills, Congress can strengthen itself. As Stacy Householder, Director of Leaders' Services and Legislative Training, National Conference of State Legislaturessaid before the Committee:

“Leaders across the country find ongoing skills development for their caucus or chamber appealing, principally to help new legislators create a standard of what it means to be successful.”
 Stacy Householder, July 11, 2019

The Congressional Staff Academy offers a model by which the House can develop a similar Congressional Leadership Academy for Members. In 2018, the CAO launched the new Congressional Staff Academy, which delivers a variety of seminars and training for House staff. In developing its curriculum, the Academy gathered direct feedback from nearly 600 individual House staffers about the types of information they need to support their Member of Congress. In addition to in-person training, the Academy offers remote programming to reach district staff as well as staff who want to take courses on their own schedule. A new “learning management system” provides a one-stop shop where staff can register for in-person courses, take online courses, and track their course completion status.[143]

By making recommendations to improve the freshman orientation process, the Committee aimed to set Members up for success. And by recommending continuing education opportunities for all Members, the Committee recognized that successful leaders continue to learn and grow on the job.

“We as a Committee have spent a lot of time talking about professional development as it relates to staff but it’s also important that Members have avenues to advance their priorities and move into leadership roles.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, July 11, 2019

Recommendations

Conclusion

Ensuring that Members are provided with tools to succeed from the get-go, as well as opportunities for continued growth throughout their tenure, will ultimately make them more effective legislators on behalf of the American people. The goal of setting up newly elected Members for success can be achieved through reforms to the onboarding and orientation process that help ease the transition. A “just-in-time” approach to training ensures that freshman Members receive crucial information when they need it most. The orientation process should also emphasize the core values of civility and collaboration—division of freshman Members by party should be avoided or kept to a minimum in favor of a bipartisan experience.

And opportunities to learn shouldn’t stop after a Representative’s first year in Congress. The institution, and the people it serves, evolve as outside events shift the policy agenda—and Members should be able to adapt and evolve, too. By encouraging access to professional development resources and training, and requiring updated training for an increasingly technological world, Members can continue to learn and in turn, better represent the people who elected them to serve.

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