From the Source: What Legislators Seek in Policy Professionals

The election year brings the challenges of public administrators and legislators into focus, with the 2017 General Assembly Session rapidly approaching. This politics-administration dichotomy is at the heart of Virginia’s government. A fall lecture program at Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP) in Richmond brings the challenges – and the opportunities – to life in conversations with grad students and some of Virginia’s best- known legislators.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Delegate Chris Peace (R) visit Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussionTwo legislators turned university panelists – Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Delegate Chris Peace (R) – visit Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussion organized and facilitated by Leisha LaRiviere, CPAP faculty. Master of Public Administration students, faculty and alums gathered for the dinner lecture, and were encouraged by the collaborative nature and inspired agreement of the panelists representing “both sides of the aisle.”

Uncovering how the Commonwealth’s public administrators work with elected officials was the topic of the evening. Delegates McClellan and Piece spoke about two common themes: 1) the language of good government; and, 2) the people of good government.

Striking a Balance with Simple Strategy Snapshots

Students at presentation by Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Delegate Chris Peace (R)

Students at presentation by Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Delegate Chris Peace (R)

Because Virginia has a part-time legislature, General Assembly members continue the responsibilities of their full-time jobs, in addition to their elected positions during Session. Legislators need to be on the chamber floor defending a bill, in a committee or work group meeting making policy decisions, discussing legislative support in their party’s caucus, or meeting with constituents when possible.

A Legislative Aide (LA) is the frontline of defense, knowing the legislator’s issue areas and policy positions. Public administrators and policy experts should pitch the policy idea to the LA, as if pitching to the Delegate or Senator. Waiting for a meeting with a member of the General Assembly and a high-ranking appointee or agency head might force a policy window shut.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) visits Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussion

Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) visits Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussion

“Often times, meeting with a legislator outside of session will afford more time with the legislator, and ensure open lines of communication once the hectic pace of session begins,” says Peace. “As part-time citizen legislators, we depend on our staff to be the liaison with stakeholders, citizens, and other policy makers.  Be assured that information shared with them will be concisely conveyed to the legislator.”  

In this context, both delegates shared advice for how public administrators can be effective policy advocates:

  • Present the complex policy issue simply
  • Spend equal time explaining supporting/opposing stakeholder views
  • Include relevant data

Briefing Best Practices

Generally, legislative briefing during sessions last about 10 minutes. According to McClellan and Peace, half of this time should be dedicated to a rapid question-answer period with the legislator or his or her designee. Briefings may even be “on-the-go,” if a legislator is heading to their next meeting.

Members will internally review outcomes of discussions with their Aide. Both delegates suggested one particular “leave-behind” that is the most helpful in this process: the one-page memo. Unlike policy papers, the “one-pager” quickly highlights relevant policy issues, the policy “problem” solved, and stakeholder. The piece of paper is a written approach to the 10-minute talk. That piece of paper serves as a reminder of you, the group, and the policy issue you represent.

Once internal consensus about a particular policy issue is deemed a high priority, the member convenes meetings between stakeholders (listed in the memo), the public administrator, and other relevant members to determine next steps.

Delegate Chris Peace (R) visits Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussion

Delegate Chris Peace (R) visits Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus for a panel discussion

“Meeting with the Master of Public Administration students at Virginia Tech’s Richmond campus gives me hope for our next-generation public administrators,” says McLellan. “The grad students were smart, curious, and engaged.  It was great to see several alums and faculty, too.  The commonwealth’s universities are important pipelines to Virginia’s political work.  It takes time, talent, care and energy to do our best for Virginia’s people.  Great to be with the Hokies for the evening!” 

Good Policy Necessitates Good Politics

Delegates McClellan and Peace believe that effective public administrators initiate policy decisions successfully, when they’ve shared clear, concise accurate information in the 10-minute talk and the one-pager. Successful, and bi-partisan, policy-making begins when all relevant stakeholders are identified and brought in to the conversation early.
Note: This story is one of two in a series. The next installment features the “backbone of good government,” or the people who help inspire and grow public leaders.

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The Virginia Tech CPAP MPA degree program is nationally accredited by NASPAA’s Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation.

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