Hi, my name is BaseballChica03, and I work for an elected official. (We’ll call him Bossman.*) We staffers ordinarily have a pretty thankless job, but it seems like this election season more than most brought out extra hate for local, state, and federal employees. I realize that cities and states all over the country are in a budget crunch, and the idea of your tax dollars going to my salary is distasteful to some people. But our jobs are pretty important, and on this Election Day, I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you a little bit about what it is that people like me do for a living.
I always find myself writing posts like this one as comments on various blog sites in response to people who thing government staffers are useless and don’t do anything, or to people who complain about elected officials’ aides just mail merging letters and not caring about what voters think. In fact, I found myself doing it last night, which inspired me to write about this topic that our own Ophelia Payne found so interesting when I mentioned to her last week that Bossman has his election today.
As a disclaimer, though, I want to preface this all by saying that a lot of how an elected official’s office works will depend on the individual legislator (or executive, I suppose, but I happen to work for a legislator) and how involved he or she wants to be with the community. Obviously everyone can’t be like Bossman. If they were, our country would probably be in a much better place right now. But every time you call up your elected representative because you have a complaint about the way things work, or a problem with something going on in your neighborhood, there is still someone who has to answer that phone or read that letter or e-mail or talk to you when you’ve just dropped by, no matter what happens next.
The biggest complaint that I hear is that replies from elected officials often seem “canned” or insincere. It is true that we send out the same response over and over and over, but it is because we hear about the same issues over and over and over. After all, there are only so many ways you can say the same thing. A good team will come up with a letter that doesn’t seem canned or insincere, but I think a lot of it also has to do with how people perceive the interaction in the first place. Even thoughtful responses can come off as “canned” if the recipient is in an angry frame of mind about the situation.
Secondly, just because you receive a common or form response does not mean that the elected official hasn’t heard you. In our office, for example, we have liaisons who do the work of writing and sending out correspondence, but as the outreach director, I keep track of everything that comes into the office as I assign it out and get a feel for what issues and problems are common among our constituents. We log every piece of casework and constituent contact into a system and produce log files for the Bossman about how frequently we’re contacted by people from the different neighborhoods, and which issues come up most frequently. We file all the letters and e-mails and phone call sheets into a file by subject area so we can go back to it if the issue comes up again later or if we’re pushing the Governor about a bill. (e.g.: “I’ve received 200 letters from my constituents about A.B. 12345, and I urge you to sign this important piece of legislation.”) The staff each send Bossman weekly reports of what we’re working on so that he can keep tabs on which issues and projects are on the radar at the moment and what requires action. In our weekly staff-only staff meeting, our liaisons and I all give neighborhood reports and talk about common issues, and our legislative director fills everyone in on what’s going on in the capitol.
So there’s a lot, lot, lot going on behind the scenes for a voter just to receive what seems like a canned message. And yes, most of the time it is staff that takes care of that letter you received,** not the elected official himself or herself. But the elected official has a lot of other things to do – community leaders to meet with, legislation to write, review, and lobby for, special projects in the community that need assistance. Would you rather he or she spend his or her time doing that, or sitting in an office answering e-mails? That’s the whole reason why they hire staff in the first place, to delegate work so they can focus on bigger things that need to get done.
Beyond just letters and phone calls and casework, the staff of an elected official’s office has a lot of other tasks. For example, when you go to a Town Hall meeting to voice your opinion, it doesn’t just happen by magic. Someone (probably me) had to organize that event: reserve the room, let you know it was happening in the first place, set up the tables, make the coffee, research and write talking points, clean up everything when it’s all over. If an elected official has a good staff, you’ll never know we were there; our job is to make events like that run well without you even realizing it.
We are also at your block club meetings and your clean ups,your educational events and your Little League bake sales and your community garden pancake breakfasts. Why? Because it’s the job of Bossman and his colleagues to represent the people, and he doesn’t know what the people want or need unless we are out there working side by side with members of the community. We get phone calls and e-mails and letters by the thousands (literally), but that’s no substitute for getting out there and chatting with Suzie Q. Public at a block club meeting to find out that the City is not responding to her 311 calls about a falling apart building on the street, or that she knows drugs are being dealt at 123 Sesame Street and can we please do something because the police haven’t been able to help.
?Laws don’t just materialize out of thin air, either! For every law that makes it into the books, there was a staffer just like me who had to find out what problem existed that wasn’t addressed by the current law, research it, write it, review it, review it again, rewrite it, review it again, talk to the community to find out what they think and need, review it again, review it again, review it again. Then someone has to fight like hell to get X number of other legislators in one or more houses to vote for it, and then to get the Mayor or County Executive or Governor or President to sign it. And then we have to let you know that this change has happened, which can sometimes be an uphill battle if the media isn’t on our side. Keep in mind that for every single law that passes, there are hundreds of bills someone has put time and effort into that don’t. I’d love to go on and on about all the awesome bills that Bossman has introduced this year, but I’m trying to be as anonymous as possible and a legislator’s accomplishments are easy to track. But we are there in the community when something happens, we hear your problems, and we work hard to make sure that injustice and inequality and discrimination and gaps in services don’t continue to happen. Remember your Schoolhouse Rock? They weren’t joking about the “You’re right! There oughta be a law!” part. That is what we are here to do.
With a masters in political science and campaign and organizing experience, I could easily make twice what I’m making now as a campaign manager or a political consultant. Hell, I’d even make half again as much without tenure if I’d stayed on to finish my PhD. But I’m not, and I didn’t. Why is that? Because since I was a little girl, I wanted to help people when I grew up. Every day, I wake up knowing that I am doing something to make my neighborhood, my city, my state, country, world a better place. I fight for the little guy. Yes, I take a paycheck to do this. I’m not a saint; I’m a human being. Most people get paid for their jobs, and everybody’s got bills to pay. Whether you think the government is too big or too small, it does serve an important function and helps a lot of people, and it takes workers (like me) to make that happen.
I understand that many people frustrated with the way the country is going. Believe me, I am, too. But I hope that knowing a little bit more about what you don’t see will help everyone to be a bit more polite with the staffers who work long and hard to serve the public – that’s what we are, after all, public servants. It stings a little to be told that that we’re superfluous at the same time we’re helping people to solve their problems.
*Not his actual name.
**I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you ever get a letter from an elected and there’s initials in the bottom corner that are the official’s in capital letters followed by someone else’s in lower case, now you know who actually wrote it.