Select Committee Members Host Virtual Discussion on Remote Work by District Staff

May 26, 2020 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a virtual discussion late last week on the challenges faced by district staff working remotely and the steps federal agencies can take to protect staffers as they return to the office environment.

Joining the committee for the discussion were Peter Weichlein, chief executive officer of the Association of Former Members of Congress, and Kristine Simmons, vice president for government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service.

“Congress is going to experience a lot of lessons learned during this pandemic, and if we’re smart, we’ll use these lessons to prepare for the next crisis,” said committee chair Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.

“The pandemic has shed new light on the unique challenges that our district offices face. The staff that serve in our district offices do amazing and important work every day … we can learn from their experiences and gain valuable insights from their on-the-ground perspective and we can hopefully use what we learn to recommend constructive reforms,” Kilmer said.

Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., co-chair of the committee, noted that the last two months have been an adjustment period for everyone. “Fortunately technology has allowed us to continue helping the people that we serve … but it’s not without its challenges.

“Today is a great opportunity to discuss some of the short term issues that we face with this remote work, but also some of the long term opportunities that will be before us,” Graves added.

The entire virtual meeting can be viewed here. It runs slightly less than 90 minutes.

The Association of Former Members of Congress hosts weekly calls and symposiums throughout the year that allow district directors to share their experiences and best practices.

Made up of hundreds of former members of Congress, and with a network of former and current congressional staff, association members have a unique perspective and experience working through national emergencies and crises.

Peter Weichlein shared the recurring themes raised by district directors during their recurring calls, which included: a shortage and limited capacity of equipment, a lack of clearly defined policies, a gap in coordination between D.C. and district offices, and an increased need in information and resources.

A number of recommendations, especially around clarity on when to reopen the physical office spaces and ways to keep district employees safe, have been shared.

The Partnership for Public Service develops a curriculum that is used by the Congressional Staff Academy for training, which has recently been broadened to include district staff virtually.

They also have held teleconferences with state offices and have found that D.C. and district offices have been able to work collaboratively during the current pandemic, and have discovered “accidental innovations” that have helped them work better as a team during this crisis.

Kristine Simmons shared how the current pandemic has exposed a lot of workplace needs, it has also “enabled smarter and better ways of working.”

She also shared a number of key decisions that federal leaders need to make before bringing employees back to the workplace, as outlined in “Ready to Return to the Workplace: 25 Prompts for Agency Leaders.”

Since the U.S. Capitol closed to public visitors and guests, and the majority of congressional offices moved to a modified telework operating status, the Select Committee has continued to hold member-level discussions on committee priorities and ways to continue effectively working ahead of the October 30, 2020 committee report deadline.

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