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Change ahead for legislative staffs.

Growth in state legislative staff appears to be ending. Staff agencies are now being asked to do more with less.

When California voters approved Proposition 140 in 1990 and sent hundreds of legislative staffers in search of new employment, they also provided punctuation to an important moment in the history of legislative staff development. For decades legislative staffing had enjoyed growth and relative prosperity. But things changed, and the 1990s may mark a new beginning for state legislative staff agencies and for legislative staff.

In the halcyon years of legislative staffing, "change" meant expansion, specialization, decentralization and professionalization. Today change means rethinking, restructuring and retooling. Fiscal constraints, of course, lead the list of reasons for this shift. But the national mood for change and efficiency in government also have had their impact. Like other public and private organizations, legislative staff agencies are being asked to prove their value and to do more with less.

Proposition 140 mandated a 40 percent reduction in the budget of the California Legislature, eliminated the jobs of several hundred legislative staff and may cause the demise of two key legislative agencies--the Office of Legislative Analyst and the Office of Auditor General. According to an NCSL survey of legislative staff directors, California's draconian measures are unique. In fact, while growth appears taboo, few other legislatures have significantly decreased their workforce. Salaries are frozen in some states, but many legislatures continue to provide cost-of-living or other pay increases. Few states have tampered with employee benefit packages and furlough programs, and early retirement offerings are rare. However, most legislatures have severely limited or prohibited staff travel. Outside California, legislatures are cutting costs--but not their full-time staff.

The NCSL survey revealed a more fundamental trend in legislative staffing. Staff directors in 26 states indicated they have undertaken "a significant re-examination" of their operations. The scope of these efforts ranges widely from complete organizational reassessments to more limited, cost-motivated evaluations. In most cases, however, staff are rethinking their relationship to their key clients and setting new priorities for future operations. They are thinking strategically.

Oregon's nonpartisan Legislative Administration Committee staff offers a good example of the trend toward strategic planning. Susan Wilson, director of the agency, summarizes the effort as "customer service comes to the legislature." Their self-assessment led to a new organizational structure that groups services according to client needs. "We created one-stop shopping for our customers," says Wilson. As a result, the agency reorganized into three units, each with a distinct objective.

While Oregon's self-examination had organizational consequences, its operational changes may be most noteworthy. The traditional hierarchical management system has been scrapped in favor of a team approach. Each unit has teams responsible for internal policy and decision making. Teams composed of staff from each unit address issues common to the agency. Overall management policy is set by a team of managers from each unit. To help prepare staff for their new roles, trainers from AT&T provided workshops on teamwork and communication as part of their public service program.

Teamwork, improved communication, staff involvement and the delegation of responsibility are common threads in the new approach to legislative staffing. In Virginia, Phil Leone, director of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, invited his staff to offer ideas on organizational improvement. "I received a bunch of very good ideas," reports Leone, "so we put together four internal committees to work on them." As a result, they have streamlined their research process, re-evaluated the agency's administrative functions, rewritten their style manual and developed a list of strategic issues for future computer upgrades. Aside from the operational benefits, Leone says that the team approach "gets everyone involved and gives them an opportunity to participate."

The Maine Legislative Council staff has faced an unusual organizational charge--a near unanimous resolution from the Legislature to develop an operational plan based on the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM). Many legislative agencies have rejected TQM as inappropriate for their operations. Sally Tubbesing, director of the Maine staff, comments that they have been "very careful not to connect TQM with budget cuts ... this is not TQM's objective. We have found using the customer/supplier framework to be very useful in clarifying and sorting out interdependencies in the process."

Maine's Committee on Total Quality Management in the Legislature, composed of staff and lawmakers, has issued one report on "process" issues and one on "products." Recommendations include changes in joint committee procedures, modifications in the confirmation of gubernatorial nominations and proposals for providing better institutional information to people attending committee hearings.

By adopting the tenets of TQM and Osborne and Gaebler's Reinventing Government, legislative staff groups are redefining themselves and, in the process, reversing some trends that characterized past staff development. As an example, Oregon's Susan Wilson says "we need to make broader use of staff skills. People can no longer specialize in one narrow area." Also, abandoning the old organizational hierarchy is not easy. For Wilson's staff, it is "a painful, difficult transition. Some people want to come to work and be told what to do |rather than take on decision making responsibilities~, and some managers find it difficult to change from directing roles to coaching ones."

It seems unlikely that other legislatures will experience trauma like that imposed in California by Prop 140. Nevertheless, change is on the minds of legislators and staff directors in many states. Staff groups are looking for new, more effective ways to accomplish traditional goals and for new insights into their reason for being. Virginia's Leone offers this advice, "Organizations always have to change--if they don't, they die."

Brian Weberg heads NCSL's Legislative Management Department.
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Author:Weberg, Brian
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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