Six Essential Lessons You Learn from Working on Capitol Hill as an APA Congressional Fellow
By Meghann Galloway, PhD & Laura Knudtson, PhD (2017-2018 APA Congressional Fellows)
Pinch me… is this a dream?
Am I really here?
Did I actually just ride the elevator with Bernie Sanders?
Was Lisa Murkowski ahead of me in line for coffee?
The novelty of working as an APA Congressional Fellow in the United States Senate this past year never seemed to wear off as we wandered the halls of the Capitol or the House and Senate Office buildings. The American Psychological Association sponsors two congressional fellowships administered through the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for early-career through senior psychologists to work as staffers in the offices of Representatives and Senators in Congress. This phenomenal experience provided us with an insider’s view of how public policy is made at the federal level and how psychologists can most effectively impact and influence public policy.
We learned six important lessons this year about how public policy is made and ways psychologists can make a difference:
1. It’s not all alternative facts on Capitol Hill – science matters.
Science and evidence are considered and utilized frequently by staff offices in the development of policy. In our experience, staffers genuinely want to get things right. Of course, a single journal article is not likely to fundamentally change the member’s stance on an important issue, but useful data can play a role in informing the debate as well as cultivating good legislative ideas. That being said, time is an extremely valuable and limited resource on the Hill. You can make your research and data more useful and informative for staff by synthesizing information into a succinct and easily accessible format. Sometimes information needs to work its way up the food chain within an office, so summarize your key findings in a way that can capture the attention of an intern or Legislative Director with similar ease, and that won’t get lost in translation as it passes hands.
2. Be vocal.
Advocating for your cause by calling your representatives, visiting their offices, and developing relationships with their staffers does propel change. Let your voice be heard in whatever way works best for you. Some offices keep a record of how many constituents have called on a particular topic and which position they are advocating for. So, even if you do not talk to a legislative staffer you can still influence the debate. If you are visiting offices, be respectful but don’t be afraid to go to the offices of members who are not already on your side. It might be easier to talk to an ally, but it is less likely to result in change. Persistence can pay off!
3. Bipartisanship is possible.
Although it continues to be a highly partisan environment, there are moments of bipartisan collaboration that ultimately get the work done. It might not necessarily be the most high-profile issue, but common-sense solutions to real life problems can genuinely become reality on a bipartisan basis. This is even more likely when a Member or their staff understands how the issue impacts their own constituents or an issue they are passionate about. Making those connections and serving as bridge builders between offices with similar interests is a vital role that advocates and experts can play.
4. Sharing expertise is mutually beneficial.
Fellows learn an extreme amount from their mentor and other staff in their office and fellows also have opportunities to share their expertise in their office. As someone with a depth of knowledge, fellows bring a level of information that staffers might not typically have without going to an outside group. It can make a real difference to have an in-house expert that understands and respects the interests of the office. On the other side of the coin, having an immersion experience on Capitol Hill provides fellows with a unique experience and a type of policy expertise that is just not possible to gain in other ways. Fellows learn an immense amount about how to function in Congress’s fast-paced environment and negotiate the importance of relationships as well as rules that may often seem arcane or counter-intuitive.
5. Policymaking is a multidisciplinary exercise.
There are a ton of fellows on the Hill working in many different disciplines including law, science, medicine, etc. Fellows are a huge support and asset to the work that is being done on the Hill every day. Congressional offices have to cover every possible topic with limited time and resources. Fellows who are eager to learn quickly and work hard can be an invaluable resource and are highly sought after. This creates an extraordinary network of professionals from a variety of backgrounds.
6. You get lost… a lot, but you learn to handle it.
Just when you think you’ve figured out how to get around the maze of Capitol buildings or seem to grasp a particular issue, things change and you find yourself in a new place. Psychologists are trained to be flexible, tolerate ambiguity, and be team players which can make them highly resilient fellows in this at-times chaotic and emotionally labile environment.
Working on the Hill, you are frequently asked how you can continue to work in the current political climate, or whether you find the world depressing these days. The truth is, no matter what office or position you work in, there will be times of great success and deep disappointment. However, the knowledge that you are making a contribution to something greater than yourself makes all of those experiences entirely worthwhile. It has truly been a life changing experience for both of us, both personally and professionally.
Do you want to use psychology to make a difference in our nation’s public policy?
Apply now for the 2020-2021 APA Congressional Fellowship. Applications close on January 5, 2020.
Meghann Galloway, PhD, was an APA Congressional Fellow in the Office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand during the 2017-2018 Fellowship year working on issues related to gender equality, civil rights, and violence prevention. Following her fellowship year, she joined the office of Congressman Tony Cárdenas as a Legislative Counsel focusing on issues of criminal justice and civil rights with a special emphasis on juvenile justice.
Laura Knudtson, PhD, was an APA Congressional Fellow in the Offices of Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Al Franken during the 2017-2018 Fellowship year working on issues related to health and human services policy. She has recently returned to Denver, CO where she is the Director of Community and Government Relations for Parent Possible, a non-profit that supports evidence-based family home visiting programs that promote school readiness for children in Colorado.