An influential Congressional staffer is now a NAPA fellow

Among this year's fellows added to the National Academy of Public Administration are several still-working, senior federal employees. One of them is prominent o...

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Among this year’s fellows added to the National Academy of Public Administration are several still-working, senior federal employees. One of them is prominent on Capitol Hill and the Federal Drive with Tom Temin had a chance to conduct this extended 17-minute interview with her. She’s Wendy Ginsberg, staff director for the Subcommittee on Government Operations of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Staff director on a subcommittee. What exactly does that mean? What does the work entail?

Wendy Ginsberg: I like to think my job is really easy to describe, I execute on the priorities of my boss chairman, Gerry Connolly (D), for Virginia’s 11th District, period. That’s my job. The hard part is trying to extrapolate exactly what his priorities are at any given time, and then figuring out the tools that we have on the Hill to execute those priorities. So my tools predominantly are things like hearings, which are really visible. They’re the ones that people mostly see in the press. But there’s a lot more invisible tools that we have, that can help execute on those priorities. So we can write letters to the administration, we can have briefings with the administration, we can talk to stakeholders, largely our currency is communication. And in addition to thinking about the actual policy implementation, and the execution of that through the sort of oversight and legislative tools that we have, we build a team, make sure that my team knows exactly where we’re headed. I have to communicate, you know, to my team that is exclusively mine, but I also communicate to the full committee about what we’re doing, communicate to all of the member staff and offices throughout Congress so that they know what we’re doing. So it’s a lot of getting everybody on board with Mr. Connolly’s priorities, explaining why those are the priorities and then doing what we can do and figuring out where we can move things along.

Tom Temin: So in that sense, the term staff director means you are a director of a lot of things on the staff, but also, there are some elements of chief of staff to it, as well?

Wendy Ginsberg: Definitely. Yeah, I mean, I am not Mr. Connolly’s chief of staff. But there’s a lot of similarities and overlap, and that it’s direct communication with my chairman, understanding exactly where he wants to go and why and letting him know where I might see some obstacles in the road where I might see some opportunities and working in partnership with all different components around the Hill, to get us to the final outcome that we’d like to see.

Tom Temin: And then staff directors at this level, then go with the party. That is to say, if the House were to change hands and go to the Republican side, that would be a different person in your job at this point?

Wendy Ginsberg: Yes, I’ve actually never been serving in a political position on the Hill when there has been a change. But I believe that my position as it currently exists, would not exist in the minority. But you know, I’m hopeful that this job will continue to exist for as long as it will.

Tom Temin: Which points up to the fact that you are fairly new on the Hill job, but you spent a pretty good stint also at the Partnership for Public Service. Working on issues, which is presumably a nonpartisan type of thing. And one of the ones I wanted to ask you about was the seize the data initiative. I know, Jerry Connolly has been interested in data-driven decision making, and the government does have a lot of members. And this is something many parties in town are working on many elements in town, I don’t mean party parties. So tell us about that work.

Wendy Ginsberg: Interestingly, my mug which nobody can see right now actually says seize the data as well, carpe data. So I’m a firm believer that good policy requires a foundation of good research and evidence to make those policy decisions and the seize the data initiative, we worked in tandem with some outside stakeholder groups to figure out where agencies were using data well, and where they weren’t using data well, and what were some hot tips and tricks to help agencies evolve along that teleology so that they can figure out where to put their foot down and start figuring out where they already had administrative datasets like sitting on their hard drives, and use them to make better decisions, particularly when it came to questions like, how do I find and recruit the right people? Where are we getting our people from? Who’s staying? Who’s going? And those datasets exist organically because you track them anyway, people just weren’t thinking about leveraging them for insights. So that was where that initiative came from. I would like to also say I came up with the name, seize the data, right? That was pretty fun. I like naming things. And I’m a huge fan of puns. So that initiative was incredible. We really had a lot of enthusiasm from across the agencies. And it really aligned with the foundations and evidence policymaking act that had come out just before that. So there were some great overlaps and a real enthusiasm for using data. I think that enthusiasm continues through and is a real big foundation for Mr. Connolly. If you listen to him speak almost on anything. It’s a combination of storytelling and the data to undergird why that story is indicative of a larger context. So data are like critical to everything that we do on the head every day. If you’re putting your boss up there to give a talk on something, and he doesn’t have the underlying data, and you’re just giving him naked rhetoric, you have set him up for a real problem. So we use data all the time in everything that we do.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Wendy Ginsberg, she is the staff director for the Subcommittee on Government Operations in the House, and also a newly named a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. And are you occasionally one of those whisper in their ear types that we see on the hearings that are televised?

Wendy Ginsberg: If it’s funny, I’ll whisper a joke in his ear. But Gerry Connolly is one of those members who is just so smart and listens to everything, he knows exactly how to respond. And I will write something on a paper and think it’s pretty good. And then I’ll just hear him orate and add things and organically put different spins on it and just elevate everything that I do. It’s a wonderful partnership with him to hear him take what I know to be true and just orate it in a way that resonates. He’s an incredible member to work for.

Tom Temin: Yes, he’s been in my studio on several occasions over the years. And I agree he’s a really nice guy, too. Fun to talk to and joke with. So yeah, you’ve got the full package there.

Wendy Ginsberg: It’s both good and bad to work for somebody so smart, right? Like you’re excited to see what he does with the work that you hand him. But in one of my first meetings with him, I gave him bullet points of what we were going to talk about in the meeting. And I had sent them to him the night before. And I got to the meeting and I start reading through the bullet points and he just stares at me. He goes, I read the memo, what else do you have to tell me? And I looked at him and I said, you know, I haven’t worked for any principles who actually do the pre-read. I’ve learned my lesson won’t happen again. That’s Gerry Connolly, he does the pre-read.

Tom Temin: OK, well, then he knows the semicolons and the whereas tos and therefores, we herebys, OK. We’re speaking with Dr. Wendy Ginsberg. She is staff director for the Subcommittee on Government Operations, part of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. And you have drafted bills that’s you mentioned, that’s one of the things you actually do. And I’ve always wondered how that drafting gets done, because the general public thinks bills should sound a certain way. Those of us that have read many, many bills know that they’re highly legalistic, arcane looking, replacing one codicil with another in a sub-paragraph of this particular existing law and all of this, how does that get done? Is it done by hand is there machinery that can generate this?

Wendy Ginsberg: It’s just magic and hope. It’s actually interesting, I am not a lawyer, the head of our legislative team on the Oversight Committee is not a lawyer. What you want to do when you’re writing legislation is think about what your policy outcome is. And there’s some areas where I genuinely have an expertise in the federal law, the U.S. Code that underlies the legislation that I’m trying to write, for example, in federal inspectors general, I’m pretty familiar with the legal language in there, because I’ve studied it for more than a decade. But in other areas, I know very little and should not be playing in that sandbox in any real way. What you do is you sit there and you figure out your policy outcome. And then you can have, you can either craft the bill, if you and the legislation, looking at the legal language and crossing out what you don’t want an existing law in writing and what you do, and hand that to legislative counsel. Or you can just have a conversation with legislative counsel and say, here’s the outcome that I want, what part of U.S. Code Am I playing in? What should I be looking at? How can we make this work and I agree with you, federal code is not written in clear English in a lot of ways. But that’s also because you have to be meticulous and careful and define every term. And there’s terms of art that you don’t know that you’re tripping over sometimes, and then you’re creating terms of art that you don’t even know that you’re creating. When you talk to legislative counsel on the Hill, we call them Ledge Counsel, when you talk to legislative counsel on the Hill, sometimes it can feel like your mind is bending, like you’re going through that exercise in elementary school where they tell you how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But you can only do the thing that you’re actually told to do put the butter on the bread and you actually put a stick of butter on top of the bread. It feels a lot like that when you’re doing it. And you just have to break it up into component parts and really focus on the nuts and bolts of where you’re trying to get to. And always just the Northstar of your policy outcome.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Wendy Ginsberg. She is the staff director for the Subcommittee on Government Operations in the House, and also a newly named a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. The outcome can be very different than intended by the people that negotiated a bill if the precision is not in there in the actual bill language. My question is there’s no automated or artificial intelligence system or way you can say, feed me up all of the affected areas of the code as it exists. It’s all pretty much knowledge and done by hand.

Wendy Ginsberg: A lot of it is done by hand. The Ledge Counsel might have some sort of tool that I’m unaware of, but the simpletons on the committee themselves, we do it all by hand and think it through and really dig into the U.S. Code and try to figure out what we can do to make the policy change we want to see and really think about the potential downstream ramifications because our ultimate goal is to improve things but we really want to make sure we’re doing no harm in that process as well. And like you said, there can be chain reactions, when you’re changing code somewhere, you might be affecting something and another part of code you’re completely unaware of. And you, you really have to. And I guess the most important part of legislation is talking to the stakeholder communities. So you are very aware of all potential unintended ramifications of your bill. And even then you can’t be sure, but the most important part of legislating is talking to anyone and everyone who could be affected.

Tom Temin: I wanted to ask you about your 10 years in the Congressional Research Service, which is a really high powered but little known element in the Congress. What did you learn there? How did your view of the world get developed in that particular stent?

Wendy Ginsberg: I’d like to say that’s where I fell in love with Congress. I think. CRS is this wonderful think tank that’s built exclusively to help Congress Senate staff. And what I learned there are all of these amazing tools and databases that exist to help people understand what government is and what government does. It’s where I really developed my love of sort of the underlying apparatus of government and how it operates. And my thinking about this, and I actually talked to Chairman Connolly about this a lot, is that the work we do on government operations builds the foundation for agencies to do all of the amazing stuff they do as part of their missions. So we couldn’t have FEMA going out and helping communities in the aftermath of a hurricane or other natural disaster, for example, if we didn’t help them build the underlying apparatus of the Department of Homeland Security, then FEMA itself, making sure that they have the right technologies in place, making sure they have the appropriate personnel, do they have the right authorities that they need to execute that mission in a way where they built the government apparatus to go out and help communities when they need it there. These are the things we think about all of the time on government operations. And I really built those chops when I was at CRS.

Tom Temin: CRS is almost academic in some ways in being a PhD and have spent a pretty long academic career before going into the workforce. It must have been appealing in that sense.

Wendy Ginsberg: It was this great combination of the two things that I had built at that point, which is an academic background, and journalism, I was a journalist before that writing for both the New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Tom Temin: And we can forgive you for that.

Wendy Ginsberg: Thanks. And CRS was this great combination of the research and then finding plain language to help staff understand these deeply complicated issues and find avenues into making positive policy change, however they define that policy change.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Wendy Ginsberg, she is the staff director for the Subcommittee on Government Operations in the House, and also a newly named a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and areas of interest that you have focused on our federal inspectors general and making sure they have the data and information independence that they are supposed to have had. But these things sometimes take 30 or 40 years to work out. The Office of Personnel Management, and finances of the Postal Service. And these are things to the general public, are totally arcane if they’re even aware of them at all.

Wendy Ginsberg: Everyone knows the Postal Service.

Tom Temin: They know the Postal Service, but they don’t know the finances of whether to prepaid—

Wendy Ginsberg: Retirement benefits? Yeah.

Tom Temin: And all they know is you know, what a stamp costs and so on.

Wendy Ginsberg: About to go up, apparently.

Tom Temin: You’re right. It’s still a bargain. I always say, you know, see if Federal Express will deliver a letter cross country for 49 cents, or 57 cents or 62 cents. But I guess my question is what keeps you going in these very arcane areas, when you know, it’s not defense, or it’s not health policy, these things that people feel like they feel directly.

Wendy Ginsberg: We talk about this a lot and give up. So it takes a certain person to want to work in this space that isn’t sexy, until it’s sexy, right? We like to think that we’re important because we let all of the sexy stuff happen, right? Without the work that we’re doing to think about the nuts and bolts of how government can and should operate and thinking about how government could operate more efficiently and effectively, to help taxpayers and help people get access to things when they’re in need of it. Chairman Connolly, for example, his priority has really been federal technology and making it get to a place where it can actually engage people where they’re at each and every day. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that government needs to be able to reach you regardless of the context, especially when you need government most. And he’s been a crusader to make sure that agencies are getting the technologies they need to balance, like getting money out quickly to people who need it with making sure it’s going to the right person. And we don’t believe that those are in conflict with each other. We think that with the right planning and purchasing of the right technologies, those things can go hand in hand. You can in fact expedite getting things to people when they need it where they need it and making sure it’s going to the right person, if you’re doing that effectively. And we’re about to hit our 15th iteration of our Federal Information Technology Acquisition and Reform Act hearing or FITARA 15. And sometimes we get a little chuckle when we say we’ve done 15 of them, but that is saved $30 billion in its lifetime. And that’s, that’s amazing to have that on your credential, we will take all of the laughter in the world, if at the end of every Congress, we can look at our constituents and the rest of the taxpayers across the nation and say, look at the billions of dollars we’ve saved for you. And a chuckle or two is just fine with us to get there.

Tom Temin: And what do you expect to focus on as a NAPA fellow, because fellows do get drawn into actual project called up for by Congress? And well, you have to stay away from the issues that the committee does, you know, while you’re a committee staff member and also at NAPA.

Wendy Ginsberg: You know, I am so interested in a lot of the research that goes on at the National Academy of Public Administration, I’m going to work with Terry to make sure that I’m not tripping any inappropriate wires, but I’m very interested in all the work they’re doing in technology leadership, I feel like part of the fiber of my being is recruitment and retention and public service at all levels of government. And figuring out how we get early career individuals into government in a clear and effective way that retirement tsunami that’s been threatening for 10 years is 20 years, is still threatening. So we want to make sure that we’ve got future leaders ready to take over at the helm of all of these agencies that like I said, do incredibly important work each and every day to serve the nation.

Tom Temin: And just briefly, what interests you when you’re not working? If you ever have periods when you’re not working?

Wendy Ginsberg: Yeah, I love teaching. I teach for University of Pennsylvania, I teach for Boston University, and their in-D.C. programs. So when students come to D.C. to intern, I love teaching them about Congress. Some of them roll their eyes when I get too involved in it, but I love teaching them about Congress, but mostly teaching them how to think about the policy issues that they’re interested in and finding the nooks and crannies to open policy windows so they can make the positive changes they would like to see in their country, or if they’re deciding that D.C. isn’t the place for them that there’s lots of government opportunities and public service opportunities for them. So I do a lot of teaching on the side. I have a daughter who has a lacrosse habit. So if you’re around the D.C. region on weekends, I might be standing on the field next to you watching your daughter play lacrosse against my daughter, please say hi.

Tom Temin: All right. Dr. Wendy Ginsberg is the staff director of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, part of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and he’s a new fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Wendy Ginsberg: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure. Thanks, Tom.

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