17 Jan Career Spotlight: Policy Analyst
Walk into any coffee shop, cotton gin, or feed store in rural America, and you are likely to hear local farmers and ranchers discussing the current political climate in their state capitals and in Washington, D.C. As our food production systems have become more complicated, so has the task of managing the regulatory and legal facets of agriculture. American consumers demand safe and affordable access to food. Producers and trade associations balance maintaining our nation’s natural resources with remaining profitable. Water is becoming more precious each day as countless interest groups jockey for ownership. All these issues and more are on the forefront of the minds of agricultural and natural resource policy analysts.
For those interested in a career in policy analysis, the opportunities take several forms. Some choose to work for government agencies or legislators. Others build careers as legislative relations experts for trade associations and agricultural organizations. Large agribusinesses even retain in-house government affairs personnel.
FROM SMALL TOWN TO THE HALLS OF GOVERNMENT
For Rusty Smith, the road to policy analysis began in his rural West Texas hometown of Snyder. He developed a love for agriculture and rural Texas and chose to study Agricultural Leadership and Development at Texas A&M University. He completed an internship with the Agricultural and Natural Resources Policy Internship Program, where he spent a summer working for State Representative David Swinford, who represented parts of the Texas Panhandle. After graduation, he worked for a time in finance; however, it was his goal to pursue a career in policy full-time. When he and his wife moved to Austin, he took three part-time jobs during the legislative interim to get his foot back in the Capitol door. His persistence paid off, landing him a job with Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo managing the policy areas of agriculture, water, economic development, and natural resources.
Smith now serves as the committee director for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs. As of this writing, the Texas legislature has just begun its biennial session, and Smith is hard at work researching policy areas and preparing for the bills that will come before his committee. Committee members, in this case senators, will debate the topics and either take no further action or pass the bills out of committee for consideration by the entire body. Smith’s job is to advise the committee chairman on which bills to hear, communicate the ramifications of those bills, and track ongoing developments to bills that get passed out of committee.
To handle all this in addition to the other duties inherent with government policy work requires some serious juggling skills. In addition to making sense of the legalese in bill language, the job requires well-formed communications skills. “I think it’s crucial and helpful to be a people person, to be able to develop and build interpersonal relationships,” says Smith. “Nothing here is done in a vacuum. Just because you think something’s a great idea and you have worked your heart out on this bill idea, if you can’t get other staffers and your boss and the other members to buy into that idea, it’s dead on arrival.” He adds this all must be accomplished with tact; trying to strong-arm people does not work.
The most important aspect of the work for Smith is interaction with the people affected by legislation. “It is important for me to keep in mind what is best for the constituents and what is best for the State of Texas,” he says.
FIGHTING FOR THE MEMBERS
The profile of an effective policy analyst points to someone with an analytical mind, an ability to communicate with multiple stakeholders, and a commitment to a mission. Andrew Walmsley, Director of Congressional Relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C., especially agrees with the latter. “We’re fighting for the backbone of the country, the farmers and ranchers and the rural communities in which they live,” he says.
Walmsley adds flexibility to the list. He points out that sometimes pushing for policy changes is reactionary, based on constantly changing current events. Other times it is proactive, and he sees Farm Bureau’s approach to shaping policy through its members as one of the organization’s key strengths. He says, “One of the unique things about Farm Bureau is that we are truly grassroots. Every farmer that’s a member is represented by a county Farm Bureau…Those farmers and ranchers are saying ‘this is what we need or don’t need’ and it turns into our policy book.” Those members rely on experts like Walmsley to interact with legislative staffers like Smith to communicate needs for the industry.
“Most of our members are busy out there producing something, providing for their families and providing for the American consumer and the world. They don’t necessarily have the time to spend keeping check on their elected representatives and the bureaucrats here in Washington,” Walmsley adds.
American Farm Bureau takes on several D.C. interns each year, some of whom work on policy related issues. Like most interns, they may spend some of their time making copies and arranging meetings, but they also receive invaluable experience in the fast-paced world inside the Beltway. This includes accompanying staff to the Hill to attend hearings or to meetings across town with other industry organizations. Over the years, these interns have come from a variety of life backgrounds and academic interests, and some have returned to D.C. after graduation to take policy jobs with various groups.
MEAT OF THE ISSUE(S)
The subjects tackled each day by policy analysts vary from administration to administration and between state and national government. Currently on Walmsley’s plate is regulatory reform, the new farm bill that will be passed next year, change of leadership following the presidential election, and tax reform.
Back in Texas, Smith is focused on water rights. He agrees with many that ensuring the responsible management of the state’s finite resources like water will remain a huge challenge going forward. Another natural resource area receiving attention lately has been the topic of native wildlife, specifically Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer. As an example of something specifically related to farming, he points out that the last legislative session took up the issue of perfected liens in grain storage scenarios, a topic that may require further discussion in the future.
Policy analyst, legislative relations director, lobbyist. There are multiple job titles for careers relating to agricultural policy work. Whatever the business card says, the attributes for success are the same. If you like variety, can think logically, enjoy working with an eclectic mix of people every day, and are passionate about issues relating to food, fiber, and natural resources, this career might fit the bill.
Multiple universities and trade associations offer internships each year in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols around the country. We want to hear from the alumni of these programs. If you have participated in a policy internship program, leave us a comment about your experience and let others know how to go about applying for one. Whether you chose to pursue a policy career or have used what you learned during your internship in the private sector, others might benefit from hearing your story.