Public Policy: Keeping An Eye on Congress and Making a Difference
The 8th Annual Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law Feature Story*
Intro: Policies of the United States make up all actions taken by the federal government. How would you like to represent a special cause or an important organization before the U.S. Congress and federal agencies? What if your job was to work for the protection and improvement of programs for people who are blind or visually impaired? Then let us introduce you to Mark Richert.
The Story: Since July, 2005, it has been my pleasure to serve as Director of Public Policy for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). What this means in real terms is that I am AFB's primary representative before the U.S. Congress and federal agencies. While it is not necessary to be a lawyer in the position I'm in, I do believe my legal training equipped me well for a career of nearly 20 years, now advocating for the protection and improvement of the rights and programs that address the unique needs of people who are blind or visually impaired.
One of the exciting things about doing work in the public policy arena is that there are not too many "typical days." The very nature of work on Capitol Hill, in spite of what the general public might feel about the inefficiency and dysfunction of the federal legislative process, means that things can move at a moment's notice. Yes, there are also a lot of slow periods, but it is a very engaging and dynamic work life.
During the average week, I'm in face-to-face meetings with young staff working for Members of Congress, attending coalition meetings to negotiate with various stakeholders about our agenda, writing formal comments on proposed federal regulations, preparing correspondence and position papers, and staying in frequent phone contact with my counterparts at other organizations in the blindness and disability communities. This is all necessary to keep up with the latest developments and to urge them to support our work.
When people, like my mother, ask me what I work on, I honestly have a hard time narrowing the answer down. The agenda I lead and implement at AFB spans a very wide subject area. From special education to intellectual property rights, Medicare and Medicaid administration, civil rights, telecommunications policy, federal domestic spending, preservation of state vocational rehabilitation agencies and schools for the blind, I work on it all if the legislation or policy is going to touch the life of someone with a visual disability.
Of the many things that make my job so interesting and often very unpredictable is the vast array of personalities which I come in contact with on a daily basis. This mix of many personalities is definitely one of the favorite things about my work. For example, there's the arrogant federal bureaucrat who thinks he knows it all (and quite honestly, often does). There's the eager young Hill staffer who says "Yes" to everything we ask for and, once in a while, comes through for us! Then there's the too often uninformed member of the press who calls and wants information about what we're doing to deal with a particular issue. If they haven't done their homework before calling, these press members need lots and lots of hand-holding just to understand the most basic issue and aspects of what we're trying to achieve. There are also the stressed out fellow coalition members who are all trying to change the world with very little resources and support and who, just like us, know all too well how steep the uphill climb really is. And last but not least, there are the many folks who contact us from the hinterlands responding to our grass-roots calls to action who continue to remind me that all politics is local and that what we're doing within the scope of public policy on a federal level affects very real people. People just like you and me.
I bet you'd agree that very few kids in elementary school say, "When I grow up, I want to be one of those government relations professionals." It wasn't until college that I decided that I'd pursue a law degree, not necessarily because I wanted to have a traditional law practice, but because I felt that legal training would give me tools to "make a difference," even though I had a very poor notion of exactly what that difference might be or how to go about doing it.
After graduating from law school and searching for employment, I was hired by a trade association in the vision loss community to represent their agency membership to advance employment opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired. This first job out of law school was made possible because of the network of personal and professional contacts I started building during college. One of those principal contacts remains a very close personal friend to this day. As a matter of fact, I worked for him a number of years ago, and my job today is the one he used to do here at AFB before moving on to become a senior attorney at the Federal Communications Commission.
I'm often asked, particularly by people who have never known or worked with someone who is blind, "How in the world do you get around on Capitol Hill and do all the things you do?" When I get these questions, it's hard for me not to just shake my head in perplexity about why they think it would be so hard. I've had great blindness compensatory training and been a white cane user and an avid Braille reader all my life. On the job, I use screen reader software. And given that I do lots and lots of talking throughout the week, my mouth is a pretty critical component of my toolbox too. Seriously, the stock and trade in the policy business is knowing how to write and talk clearly, concisely and persuasively. I'll let others decide if I succeed at that, but I will say that a career in public policy is a good fit for people who are blind or visually impaired if they have or can develop these skills.
I can honestly say that what I absolutely love most about my work in public policy is the opportunity to help change the world. I know that sounds very dramatic and may even seem arrogant, but over the course of my career, it has been my privilege to help break down all kinds of needless barriers that get in the way of blind folks' full participation in American life. Whether we're talking about accessible K-12 textbooks, being able to vote independently, making TV programming, cell phones and other communications and video devices vastly more usable, ensuring that prescription drugs have labeling that people with vision loss can use, or whatever needs attention, I've really been blessed to be allowed to have a hand in making this kind of history.
As for the thing I enjoy least about my job… well, I think it's the tendency on the part of some people in our field who want to promote themselves and their organizations or interests ahead of what is the right thing to do for the blindness community at large. Of course, that's politics, and you're not going to escape raw politics if you work in the field of public policy.
In order to succeed in the public policy arena, you have to have patience during those times when things seem to be dragging. Most people don't realize that the average length of time it takes to get a major policy through the legislative process is five to seven years! So if you want to work in public policy, be prepared to ride out the lulls. Make the most of your successes when you get them and stay focused. Always keep your eye on the ball even when you've got very grumpy folks who sometimes tell you it can't be done, or that they alone have the best idea under the sun to change everything.
Given the work that I do and the breadth of issues I work on, I would very much consider myself to be a generalist and not necessarily a specialist in any one area of the law or of policy. What this means is that I've had to do a lot of self-teaching, reading up on issues on my own without much guidance and learning by doing. And turning to others who might know tons more than I do to become proficient in this or that subject area is critical. For me, this means I've had to develop and keep good study habits, learn how to quickly spot issues, find the proverbial needle in the haystack, and maintain a solid network of knowledgeable people to turn to for good advice and vice versa. So developing good inter-personal skills is key.
If you are serious about pursuing a career in public policy it's critical to understand that you're not so much a salesman as you are a trusted source of accurate, reliable, current information. In the end, what moves folks on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies or elsewhere, to help you achieve your desired goal, is their relationship with and confidence in you. The slickest sales pitch will never be able to compete with the presence of someone who, in season or out, has good information to offer and a trustworthy reputation. Reflecting on all of this, I'd have to say the most important tool to have, protect and keep in your toolbox is an intact character. This quality will always serve you well.
The Contact: Mark Richert
*The American Foundation for the Blind is pleased to present "The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law," funded by the Samuel N. Hecsh Fund at the American Foundation for the Blind. A new article in memory of Mr. Hecsh appears annually.
After losing his vision, Mr. Hecsh attended law school—with some help from a scholarship from AFB—and had a satisfying career. Feeling he could not continue his previous employment, he met with many lawyers who were blind and attributed his success as a blind attorney in part to his encouragement from these mentors.
We thank his wife, Muriel O'Reilly, and daughters, Janet and Caitlin Hecsh, for choosing to honor his memory in this special way. The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law is designed to encourage other people experiencing vision loss to choose to enter the field of law.