Most professions have opportunities or requirements to ensure that members of the profession stay current in their knowledge. Some of these requirements are established by professional associations for their members, and others are required by law as a protection for consumers.
While I consider public service to be a profession, there are no preservice or in-service requirements to serve in office. Getting elected is the only prerequisite to being a member of the legislature other than being a citizen and voter of the required age. Once elected, public officials vote on numerous bills that establish continuing education requirements for other professions.
As an educator for nearly 30 years, I was required to have completed certain courses before becoming a teacher and to take a given number of courses every few years. There were no such requirements for my becoming and remaining a legislator. Upon my first election, I was given a few hours of orientation and that was it.
While I do not propose continuing education requirements for legislators, an argument could be made that it might improve the process as well as the product. I have sought continuing education opportunities on my own that might help me serve my constituents more effectively.
My experience is that the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides the best continuing education I can get as a legislator. In NCSL, states are referred to as “laboratories of democracy” as the states face most of the same challenges but often take different approaches to meet them. As lawmakers come together from throughout the country, there are numerous opportunities to share experiences and to learn from each other.
I attended the NCSL Summit last week and heard presentations on topics as diverse as cloud computing security and liability, effectiveness of tax incentives to attract economic growth, alternative funding mechanisms for higher education, steps to ending economic inequality of women, and common sense measures to end gun violence. While the challenges across the country are essentially the same, the approaches taken by the states are very different based on their traditions and partisan control among other factors.
NCSL’s emphasis is on research and background information on issues unlike its counterpart the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that provides legislators with the actual text of conservative legislation. Many of ALEC’s proposals have become very controversial because they are so extreme and because they have been written to satisfy certain business interests.
At NCSL, there are presentations by stakeholders, but they are balanced with opposing points of view. Researchers are part of the discussions as are subject area experts. I have found most sessions to be thought-provoking, and over the years I have found many ideas to improve my constituent services. Some of what I learned may lead to legislation that I will have drafted and introduce; all the discussions make me better informed to debate the issues when they come before the House of Delegates. Certainly the experience helps me keep up to date.