Steve Arias is a lifelong resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was an employee of the New Mexico House of Representatives for 17 years prior to being appointed Chief Clerk. Mr. Arias became Chief Clerk in 1983, and is the longest serving Chief Clerk in New Mexico House history, spending 32 years in that role before retiring in 2014. We’d like to thank Michael Greenman for conducting the initial interview with Mr. Arias.
What is the most important thing that a Chief Clerk needs to do to be successful in a state legislature?
Having well-trained staff. I was Chief Clerk of the New Mexico House of Representatives for 32 years and the quality of the team around me was the most important factor in determining success. Training should be constantly addressed and updated to meet ever-changing procedures and processes within a state legislature. When I started, training was not a top priority and prior processes were much more informal. I was playing “whack-a-mole” with staff coverage to ensure everything was being handled. I determined very early on that a more streamlined, repeatable process was needed to ensure that this chamber could continue to operate at a high level of success after I was gone.
How has technology affected state legislature since you first became Chief Clerk in New Mexico?
When computers were first introduced in the New Mexico House, IBM Selectric and Memory electric typewriters were the latest tech at that point (late 70s). Prior to that, typewriters were the tech. With that capability, the legislative session Journal creation took about 8-10 months to complete for one person back in 1967. So, by the time we had completed one it was time to start the next one! Prior to my becoming Chief Clerk in 1983, there was a hesitancy by the legislative leadership to upgrade technology once again, although it had the promise to improve efficiency and reduce staff effort. I was appointed to make the changes needed in order to bring in change and see how it could improve our efforts.
The new punch card technology was first used with Engrossing and Enrolling. This was so successful that we decided to roll it out to the rest of the process. End-of-life issues forced us to completely overhaul our systems and move from punch cards to the latest technology, PCs. Our new IT Manager was from IBM, so we went in the direction of PCs and his expertise made the transition relatively smooth. However, due to miscommunication, the hardware purchased was no longer supported 6 weeks later and we abandoned the system.
The legislative workflow needs to be consistent and have decision logic built-in so that distraction or inexperience cannot cause fatal errors and result in delayed statutory and constitutional deadlines.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one or two big problems in session management and workflow, what would those things be and how would you do it?
Workflow efficiency, error reduction, and decision support. So much of staff time is spent correcting issues that happen regularly when things are moving quickly and if those errors are not caught in time, there could be serious issues. The legislative workflow needs to be consistent and have decision logic built-in so that distraction or inexperience cannot cause fatal errors and result in delayed statutory and constitutional deadlines. Technology can play a key role here by organizing many of the processes with consistency and logic and I think there could be a large time and resource savings found with automation of workflow processes.
What do you see on the horizon for Clerks and Secretaries in state legislatures?
Increasing complexities with less experience and depth of staff. Attracting talent and retaining that talent will be the largest challenge for the next generation of legislative staff. The days of career employees may be coming to an end and we need to be prepared to handle more staff turnover and varying levels of expertise and experience. One way we could try and plan for this eventuality is to refine and constantly evaluate our procedures and document our processes so the knowledge of how we conduct business in the state legislature lives on and can be referenced and repeated by our successors. Another way to address this potential issue is to implement technology to serve as a bridge to automate many processes so that we can attract more talent with modern tools and enable staff to learn and gain experience with software that helps them gain valuable insights during their time working in state government.
But what is clear is that Clerks and Secretaries will need to become less reliant on consistent, experienced staff and more reliant on process improvement and solid, documented processes and procedures.
Many state legislature staff employees stick around for 20 or 30 years (even longer). Do you think that trend will continue? What happens if it doesn’t?
The trend will likely not continue, with some exceptions. The job is very time consuming, with relatively low pay and benefits for the type of talent needed and the depth of knowledge that has benefited state legislatures for many years. Whether this gap will be filled with innovation, technology or incentives to recruit and retain key people is yet to be determined. But what is clear is that Clerks and Secretaries will need to become less reliant on consistent, experienced staff and more reliant on process improvement and solid, documented processes and procedures.
When you look into your crystal ball – what does the future of state legislature operations look like?
Very different than what it was like over 35 years ago when I first was elected Chief Clerk of the New Mexico House of Representatives. Before there were mobile devices and a constant barrage of information coming at us, there were the relationships that legislators had among themselves and with the staff. Things got done promptly, accurately, and effectively because the team was cohesive and everyone was on the same page. There are so many new challenges that face Clerks and Secretaries today and those challenges will only get more complex in the future. So I think the eventual course takes us down the path of automation through modern software built with intelligent workflows that streamline the decision making process to eliminate manual errors and provide information and transparency to the public while empowering state legislators with more capabilities as their jobs get more complex as well.
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