Strategies for successful policy making: Building and sustaining relationships

By Leanne Kami, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

Graduate students from the ASU Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems got a taste of policy in action this spring as part of a weeklong immersive experience in Washington, D.C., focused on food policy.  Among the tools and tactics shared by experts, ranging from rulemaking to media and advocacy, a common theme shared throughout the week was the importance of networks and relationships.

One panel featuring representatives from third-party advocacy groups who handle government relations on behalf of their clients reinforced the importance of building and maintaining networks.  Ashlee Johnson, a Principal at The Russell Group, Inc., began her career on Capitol Hill in 2007 as a staffer to former Congressman Mike Ross. She later served on the Senate Agriculture Committee under Senator Blanche Lincoln and joined the Obama Administration in 2011. She held multiple leadership positions at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), including White House liaison, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Secretary, and also served at the White House as a policy assistant covering rural affairs and immigration issues for the Domestic Policy Council.

Phil Karsting uses his more than 23 years of experience working on agricultural policy in the US Senate to help clients navigate Capitol Hill and executive agencies on issues related to food and agriculture.  He previously served as Vice President for Public Policy and Interim President and CEO of the World Food Program USA.  Karsting also served as Administrator of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service from May 2013 through January 2017.

Sander Lurie is a Partner at Dentons Global Advisors Government Relations. He has spent more than 30 years working in Washington, D.C., on legislative and public policy issues in the US Senate as Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, and committee staffer, and in the private sector.

The panelists come from diverse backgrounds with different paths, but they had all served in chief of staff roles at some point in their careers.  When asked what skillsets make a good chief of staff, Karsting shared that the “door is always open” and that the chief of staff is responsible for fielding everything that comes through the door.  Lurie provided the analogy of an air traffic controller, keeping things on schedule and trying to prevent chaos.  “The buck stops with the chief,” he shared.  “There’s no C-suite. It’s a one-person show. The chief of staff has to know the details and be able to brief the organization.”

Johnson talked about managing people, their experiences, and exposure to opportunities.  “An organization may have a lot of subject matter experts, but not many people do ‘people’ well,” she said.  Johnson worked her way up in the business by building and maintaining relationships.  “If nurtured, relationships only grow and strengthen, reducing opportunities for them to become transactional,” she shared.  “If your network only works for you, you’re not working it right.”

Reinforcing the importance of relationships, Lurie advised, “Be cognizant.  In Washington, D.C., your intern might eventually be a client or your boss.  How you treat people matters.”

The ASU Swette Center Director of Strategic Initiatives, Suzanne Palmieri, also served as chief of staff and worked with the panelists in her various senior leadership roles at the USDA.  Palmieri observed that the panelists had many skill-sets in common such as problem solving, systems-thinking, and a growth mindset to answer the question, “How can we make this better?”  Other tools and tactics discussed by the panel touched upon the importance of strategic leadership training, managing expectations, and being comfortable with ambiguity.

In true immersive fashion, the graduate students from this year’s cohort had an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in networking and building relationships via speed networking sessions with DC professionals at a reception organized by Palmieri and the ASU Swette Center team. The reception is another example of sustaining relationships as modeled by Palmieri and Kathleen Merrigan, ASU Swette Center Executive Director and former USDA Deputy Secretary.

The cohort also spent time learning more about each other, setting the foundation for a network of diverse new leaders. Who knows what the future may hold? Some may come to work for the USDA or run for Congress. Some may solve tough issues impacting their communities through social entrepreneurship or innovation.

With so much uncertainty in the world, there is one thing we can be sure of: immersive experiences such as these build capacity for civic engagement across the country and forge friendships that will last a lifetime.  The future of food policy is bright!

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.