Legislative Q&A: Susan Fox, Executive Director (part 1)

At the heart of every legislature is the staff ensuring its smooth running. In this Legislative Q&A series, we’re talking to legislative experts and staff about their journey to the legislature, shining a light on the working lives at the heart of American law-making. In the latest interview, we caught up with Susan Fox. Now retired, Susan was an Executive Director with the Montana Legislative Services division. In the first of a two-part discussion, Susan tells us all about her career in the legislature, how she became interested in the technology behind the bill drafting processes, and why being on the mainframe is a zero-sum game.

1. Susan, tell us a bit about your background. What was your first job? What was your first experience of the working world?

I’ve got a master’s degree in Sociology. When I got out of college, I wanted to be in public policy. I had thought about going to law school, but Sociology had taken my attention. I really wanted to apply it to public policy. So, I moved to Helena – which is the capital of Montana – and was looking for work. There weren’t a lot of jobs at the time and I’m kind of a young Boomer! There were many people who had been in place for quite a while. But there were part-time temporary research jobs.

I took a job with the Montana Board of Crime Control. The director there had always wanted to do a book on the criminal justice system in Montana which was great because I did data gathering at all the different agencies from law enforcement through the whole judicial system and the corrections system. I got to learn a lot.

The other part-time job was with our Department of Institutions, which also included corrections. They had a Criminal Justice and Corrections Advisory Council. In graduate school, I had done a court delay grant, so I was a little bit familiar with the Montana court system.

Those were, you know, six-month, eight-month projects. In between those stints, I got a job with the Senate as the assistant bills coordinator. My first session was in 1989. I went back the next session –1991 – and I was the amendments coordinator with the House of Representatives. That’s where I got introduced to bill drafting because at that time, they let the amendments coordinator draft at least simple amendments.

I really loved the legislature and so I continued to apply for jobs. In January of ‘92, I got a research analyst job. In Montana, they allow researchers to bill draft and so I became a research analyst and bill drafter. Because I was the young kid on the team, I got a lot of the odd projects, you know, the special committees that would pop up. I was a kind of jack of all trades, master of none. But I got to do a lot of these select committees in a variety of policy areas. From a Sociology perspective, I loved it, because I could really dive in and do the research and try to help the legislators. I learned to draft in many different parts of the code. I also got to staff a lot of committees and meet a lot of legislators that way.

2. And before you started working at the legislature, did you have any preconceived notions about what it would be like? Did they turn out to be true?

You know, I came in pretty blind. I really didn’t know much about the legislature at all. But when I got that first job as the bills coordinator, I just fell in love with the whole process right away. It’s very interesting. I knew some of the legislators from the county I grew up in. I love the people; I love the excitement of it all. I thought it was fascinating that all these people come together for a very short, intense period to do work for Montana. And I almost immediately just thought, I really love this. It’s an exciting, interesting place to work.

3. Did you have any big learnings or Aha! moments in those early years?

Well, learning to bill draft was a whole new area. Even though I’d had that experience as an amendments coordinator, just learning about the code and statutory construction was a big learning. 

But the problem-solving aspect really pulled me in. The legislators had these broad themes of what they wanted their bills to do. I really enjoyed working with them to help them discern what the problem was, what they wanted to solve, and then try to find that in the code and piece it together. There wasn’t really an Aha! moment other than that it pulled me right in – problem-solving, understanding the codes, learning the language, and how to use it in the right way. There’s a constant learning experience and I really loved that part of it.

4. How did your career evolve after that?

I was a researcher for about 15 years. In the early part, I did all sorts of things in local government. But I did fall into health and human services, and I ended up doing a lot of work in that area. It was very frustrating to me – as human services might be – that things like child abuse and neglect, addiction, welfare, are not easily solved. I did lots of research on all the problems, but it was very hard to feel like I was contributing or making a difference. So, when our director retired, not many others were interested in the job. I saw a real opportunity to make something happen, at least on a more practical level.

5. Within that, you must have seen a lot of technology change over the years. How has it evolved throughout your career in the legislature?

When I first started, we had zip mail, and it was before the internet really. Things were very much more paper-oriented. We used WordPerfect, which I really loved and enjoyed a lot. But we slowly built our system up. It was, I think, a fairly robust system.

Early on, I became interested in the whole process of bills and found that our database was still on the mainframe. I worked really closely with the IT director on redistricting because we had to use a microcomputer with GIS. Even at that time, in the mid-2000s, we knew that mainframes were not going to last forever. The people who could program them were aging out. I think it probably first started as a philosophical or esoteric conversation.

We learned that there were new ways of bill drafting or ways to get off the mainframe. That was one thing I wanted to do in that job. Being on the mainframe is a zero-sum game. If you go from 20 agencies to 10 agencies to only you holding the bag, do you have to pay for the whole mainframe?

We also knew that WordPerfect was not as supported or as robust as it needed to be, but we didn’t see a replacement in sight. We needed some assistance there. Because of the mainframe, in order to get the statutes into WordPerfect, there were all these conversions that had to happen. Every time you converted something, it led to the possibility that something was going to go wrong.

Another factor was the number of steps required. I think in the old days, they used to have 20 different data input people, but as the drafters were doing the input, the staff that was responsible for converting and doing all that work to get it back into the mainframe was getting smaller and smaller.

When we started doing research, we decided to approach the legislature and say, hey, we really need to upgrade your infrastructure. We were finally given the go-ahead and then we realized, oh my gosh, there are so many ways you could approach this! I think we naively did not really understand how much it involves the House and the Senate and all the other processes. They’re all integrated but ours was all kind of piecemeal, right, because it was still very paper bill-oriented. It was a disjointed system even though we could make it work.

I don’t believe our system will ever be paperless. But it makes it more so. The integration was something that we sought out. Upgrading the mainframe and WordPerfect is what got me interested in this whole process but then also the possibilities. We had the expertise coming our way from Propylon and then it evolved into a much more robust system.

6. What did you like about WordPerfect?

The macros that the staff had developed within WordPerfect, the ability to have shortcuts, and also the reveal codes functionality so you could see when something was in the wrong place. Or you’d be drafting and all of a sudden, everything turned red. There was a place where you could go in and look and see what you did wrong and fix it. And if you couldn’t fix it, further on down the line, there were ways that we could figure out what was going on.

7. What impact did it have when you moved to Microsoft Word?

In retrospect, I don’t think we knew that amendments-in-context was a goal, I don’t know if any of us really understood it. Because of track change, that presented itself as an opportunity. Microsoft Word has presented some challenges as well, for example, tables have always been an issue. But I think track changes and amendments-in-context have really presented the most progress and the biggest benefit.

8. What kind of benefits did you see from having an integrated system?

From my personal perspective, everybody had to learn that their actions had a downstream effect. Also, not having to rely on the status system which tells you what’s going on. That has always been good. But it wasn’t real-time.

Right now, we still rely on the legislator to come pick up the bill, sign for it and take it upstairs to introduce it. And I think we need some of that but the fact that the system knows which bills are coming up gives you more control and transparency on where things are – more ways of anticipating and knowing what’s going on.

Additionally, the automation of letters and things like that, between the chambers and the governor’s office, has been beneficial. That shouldn’t have been hard, but now it’s integrated and part of the system so that those next steps are automatically enabled when a bill is eligible for something. It does provide security.

The one thing about a paper bill is that we know who’s got it in hand and when. You still have to have some of that. But the system then can tell you: ‘is this bill eligible for you to do anything? Is it right for you to do your job?’ It helps speed up some of that, and people can see what’s coming ahead. 

9. There’s a lot of talk about hosted solutions versus on-premises. Do you have any thoughts on that?

It’s evolved so quickly. You go from a mainframe, then all of a sudden, you have to have lots of servers…

I think cloud is the next step of the evolution. How do you make sure that your data is secure and safe? Does it really matter where it’s located?

We have a public access network so people can see what’s going on in committees. Some of those servers need to be on-site. Vote systems have to be on-site. But the rest of it doesn’t really matter. As a bill drafter, I never knew which server was serving who or from where.

10. Do you think it is difficult to hire technology staff these days?

I think we do a really good job with our IT staff. I think it has been amazing. But how do you keep up with technology, the new languages? How do you maintain those skill sets when you’re also trying to maintain general operations – maybe maintenance and upgrading – while at the same time trying to develop that next level of expertise? Can you get the staff that has that level of expertise? Or how do you contract with people who can provide that service and keep that cutting edge?

Also, I guess, it’s just harder to attract, especially in Montana. We have two university towns that are both becoming more techie-centered. Not only that, but the legislature has to compete with the other executive branch agencies.

Then, the younger generation, they don’t stay in the same job forever. How do you stay in that mix, and try to keep people happy and help them keep their skill sets sharp? Once you get them sharpened up, what keeps them from wanting to go find a different place? In addition to the technological environment, it’s just a whole different world than it was even 10 years ago.

11. State-sponsored cyber-attacks are increasing. What kind of challenges do you see?

Montana is still integrated with the executive branch and they’re very good about this. And I think we’ve been fairly successful. I don’t think we know all the cyber-attacks that they have been fending off. But we have more and more of a challenge of being that independent, separate and equal branch of government. If we separate, then that becomes all of our cybersecurity, requiring another level of expertise.

That’s a challenge that we’re at right now, in Montana, specifically. If we stay under the executive, it makes us dependent on them for certain decisions which makes it difficult for us to be independent, versus taking that on ourselves and being responsible. We don’t want to be the branch that brings state government down. So, do we stay under the executive branch’s cybersecurity program? Or if we take it on ourselves, how do we implement a robust cybersecurity program? That kind of expertise is probably even harder to find than some of the other expertise in information technology right now.

12. Why do you think that is?

If you’re dealing with programming or engineering, it’s very localized, it’s very specific to your needs and it’s under your control. With cybersecurity, it’s us against the world. I mean, you don’t know where these attacks are coming from, you don’t really have any control over what’s coming from the outside. How do you protect yourself in a world that’s changing so quickly, how do you maintain that level of expertise? Because it seems like every time you try to build a wall – for lack of a better word – there’s somebody out there that’s testing it, trying to hack it, trying to figure out how to get in. That’s just another level of sophistication that may not be hard to obtain originally but is hard to maintain and keep on that cutting edge – to try to always stay a step ahead of the bad guys!

Continued in part two.