This week’s interview is with Adrienne Keys, specialist in legislative information systems management within the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress.
Describe your background.
I started my government career at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. I worked first as an unpaid intern while I finished my bachelor’s degree at George Mason University, and later as a public affairs specialist – a fascinating job that involved generating media interest in museum exhibits, events, and initiatives, as well as ensuring the media’s access to information about the museum in general. (Yes, the museum has Archie Bunker’s chair, the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, and the Star-Spangled Banner). I left that position to study mass communications strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, a graduate program, and worked as an account planner in a large advertising agency in Detroit, Michigan, where I was first exposed to the concepts of information architecture and user experience, both of which are critical to the development of Congress.gov.
How did that lead me to the Library of Congress? I had left Detroit during the recession of the mid-2000s and moved back to Washington, D.C., to be closer to family. An old friend was working at CRS and encouraged me to apply for a temporary position with the Congressional Services Section, the office that is the first point of contact for congressional staff placing research requests with CRS. To make a long story short, I ended up working for the office for seven years. During that time, I had the opportunity to participate in several special projects that inform my present work – including acting as a tester as part of developing a large web-based system used internally by CRS to manage information.
Soon after the conclusion of that project, the opportunity arose to apply for a position with the Congress.gov team. I was excited to learn more about web development, and the process of building and maintaining a large, complex web-based information system, so I jumped at the chance to join the team as a specialist in legislative information systems management.
How would you describe your job to other people?
As a specialist in legislative information systems management, I do a little bit of a lot of different things for Congress.gov, including testing the system to ensure the accuracy of legislative and congressional data, and making sure that new and existing site features are working correctly. I am currently preparing to give a demonstration of the site to a group of congressional staff as part of a pre-conference event. I am also frequently on the front line answering questions about the site from users – which reminds me very much of my previous jobs in public affairs and congressional services.
One aspect of my role that I particularly enjoy is publishing tips on Congress.gov search – and other site – functions. New tips are posted on Congress.gov’s homepage almost every week, with links to help pages with detailed information and images that provide additional guidance. You can subscribe to receive them by email or RSS.
What is your role in the development of Congress.gov?
As the newest member of the team, my role in the development process is growing. Before enhancements and new features are released, I participate in what is called user acceptance testing, checking Congress.gov to make sure it is working the way it should before the new version goes live to everyone. I have learned as part of the Congress.gov team that development is as much of an art as a science. There are many factors at play, and human beings have to remain ever vigilant in identifying and troubleshooting issues that may impact site performance. That is to say, it can be tricky! But it’s like putting together a big puzzle, and it is very rewarding.
What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?
There are so many cool features – it’s hard to pick just one. But, I’m going to give a shout out to the Browse tab, which you can find under the site’s top navigation. There are many ways to search Congress.gov, but sometimes it’s helpful to have guidance. Under Browse, you can find frequently-requested lists and reports of information compiled by legislative experts. We have featured some of these as a part of search tips, but there are many more that deserve mention.
For example, under the Committees section of the page, there are links to tables of legislation with actions related to House and Senate committees and subcommittees. You can quickly see which committees originated bills, which committees had the most referrals, which held hearings on legislation, and more.
Under Congressional Activity, check out Action on Legislation – Browse by Date, which provides access to legislation introduced, reported, passed, and considered by the full House or Senate each legislative day. You can also find a link to this report from the homepage. Look for Yesterday in Congress under the “Recent” heading.
Under Legislation by Actions, browse legislation (bills, amendments, and resolutions) by sponsor or cosponsor.
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process while working on Congress.gov?
There is a lot on Capitol Hill that happens behind the scenes. Before coming to CRS, I was a communications professional and had not formally studied government since high school. When I thought of Congress, I thought mostly of the men and women elected to office. Truly, they are indispensable. However, I now also know how critical the extensive network of legislative branch offices and employees are that collaborate to ensure the continuation of the legislative process.
For example, when Congress is in session overnight, clerks, librarians, and technical staff work all night with them, not only to provide elected officials with the information they need to make decisions, but also to make sure that business is accurately recorded and disseminated to information systems like Congress.gov. These largely unsung staff people allow us all to understand – and participate – in our country’s legislative process.
What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?
I’ve never watched Game of Thrones. True story!
I miss living in Detroit. A highly underrated city, Detroit has a rich history and provides endless opportunity for adventure. While there, I was involved with a local organization that canvassed inner city neighborhoods and ended up knocking on doors one afternoon in an old neighborhood in the northeast corner of the city. My partner and I came upon what was once the Lawrence Fisher Mansion – an enormous mid-1920s structure built by the former president of Cadillac and the principal of a firm that supplied General Motors.
This mansion is fabled in Detroit – I’d heard of it from friends – because in the mid-1970s the home was purchased by a great-grandson of Henry Ford who donated it to the Hare Krishna movement, which continues to operate a cultural center from the property. That day, my partner and I decided we had a once in a lifetime opportunity for a tour. Abdicating our canvassing responsibilities, we entered the 22,000 square foot building built near the Detroit River – with an interior trimmed with real gold and silver, 50 rooms, and gardens featuring peacocks. We had a lengthy conversation about the pros and cons of being vegan in the on-site vegetarian restaurant, and observed people praying reverently at the shrines inside the temple. This is not the kind of scene you stumble into every day. If you’re ever visiting Michigan, go, if you get the chance. The Detroit Historical Society occasionally offers tours.
As a native Detroiter I can attest to Adrienne’s descriptive narrative of the city’s historic architecture; unfortunately some of it has been lost.