Meet APA staff: Senior policy advisor, Executive Office

Division Services Office Director Sarah Jordan spoke with Ellen Garrison, PhD, senior policy advisor, Executive Office, about her work.
Jordan: Can you tell me a little about your background?

Ellen Garrison, PhDGarrison: Perhaps I can best be described as a “clinical-turned-political” psychologist. Shortly after completing my doctoral program in clinical psychology with a minor in law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I embarked upon a Congressional Science Fellowship on Capitol Hill in 1982. I worked with the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and continued on as a professional staff member and as co-staff director of the newly-created Senate Children’s Caucus.

My commitment to applying psychological knowledge to inform public policy is evident in the positions I have held since then as well. These include senior policy roles in APA’s Public Interest, Practice and Science directorates, as well as in the Executive Office. I also acquired program development and management experience while working with Montgomery County Government, the University of Maryland Medical School and the Child Center and Adult Services, Inc. (CCAS), a private, nonprofit mental health agency in Montgomery County, Md. While working as a licensed psychologist at CCAS, I became the founding director of the AMIGO program in 1990. This school-based mental health program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, provided mental health and related support services to over 1,000 at-risk Latino children and their families (mostly recent immigrants from Central America) in 14 elementary schools over a seven-year period.  

I might add that I am one of those very happy APA returnees, having worked at the association for four and a half years in the mid-1980s and then left for 10 years to pursue clinical and program management opportunities. I returned in 1998 and have now been on staff for a total of almost 20 years.

Jordan: Tell me about your policy-related role in APA Central Office. How do the government relations staff in the directorates relate to you in this role?

Garrison: As senior policy advisor, I serve as our CEO’s chief advisor and representative on policy issues, government relations, and inter-organizational affairs and as the APA point-person on policy matters. I work closely with the Government Relations Office (GRO) directors and staff of the four directorates, along with their executive directors, in devising and implementing strategies to advance the association’s policy objectives in such major areas as health care reform. Given the absence of an overall GRO manager, a significant part of my role is to facilitate communication among our GROs. We are in frequent contact and meet on a regular basis to discuss critical issues and share information. It might be helpful to clarify that I do not supervise the work of the GROs nor do I have policy staff in the Executive Office.  

I also coordinate association-wide efforts on various cross-cutting policy and programmatic initiatives, such as those related to violence prevention, the work of psychologists in national security settings, public access to journal publications based on federally funded research, and last, but not least, our new APA Center for Psychology and Health.  

Jordan: Under what circumstances would a division contact you or a government relations staff person in one of the directorates? 

Garrison: Generally speaking, a division would contact one of the following GRO directors, depending on the nature of their inquiry:

  • Karen Studwell, JD — Education Directorate
  • Judith Glassgold, PsyD — Public Interest Directorate
  • Marilyn Richmond, JD and Doug Walter, JD — Practice Directorate
  • Geoff Mumford, PhD — Science Directorate

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Judith Glassgold and Karen Studwell to their new positions and to recognize Marilyn Richmond upon her pending retirement for her remarkable achievements and years of dedicated service. (Doug Walter will serve as acting director.)

Divisions should always feel free to contact me if they are not sure who best to contact among the various GROs, and/or they have some general or cross-cutting policy-related question. Also, according to our Association Rules, divisions need to contact the Division Services Office if they are considering issuing a public policy position or statement to ensure that it is consistent with APA policy. Ideally, they will already be collaborating with the relevant GRO(s) regarding the need for and substance of the statement.

Jordan: Do you have any recommendations for divisions considering advocacy activities?

Garrison: First of all, I strongly encourage divisions to engage in federal advocacy initiatives in collaboration with our GROs — you bring the content expertise in vital areas of psychology. Yet, I cannot stress enough the importance of collaboration. APA will only be effective if we speak with a strong, united voice on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is vital for divisions to contact the relevant GRO(s) before embarking on any advocacy initiative, including forwarding an action alert to your membership from another organization. You can then learn about current APA policy in a given area and what our GROs are already doing and planning to do so that efforts can be coordinated.  

To facilitate working with our GROs, divisions can designate a point person/committee as a liaison to one or more of our GROs or recommend experts to serve as informal advisors on emerging policy issues. These individuals might be considered for such opportunities as reviewing draft legislation and participating in congressional hearings or briefings. In this regard, many divisions are already longstanding members of the Federal Advocacy Network of the Practice-GRO. The other three directorates have combined forces to form the Public Policy Advocacy Network, which offers a non-interactive electronic mailing list to enable our members to keep abreast of public policy developments and opportunities to get involved. Education-GRO also runs the Federal Education Advocacy Network — a campus-based grassroots system.  

You can encourage your division members to contact their members of Congress in response to GRO Action Alerts and to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill or at their state/district offices. Successful advocacy is based on forging strong personal relationships with members of Congress and their staff.

Our GROs are also committed to continuing to provide federal advocacy training opportunities to our members. These include programs at the directorate leadership conferences, advocacy training programs, federal advocacy guides on the APA website and a soon-to-be-available CE webinar on the “how tos” of federal advocacy.