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Getting Your (Transition) Story Straight

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By Andrew H. LaVanway October 11, 2016

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Andrew H. LaVanway has been active at the intersection of government, technology, and citizen engagement for nearly 20 years. He is currently leads ICF’s public sector communications practice.

A 60-minute meeting to outline everything you’ve accomplished during the last administration and your plans for the incoming. In the private sector, we would call this, “Interviewing for your own job,” or “Meeting with the Bobs.” Federal agencies have a more formal title for the activity, “The Presidential Interregnum;” more widely known as “The Transition.” While planning is well underway, in some ways, it’s only just beginning.   

Humor aside, the stakes are high for transition meetings. Years, even decades, of work can be lost to policy changes and whole offices erased by budget reallocations or department reorganizations. Sustaining progress and staying on track largely depends on succinctly telling a convincing, compelling story about your agency’s unique mission and the value of its successes to incoming leadership.

Unfortunately, this is not something most agencies do well.

When given the chance to talk about their mission and successes, most agencies will double down on the dreaded list of bullet points taken from their transition binders. “By 2011, $2 billion of XX, and more than $300 million, yada yada yada…” After 40 slides of jargon, minute detail and unknowable acronyms, members of the transition team and incoming politicals will depart with little more than a laundry list of programs, indiscernible amidst $1.2 trillion in other bullet points.

Fatal? Perhaps not. But certainly there is a better way to craft a transition story to underscore the unique value your agency and programs deliver.

First, start with a simple, clear narrative. The market context and driving trends, along with how the agency leads in that environment, are infinitely more interesting than the organizational chart. Use what the agency does only to punctuate how and why the agency does it. During the initial briefings especially, the narrative will almost certainly deliver more impact than the detailed program-project-activity inventory, simply because it will be more memorable.

Second, humanize the discussion. Ultimately, your agency’s narrative is about how it improves outcomes, reduces harm, or speeds economic benefits to people. Those people should be front and center in your transition story. The budget, achievement inventory and organizational structure should all flow forward from direct impacts for specific people.

Cynically, this is because decision-makers will be more thoughtful in considering the future of programs where the human result is known and visceral. More earnestly, however, the human story connects the agency mission to the American people. Not in the abstract jargon of a budget justification, but in the clear language of a tangible example.

Third, use representative examples instead of lists. The urge to detail every project is near overwhelming when you are justifying millions in spending. You must absolutely resist this urge to catalog. Are you thinking of the transition binders again? If the tyranny of Google search pages has taught us anything, it is that nearly everything on page two of a list gets ignored.

Moreover, human cognition flows more easily from specific examples to broader categories. Use this to your advantage by selecting interesting, engaging projects to highlight whole categories of activities. You’ll leave participants with a better understanding of the agency’s work, and the anecdote is that much more likely to capture a place in their long-term memory.

Fourth, focus on the future. No doubt you have a list of important, impactful achievements, but here’s the thing: Achievements are about the past, and transitions are all about the future. Don’t gloss over your successes, but instead use them to set the foundation for a meaningful agency trajectory for the future. Achievements are the steps from yesterday that enable you to take the steps for tomorrow.

Without question, you will still need to spend a disproportionate amount of time in inventorying projects, building up budget tables with justifications, and carefully diagramming the organizational chart. Some parts of passing the baton to the next administration require careful, complete handling of the details.

But in addition to all of that activity, take the time to build a story that details your vision for how the agency will shape the future to the benefit of the people it serves. Do it because it will provide a better, clearer transition. And also do it, if for no other reason, to remind us all why we got into this business in the first place.

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