For employees across government, the anticipation of a new administration creates considerable uncertainty. Career civil servants—who often have dedicated years of their professional lives to the development of regulations, research, and projects affecting countless Americans—confront the possibility that their work may be halted or reversed by a new administration. The prerogative of a new administration to alter the regulatory and administrative direction of federal agencies can negate the value of years of effort.
Most governmental performance requires active collaboration between federal employees and the American public. The interaction forms the narrative of trust between career civil servants and citizens. This trust materializes in the development of some of the most creative advancements for addressing social, economic, and structural challenges.
But these achievements must be adequately communicated in a manner that sustains the public’s commitment and a new administration’s recognition of the need for continued improvement.
A recent Washington Post article titled “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads” demonstrates the need to improve the way we communicate information about research and projects that address problems of global magnitude. World Bank officials recently conducted a study concerning the public’s interest in their research by asking the simple question: “Is anybody actually reading these things?” Unfortunately, few people were. Nearly one-third of the reports had never been downloaded, 40 percent were downloaded fewer than 100 times, and only 13 percent of the reports were downloaded more than 250 times.
If significant federal initiatives are to avoid the same fate, employees must be able to explain the value of their work. Here are five tips for building the narrative that will help garner public interest and support:
Prioritize your central theme
Trying to communicate everything is akin to communicating nothing. Focus on telling the most important story with conviction—and be ready to do it in less than 30 seconds if necessary. The City of Chattanooga has perfected this concept. In the online platform ChattaData, city officials explain five priorities they know constituents care about most. How do they know? Because they asked.
Interact with stakeholders
It’s important to generate interest in new initiatives and maintain curiosity in existing programs. For instance, through regulations.gov, federal agencies are able to crowdsource feedback on some of the most significant policy decisions that impact people across the country. To explain how the United States invests overseas aid, the State Department created foreignassistance.gov, an innovative digital display of budget data. Users can search funding across a variety of categories and agencies by placing their cursor over a map of the world. If you had a choice between studying State’s budget tables or engaging with this tool, which would you gravitate towards?
Build a community of practice that drives commitment to your program
Build a coalition of the willing. For example, the Transportation and Labor departments created the online Veterans Transportation Dialogue to involve citizens in transportation policy and service delivery issues important to veterans. Building a network of public support makes it much harder to turn effective projects off when new leadership arrives with preconceptions about the need for change.
Don’t ignore the process in pursuit of the outcome
The process that drives data collection can enhance collaboration and breakdown silos—and sometimes even helps with problem solving. Take advantage of this opportunity. Determine where you can leverage collective support, drive progress towards shared priorities, and mutually communicate results. For instance, the joint efforts of the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments in ending veterans homelessness is a great example of two agencies coming together with strong leadership, supported by data, to demonstrate progress in addressing a substantial societal problem.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Moving from a legacy reporting method to a new way of sharing data and results takes time. Learn from the experience of other agencies and begin. Make a new dataset available and create a compelling narrative around it to inform the American people about your innovative work. The biggest impediment to sustainability and progress is never starting.
John R. Malgeri, J.D., Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor to the Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jeffrey E. Press is the Practice Leader for Government Performance at Socrata. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not represent the perspectives of any federal agency or other organization.