Sell new bosses on old programs

Officials need to demonstrate business value, leadership and good program management skills.

Career executives who have experienced presidential transitions have some advice for managers who are about to undergo their first one: Get ready to defend your programs as new appointees take their places at agencies. 

Agency managers are hoping the incoming administration will retain their programs in a lean budget environment because they believe the initiatives have value. Many of them are preparing to highlight their leadership and their programs’ results to President-elect Barack Obama, who has pledged to comb through the budget and weed out programs that are not achieving the desired outcomes.

For programs to survive, career executives advise managers to strengthen their employees’ program management skills and present results in terms the new administration’s leaders can understand. The managers need to make a good impression fast because they probably won’t get a second chance.

The Obama team can obtain data on major programs from publicly available information, such as agencies’ Program Assessment Rating Tool evaluations. However, program managers will likely provide most of the information about other initiatives — information technology programs in particular — through conversations and reports with the new administration’s leaders, said Chris Niedermayer, director of the Program Management Group at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Agencies have all kinds of IT projects, for example, that don’t show up” in PART, he said last month at the Program Management Summit sponsored by 1105 Government Information Group, which publishes Federal Computer Week. “You’ll need to get more information about your pet programs out there.”

The new administration is going to analyze the details and determine where each program is spending its money and which programs add value, he said.

“If you’re passionate about your program and they start asking you questions, you better be able to show them the facts,” Niedermayer said. Those facts include explanations of why the program is important, why the agency launched it and what its plans are for the initiative’s next phases, he added.

It’s helpful if managers can point to recent quantifiable successes for their programs, said Cecilia Coates, acting director of the Office of Program Management and Policy at the State Department.

“As you’re heading into a transition, you want to try to position yourself to be at a point where you have a stable program that has shown success and value,” she said. “If you can come up with a success shortly before the transition and market that so it’s out there and your senior management knows, highlight that in your transition papers.”

It’s also important to deal with budget constraints. This year, the budget for State’s Integrated Logistics Management System  and most other IT programs was cut by 50 percent. The system handles requisitioning, procurement and contracting and has a module that incorporates key performance indicators and presents information on transactions flowing through the system.

“Sometimes you have to be realistic and downsize some,” Coates said. “You don’t have to do everything right away. You have to work within the constraints that you have and still demonstrate measurable progress.”

Coates hoped to deploy the system to 75 posts this year, but because she will not have the funds to do so, she is prioritizing her options.  
“If I can look at 20 key posts that are going to have a big impact on the department and dramatically increase our visibility of procurement transactions around the world by picking the right places, you can still make dramatic results, improvements and efficiencies even if they aren’t quite as great as they would have been,” Coates said.

State has deployed the system at 30 overseas posts and has launched portions of it at 70 posts, she said.

When preparing for a change in agency leadership, program managers must make sure that the cost and schedule for delivering business value are clear and that they communicate frequently and consistently in layman’s terms about a program’s value, Niedermayer said.
“If they can’t see the value, expect to see it on the chopping block,” he said. “You have to be prepared to give it up.”

Larry Koskinen, associate inspector general for mission support at the Treasury Department’s Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) office, agreed that managers must sell a program’s worth in terms that new agency leaders can understand and respond to.

“Terms like, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ won’t fly,” he said. “It takes effort to rethink your assumptions about what the value is, why your initiative should endure and what is the language that will sell this program.”

He recommended preparing and practicing a brief speech for each of the program’s key stakeholders.

“In this administration, you’re going to see value in depoliticizing the language,” Koskinen said. “Results will be important.”
Even if new leaders retain a program, they might reframe or rename it, Niedermayer said.

“You need to integrate your initiative with your culture as much as you can through standardized business and IT processes, operational policies and procedures, and a common vocabulary,” he said. “This will formalize it in newer form.”

That means program managers should build strong, diverse support for an initiative throughout the organization and among stakeholders at other agencies and outside organizations.

“Find the right players and opinion leaders and highlight successes that you can garner quickly,” Koskinen said. “When the transition team and then new appointees come in, have those who can stand up for you.”

To build a supportive team, managers should have a mix of communicators and make sure they cover all the angles, said Joe Hungate, principal deputy IG at TIGTA. 

You need individuals who act as connectors to get the message out, salespeople to convince the undecided, sponsors to stand behind the program, early adopters to demonstrate value early, and a naysayer or two who might later become the program’s strongest advocates, he said.

Managers should build a common message of the program’s value, which could include best practices and lessons  learned from predecessors, Hungate said. And they must make sure that those who determine a program’s funding have clear and convincing benefit and cost analyses and know the risks involved in not pursuing the program as planned, he said.

The program manager should create a vision and plan for achieving goals through a graphic such as a thermometer; develop and implement a communications plan; and create a 10-word headline or brief speech that explains what he or she has saved or accomplished through the program, Niedermayer said. He also recommended establishing standard meeting times for participants and using awards, incentives and public recognition to ensure continuing progress.

“You don’t have to convince everyone,” he said. “Science says you can tip the scale with about 25 percent.”

Often when a new administration takes offices, it comes planning to fix or change programs and goals, he added.

“Even if you’re part of the program, be the go-to person and a go-to team,” he said. “You have to be willing to change a little. You have to be transparent about it.”

Managers can accomplish that by producing clear and concise reports of progress and financial status, establishing regular reporting periods, and frequently showing tangible evidence of value from the resources that have been allocated, such as people using services or a Web site, Niedermayer said.

When orienting new appointees to the responsibilities their roles entail and the resources at their disposal, give them clear, constructive answers to their questions and no condescending comments about how their ideas have been tried before, Koskinen said.

Instead, he suggested providing a factual perspective of an appointee’s idea, such as when it was tried, what it cost or the risks involved.
And managers should realize that some ideas might have been tried prematurely, Niedermayer said.

“Maybe it’s time to try it again, or maybe we weren’t ready or the world has evolved, and maybe the idea is contemporary now,” he said. 

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