In a conversation at the Pentagon recently, we were discussing the debt ceiling limit and the “Super Committee” that will be overseeing budget cuts when the term “narrative” came up. Specifically, I was told: “the contracting community is going to need to change the narrative.”
I first heard “narrative” three years ago in reference to ways that Afghanistan can “change its narrative”. While this seemed a novel idea at the time, it turned out that my company’s recommendations for helping change the narrative for that war torn country was piled among a stack of 70 others. Clearly ideas spread quickly in Washington.
As we approach the 10 year anniversary of 9-11, it really is time for the contracting community and government agencies to begin developing new narratives and positioning themselves for the years ahead. The past decade saw an explosion of growth in government contracting that, after some signs of slowing down, looks like it could be coming to a screeching halt. Understandably government agencies and the contractors that serve them are scrambling to sustain programs, as is pointed out in today’s Washington Post.
Like others, my company has seen a marked increase recently in the number of firms approaching us for communications assistance to help ensure programs stay funded. We have seen associations and coalitions form around certain sectors to advocate program relevancy. And we have seen government agencies eager to communicate to their stakeholders (read: Congress) through glossy annual reports and other marketing collateral that highlight the benefits that their agency provides either to national security or jobs.
What seems to be missing, however, is the realization that agencies and organizations need to develop new narratives. The world has changed and the contracting community needs to change with it. No longer can companies issue the token press release claiming multi-million-dollar program awards written for only the most technically astute program managers. Instead, companies need to communicate awards and programs in terms that taxpayers understand. It’s not difficult; it’s just communicating programs with a slightly different audience in mind. My colleague Stan Collender made this point at last spring’s conference of the Coalition for Government Procurement, and I thought it was a brilliant recommendation. While Stan knew the debt limit was going to be a focus of Washington politics this summer, I don’t think even he foresaw the possibility of the “Super Committee”.
This call to a new narrative was reinforced last night while reading Nicolas Schmidle’s New Yorker article “Getting Bin Laden”. In the article, Schmidle writes about the close collaboration between Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA in the killing of Bin Laden. The planning and execution of this mission brought the collaboration between these two agencies to its highest level. As John Radsan, former assistant general counsel at the C.I.A., is quoted in the article, “the Abbottabad raid amounted to ‘a complete incorporation of JSOC into a C.I.A. operation.’”. Add to this Mr. Panetta’s move from the Director of the CIA to the Secretary of Defense and General Petraeus’ move from commanding general in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Director of the CIA. Now that’s a new narrative.
By Michael Hillegass