Storytelling and federal procurement

A lesson in how to explain complicated things

Last week, after chatting about challenges in federal procurement, a colleague suggested a book entitled the “Free Enterprise Patriot.” The opening statement of the book sets the stage:

Had the complexity of today’s bureaucratic government existed when the War of Independence began, this is how it might have been, with one exception … we probably wouldn’t have won.

The book is satire, written in 1964 by a pseudonymous author, about a blacksmith who wants to sell a cannon to the Continental Army during the American Revolution. It begins with the vendor’s unsolicited proposal:

I strongly favor the action taken by the Representatives of the Colonies on 04 July 1776. Since I want to do my part to help, I want to know if you could use another cannon. I have a small blacksmith shop here in Wilfred Corners which I run myself. I have never made a cannon, but I am sure I could and if need be, I could get some of the men around these parts to help. I would only charge for the metal and a “little to help my family buy corn meal and meat for the winter. Please let me know what kind of cannon you want and where you want it, and I will get started on it right away.

And the response is pure gold:

In order to conduct business affairs with the Continental Congress and the supply agencies of the Colonial Army, it will be necessary for you to complete certain routine forms to help our Weapons Procurement Evaluation Branch (WPEB) evaluate your business and determine whether you qualify as a supplier to the Colonial Army. Naturally, in the interests of security during this period of unrest, the government agencies must insure that its suppliers meet minimum standards of quality and performance. Please fill out the attached forms provided (in triplicate), retain one file copy and return the other copies along with a statement of the type of weapons manufacture or Army supply on which you wish to bid.

This sort of back-and-forth continues throughout the book. It’s amusing and I recommend it (I bought it on Amazon for about $10). But the thing that I find most astonishing about it is how effective it is in conveying why federal procurement is so stultified.

In that vein, over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about user experience and design. One aspect of the practice that has captured my imagination is the role of storytelling in design. The central idea behind storytelling in design is that telling a story invites teams to agree upon problems, gain an understanding of context, and consider multiple alternate realities in an easy way. But as my colleague Andrew Maier explains, storytelling is hard work:

We can use the concept of storytelling to give our teams an idea of where we are headed. But applying storytelling to the websites we create is difficult work…

It is therefore important to appreciate that the Free Enterprise Patriot is so good precisely because the reader had extraordinarily deep insight into the complexities of the federal procurement system. It only hangs together because the author had obvious empathy for the myriad ways that the government created barriers to success, for good reasons and bad. Indeed, it’s because of that insight that the author could tell an effective story using a completely different context to create space for a conversation of the current context.

The lesson for me is that storytelling can have a broader utility than creating incredible user experiences. Storytelling can also help us learn about extremely complicated topics, and find a shared understanding of how to tackle modern challenges.