The Federal Voting Assistance Program and the Road Ahead: Achieving Institutional Change Through Analysis and Collaboration
Oct 26, 2015
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) administers the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and helps uniformed-service members and other U.S. citizens who live outside the United States to vote. In serving this function, FVAP faces complexities, challenges, and opportunities:
In view of these circumstances, FVAP leadership approached the RAND National Defense Research Institute with concerns that the agency's mission had become blurred over time, that its operations might have fallen out of step with its mission, and that the agency would benefit from a more strategic approach to setting goals, organizing for action, and allocating resources. FVAP leadership commissioned RAND to undertake a collaborative, multiyear project known formally as "FVAP and the Road Ahead."
The RAND team worked closely with FVAP to align its strategy and operations to better serve its mission and stakeholders and to strengthen its capacity to set its own course, adapt to change, and communicate its role in the voting community. This research brief summarizes the results of the project. It does not provide a cookbook for change but suggests the possibility of replication for other agencies that are committed to change and able to support that commitment with managerial focus and staff involvement.
RAND and FVAP agreed that the project must be collaborative and iterative to ensure its relevance and timeliness. The RAND team worked with FVAP to share, vet, and clarify ideas and to discuss and refine the details of the approach. The collaboration was essential to developing a full, mutual understanding of FVAP's needs, to gauging and adjusting tactics to meet those needs, and to rapidly transferring recommendations to FVAP leadership. The analysis occurred in two phases. In phase 1, the RAND team examined FVAP's voting assistance activities, the means by which it undertakes them, and the reasons it undertakes them. In phase 2, the RAND team took a step back to better understand the needs of the voting assistance system and draw out implications for FVAP's strategy and operations.
The RAND team's analysis of FVAP's strategy, operations, and organization was based on information collected directly from FVAP, conversations with stakeholders outside of FVAP, and a review of the laws and policies governing FVAP. First, the team's work with FVAP, which required a substantial allocation of FVAP's managerial and staff resources, drew attention to a set of interrelated challenges:
Second, the team's conversations with stakeholders confirmed the perception of mission ambiguity but raised further concerns about the agency's communications, impartiality, transparency, and effectiveness. Third, the team's review of the laws and policies governing FVAP, particularly a subset of specific and direct or "core" legal requirements, suggested room for realignment among FVAP's activities.
In addition, the RAND team found disconnects among the three perspectives, with implications for the viability of FVAP's business model. FVAP saw itself, in large part, as benefiting UOCAVA voters through intermediaries, such as Voting Assistance Officers (VAOs), election officials, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In contrast, stakeholders, including those intermediaries, did not see a clear path from FVAP to voting success (i.e., casting a counted ballot) and were uncertain about what FVAP was doing or why. Moreover, in terms of the core legal requirements, FVAP appeared to be doing more than necessary in some areas and possibly less in others.
Informed by these findings, the RAND team offered actionable recommendations for enabling FVAP to become a coherent, well-functioning whole, build trust and strengthen relationships with its stakeholders, and embrace a culture and principles of effectiveness. The team singled out becoming "one FVAP" as the most immediate need and recommended that the agency take three steps:
By the time the RAND team formally delivered these recommendations to FVAP, the agency had begun to act on most of them. This was possible because the team shared the findings as they emerged to generate debate and discussion.
Phase 2 of the RAND team's analysis focused on the nature of the voting assistance system and the means by which FVAP might better participate in that system.
First, the team scoped the system and found the following:
This characterization of the system suggested, as depicted in the figure, that UOCAVA voters have many options for obtaining voting assistance.
Second, the RAND team identified opportunities for FVAP to engage more effectively within the system. FVAP occupies a unique position in the voting assistance system. It has become a comprehensive repository of information on the processes, tools, and resources that it develops and maintains. As a consequence, FVAP might be the only public agency with the credentials, internal motivation, and dedicated resources to play a leadership role in UOCAVA voting assistance. FVAP can use the training that it provides to VAOs and others to leverage its position in the system. Through training, particularly in-person training, FVAP can engage its intermediaries more directly, get closer to UOCAVA voters, and reap ancillary benefits for itself and the system.
While the analysis was progressing, FVAP was implementing substantial change. Among those changes, FVAP's work on its mission, organization, and operations stand out prominently. FVAP reoriented its mission toward direct, hands-on assistance to intermediaries and voters, consolidated all voting assistance in a single activity stream, elevated the communication group, reconfigured the call center as an in-house voting assistance center, and embarked on new forms of engagement with states. In addition, FVAP redesigned its website, outreach materials, and training materials to communicate and support the changes. FVAP is also enrolling its staff in professional development programs to fill gaps in capabilities and capacities. FVAP has been reassessing policy guidance in light of these changes and using data and analysis to inform the direction and content of change.
To consolidate and advance progress, the RAND team recommended that FVAP continue to take steps to become one FVAP, strengthen relationships with stakeholders, and embrace effectiveness. Among those steps, the team focused on the following:
The RAND team also drew lessons from the experience with FVAP that offer a potential road map for future collaborations. FVAP's commitment to change and the mutual trust that emerged from the working relationship were essential to progress, but other elements of the relationship were also critical to success. To start, RAND and FVAP established the terms of engagement and set expectations about roles early. The teams also got to know each other, both systematically through project events and extemporaneously. In the course of getting to know each other, the teams were able to develop a shared vocabulary, learn to appreciate each other's perspectives, and find ways to engage constructively when differences in perspectives would lead to different courses of action. And the teams remained open to redirection as circumstances required. Last, the teams worked together, step by step, and communicated throughout, not just at major decision points but as a matter of regular practice. They tried and, in large part, succeeded in avoiding surprises.