EPIC FAIL - Change Management in the Public Sector

Government these days is all about the efficiency. Managers in the public service have to change the way they do business to reduce costs. But here's the reality - most major change initiatives fail. (King, S. & Peterson, L. 2007)

And failure can most often be attributed to organizational resistance. In fact, organizational resistance to change causes failure at a rate nearly twice that of any technical issue, including poor project management.

This puts project management in the 'necessary but not sufficient' category when it comes to implementing and sustaining real change. Project management is all about managing scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, and procurement. What's missing from this list? Vision, motivation, and engagement i.e. change management.

Lots of my friends and colleagues know I used to be a computer programmer; I joke with them that I used to believe in technology, but I got better. Then I used to believe in methodology, but that proved insufficient as well. At the end of the day, sustaining change comes down to creating a vision that is aligned with the desired change, and motivating the people most affected by the change to support it.

This means that a project will be successful to the degree that employees (and customers) support and adopt the changes that are proposed. And they are most likely to adopt change if they are involved in the change initiative in a meaningful way.

This starts with the vision. A number of years ago I was involved in a Locally Shared Support Services (LSSS) initiative in Les Terrasses de la Chaudière Complex; 5 government departments were looking to consolidate and combine some administrative services. There were more than a dozen individual change initiatives within the overall project. The vision the group came up with could be summarized as 'Service to the Complex, not complex service'.

Similarly, in a major change initiative at another department a few years later, the motto for the consolidated mail and records operation was 'Problem solving, not problem referral'. Over a couple or three years we did about a dozen small projects together, typically 15-25 days of my effort for each.

We were successful because we had a system. In both the cases above the cross-functional, cross-representational change teams developed a vision that focused on outcomes and objectives, and finding ways to remove/reduce non-value-added activities that did not support that vision.

Both these groups beat the odds, and were successful in creating and maintaining significant change because we created a 'change management structure' that informed and supported each individual initiative.

We spent a lot of time upfront in each project making sure we all understood what success looked like. We set a manageable scope for each individual initiative. We used particular teams for particular tasks e.g. process redesign, test, and pilot implementation. (This approach also is why our performance measurement projects have been successful).

My role was to bring some skills – process mapping and analysis, business case development, BPR knowledge, implementation planning – and also some 'honest broker' third-party facilitation and objectivity to the projects, to support the teams in their work. It wasn't to do the managers' job, or replace the employees' skills and knowledge and experience (or vision) with mine. This understanding worked out pretty well for all of us.

I'm going to continue the exploration of change management in the public sector in another newsletter; in the meantime, call or e-mail me if you would like to discuss how PRS may be of help in meeting your change objectives. We can quickly help your team get started on the right track.

Contact PRS

See also:

How to Manage Organizational Change in the Public Sector

5 Performance Improvement Secrets for the Public Sector

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