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Making a Difference in the Public Service – Impediments and How to Fix

As with all sectors of our economy, the public sector has a unique culture that, on one hand, helps it succeed but on another level, gets in the way of meaningful innovation and change.

The reality is, implementing sustainable change that has stakeholder commitment is one of the biggest challenges – and needs – in the public service.

Part of my business practice involves working with managers and leaders at all levels of the public sector (federal, provincial, municipal).   Frequently, I deliver a program on Change Leadership which receives excellent feedback albeit with typical “qualifiers” such as noted below:

“This program was great but how am I going to be able to apply this learning when the culture of our public sector does not support it.”

“I am excited about applying these concepts but not sure how to get my boss onside… he hasn’t taken this course…”

Recently, I was delivering a three day leadership program in western Canada encompassing leaders of several different public sector departments, where the focus on was on “Transformational Change”.

As part of the program, we engaged in a lengthy round-table discussion on what impedes change success in the public sector (as this was highly relevant to the attendees, given their roles).

Five (5) Barriers to Successful Change in the Public Sector

Participants identified five barriers that must be resolved, for change to succeed in the public sector.   Interestingly, there were “linkages” among the factors (i.e. one factor impacted another factor).  The five identified barriers to making meaningful change in the public sector were:

1. A Sub-Culture of Complacency.   

Although many participants joined the public sector to make a difference, their ability to effect change and improvement was counteracted by a sub-culture that was more focused on sticking with status quo.   Participants struggled with how to overcome an attitude of complacency and even apathy in the public sector as they tried to engage others in change.

The sense was that anyone (regardless of level) who had been working in the public sector for five years or longer, was now steeped in the norm of “not taking change seriously”.   Participants noted that, instead of engaging, employees and managers alike would often resort to “waiting things out”, presuming that leadership would change (literally) or at the very least, would change their minds.

2. “Revolving Door” Leadership. 

Mid-level managers in particular struggled with frequent changes at the senior leadership level.   They noted that short-term leadership changes were disruptive on a number of fronts.   This included a growing cynicism or apathy in the visions being espoused, and a sense of futility of committing to a direction that would likely change with the new leader.   (Note:  Some participants from the provincial sector commented that they had already had four Assistant Deputy Ministers in the past 14 months.)

3. Poor Follow-Through. 

Given rapid turnover at the leadership level, which could include new councils (municipal) or new provincial or federal governments, there was a sense that change is not sustainable because what is “in” today will be “out” tomorrow.

Particularly disgruntled were those employees and managers who worked hard at implementing the most recent change, as well as exhorting their team of the change’s importance, only to discover that “priorities had changed” and the change will not be completed.     Interestingly, these former change advocates became the most intransigent, and difficult to engage, when the next change was announced (feeling that their leadership role had been undermined).

4. Lack of Accountability.  

Many participants noted that there is no system of rewards or consequences in the public sector for whether the change is done well or even abandoned.    This lack of results or action was often rationalized as a “change in plan” or simply swept under the carpet going unacknowledged.

Many participants noted that managers were not rewarded for succeeding at change, nor were they “consequenced” if change was done poorly or avoided.  So, the motivation wasn’t there to be a change champion in an environment where the preservation of status quo seemed the norm.

Newcomers were often told to “slow down… don’t rock the boat”.   Many participants felt that it was almost easier – and more conducive to future career success – to be average from a change perspective, than accomplish a lot.

5. Significantly Inadequate Communications.   

Participants noted that communications at all levels were very inadequate or completely lacking.   Mid managers in particular noted they were often in the dark about decisions or actions directly impacting their work units.

Participants were unanimous in noting that executive communications were typically high-level jargon or “corporate-speak” that said very little.   Furthermore, they noted it was almost frowned upon to get below the surface in terms of details pertaining to the communications.

Participants stated the norm was to keep communications sanguine – as if there is an unwritten rule of “Don’t ask / Don’t tell”.    One participant who was trying to be open in an employee town hall, was pulled aside by his senior manager and advised to “stay on message” (which immediately caused that manager to shut down).

Generally, participants felt there was a lack of transparency and two-way dialogue in matters of importance which caused others to question the truthfulness of what was being conveyed.

Keys to Building Public Sector Change Effectiveness

Impediments to public sector change are not easy to overcome as these are long-standing and inbred in all levels of government (especially provincial and federal).

But there are meaningful actions that leaders can take, which would significantly improve change outcomes in the public sector.   Here are three (3) themes, with supporting actions, that would make a big difference.

I.               Reconnect the Executive Level of Leadership to Middle Management

This is critical.    Participants at our round-table cited a clear disconnect between leaders who determine changes at the strategic level, and mid-level managers who must operationalize those same changes and get others onside.

2016 research from Prosci, a leading change consulting firm, shows that the most disempowered and resistant group to change in today’s workplace is middle management – almost half of all resistance is experienced at this level  (whereas only 7% of executives are resistant to change).

A human principle is that people are always more committed to changes that they have input into.

In reality, it is folly to expect employees to embrace change if they perceive a major disconnect between their immediate supervisor/manager and the executive level.     People will only persevere through change, if they know these initiatives are supported at the highest levels, and that there is cohesion and alignment at all levels of leadership.

Three (3) ways to enhance connectedness between executives and middle managers are:

i.         Leaders must act as “partners” (versus detached decision-makers).   I realize that strategy and direction is the prerogative of executives, but tactics and process must be a collaborative effort with those working at the “front”.  As a start, leaders should involve lower management sooner and give them meaningful input throughout the project in terms of “how” the change should unfold.

ii.         Middle managers must be given more status and leeway in the communications process.   This will reinforce their role in supporting and driving the change.    Leaders need to make more use of joint presentations, and use this author’s “4-Box” methodology to foster a much more compelling conversation. Research shows that front line supervisors have a much greater influence on the attitudes and beliefs of staff, than distant executives.

iii.         Senior leaders need to be much more visible and active throughout.    Typically, they help “launch” the change effort and then stay mostly removed from the fray.  Given the challenges that others will undoubtedly experience throughout the change, leaders need to practise more “managing by walk about” and be much more active and visible in reinforcing the importance of the change.

II.       Significantly Enhance Communications

Communications is consistently cited as a “maker or breaker” of change success.    People can’t commit to what they don’t understand.    Furthermore, trust and commitment require transparency and “safety” in being able to ask questions and present contrary viewpoints.

Three (3) ways to improve public sector communications include:

i.         Start with the “WHY”.    Employees must understand why the change is needed and the dangers, cost or risk of staying the same.   From my experience with public sector change initiatives, middle managers are often in the dark as to why the change is being undertaken; instead being provided with platitudes.    This totally neutralizes their role and their ability to get others onside in a meaningful way.

ii.         Acknowledge and explore stakeholder (employees, managers, others) interests.   The “elephant in the room” must be acknowledged and legitimized.    It is impossible for employees to commit to a change that appears to discount or ignore their needs.

iii.         Do a deeper dive.   Communications with externals is understandably going to be filtered and framed in an appropriate way.   But internal communications can and should go much deeper in terms of explaining why the change is needed, challenges to change success, impact on stakeholders, and what will remain the same after the change is completed.

III.            Establish “Internally-driven” Accountability Systems

Historically, accountability has been an externally driven process involved with setting goals, and then establishing metrics (KPI’s) to measure success.    But the reality is, most people join the public service to make a difference in how societies function and to improve people’s quality of life.

Through externally driven controls, leaders are going to ensure conformance but risk losing the deeper commitment of the workforce who have different motivations in why they do what they do.

External controls are useful, but for true accountability to occur, more is needed.   There must also be internal drivers within the individual so that employees feel motivated to perform, even if unsupervised.

Effective accountability involves a linkage between systems and people.  

In much of my work, I use a tool called the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI), which illustrates the core “motivational value system” (MVS) of people and their relative focus in three critical motivational priorities:  Process, People, and Performance.

In other words, we all have a desire to have a plan, help others, and achieve results – but the relative importance of these three drivers, and what we tend to focus on, varies from person to person.

Key to motivation is understanding people’s intrinsic motivators, and then assigning tasks and communicating in a way that links to these motivations.   At their core, employees must see a meaningful purpose in what is being expected of them, for them to truly engage and be accountable.

I work closely with Personal Strengths Publishing Canada (PSP Canada), a Canadian consulting firm that is very active in the public sector.   PSP Canada has an innovative program – Core Strengths, Accountability by Choice – which teaches the seven motivational value systems of people, the 28 related core strengths that associate with these value systems, and how leaders can tap into these values systems for greater success – especially when initiating change.

About the Author:   Robert Harris, President of Robert Harris Resources Inc., uses A.D.K.A.R methodology and the “4-Box” Model to illustrate best practices in change leadership.   Robert can be contacted here or directly at (905) 466-3083.