Welcome to Robert Harris Resources!
Cell: 905-466-3083


Keys To Succeed At Public Sector Change

I was giving thought recently to the common change challenges that my clients are facing, particularly in the public sector.    It dawned on me that change, in today’s economic climate, is different from conventional change.

When is change not typical change?

Change, anytime, has significant challenges – but I believe the current 2013 political and economic climate, makes these challenges even more pronounced – especially in the public sector.

Let me explain. 

A critical factor to change success is being able to clearly illustrate the “pain” of not changing.  Change experts refer to this as the “burning platform” for change.   Impacted stakeholders (e.g., employees, managers, clients, citizens) must perceive the reasons for making the change as compelling; otherwise, the change quickly loses momentum.    Even with this clear and compelling burning platform, there are still other significant hurdles to overcome for the change to succeed.

It is generally accepted that, without a burning platform, the change is nebulous and not likely to sustain.   I regularly coach my clients on the importance of both illustrating and articulating a compelling burning platform (note: in my 4 Box Change Model, this is Box 1 – see Blog #3).

In today’s public sector, particularly at the federal and provincial levels, the “burning” platform for change is barely “simmering” at best.   By that I mean, impacted employees and managers can much more easily see the reasons for not changing, than embrace the reasons for the change.   The reasons for change are mostly organizational, and obscure at that.  The reasons for not changing are much more personal, and very clear to those being asked to make the change.

Let’s look at what is occurring in the public service today…


Throughout 2012, I worked with various departments within our federal government that were struggling with mandated change in the form of the Deficit Reduction Action Program (DRAP).     This included departments ranging from public health, to food inspection, to legal services.

The essence of DRAP is that billions of dollars of current expenditures, had to be eliminated from the budget.   The goal was to have a more manageable budget that would prevent Canada from experiencing the significant financial crises being experienced in other parts of the world, in particular, the European Union.

DRAP was announced in late 2011 with the message that further details would be forthcoming once everything passed through parliament by the summer of 2012.    For federal employees, these major financial cutbacks presented dire personal and professional  challenges.   It was clear that programs and services, very dear to federal employees and their clients, would be cut.  The only question was when, by how much, and where.   Further exacerbating this situation was the fact that managers and employees at all levels had to endure a “limbo” state, since the specifics of DRAP would not be known for several months.

This was particularly challenging to middle managers who struggled with how to maintain productivity and motivate staff, given that everyone was totally fixated on the negative implications of DRAP.

DRAP is a good example of a challenging public sector change.    The reasons for change are mostly organizational and political, somewhat obscure, largely budget driven, and have little or no motivating factors for employees.   Minimal information or specifics is available, timelines are drawn out, and in the interim, managers and employees become disempowered, and even disenfranchised.


I am currently working with a number of individual ministries in the Ontario Public Service and, similar to what is happening in the federal service, the primary impetus for OPS change is on “finding efficiencies” in order to get the financial house in order.    In addition, the Ontario political climate is quite unsettled.   The Premier has resigned, other leaders are retiring, and many have made it clear that governing the province for the next immediate years will be an exercise in financial restraint.

Finding efficiencies”, for most employees, is a euphemism for cost cutting and doing more with less.   As in the federal service, there is both anxiety and anger that the leaders driving the change are not in touch with the needs and necessities of the stakeholders impacted by the change.

Typically, there is little trust in the goals and purpose of the budget cuts.   Worst case scenario, employees presume they are paying for management’s mistakes.    There is also a belief that management will somehow “screw up” the change by changing things that should be preserved – and thereby make things worse.

For everyday public sector employees, cost-cutting and budget management is one of the least compelling motivators for public sector change.   This is because, in the absence of specifics (note: employees rarely have access to financial details) rumours abound and there is a sense of “spin-doctoring” at the highest levels.

Given this, what are the keys to making public sector change succeed?


Public sector employees work there for a purpose that is mostly non-monetary.    Rationalizing a change for financial purposes is not compelling and “framing” that same change with the goal of “finding efficiencies” makes matters even worse.

On the other hand, financial and political reasons will continue to be an underlying driver of change in the public sector.    Certainly, there will be other changes that have more compelling reasons, but we cannot ignore the realities of money and public perception.

Here are three critical actions that can significantly raise the likelihood of successful public sector change.

I.               TRANSPARENCY

If a change is urgent, obvious and compelling to all, then employees and other stakeholders are more willing to rely on the experts without lots of conversation and two-way dialogue.   The change itself is transparent and obvious, so there is less need to explain things and answer questions.

That is not to suggest that communication and visible leadership is not important, but it is not as important.   Instead, there is a desire for action and being kept updated on results.

For example, following the terrorist disaster that occurred with 9/11, airports immediately changed their security procedures and, although this presented challenges to travellers, most people were mildly to strongly onboard right away, because the “pain of not changing” was obvious.

Today’s public sector changes are mostly obscure and the reasons for the change minimally compelling to employees being asked to change.   This means that visible leadership – available, up-front, and open – is critical.    People need to know that leadership is being forthcoming and honest on the details of the change, as these become available and sharable.   People also need to know that they can ask the tough questions, and that the answers to these questions are honest, even if that means delivering bad news.

The opposite approach – “back room” change, lots of closed-door meetings, a tightly controlled message, and largely invisible leadership – will certainly sabotage the change before it even gets off the ground.


People are always more committed to change they input into, and will oppose even “smart” change where they didn’t get input and felt they should have.    If the reasons for the change are weak, and the repercussions of the change significant, then those people being asked to change must be given a voice.

This voice needs to be listened to and some of this input needs to be factored into the change plan.   This will help break down the distrust barriers since people at all levels of the organization will have representation in the room.

Ironically, there is typically lots of wisdom within employee “resistance”.   From my perspective, it seems a natural strategy to invite people who best know the job to input into the plan.   I often wonder why change leaders don’t do this more often.    Unfortunately, experience suggests the opposite happens – managers perceive employees as whining and complaining, who in turn are either put down or ignored altogether.

A better strategy, for difficult public sector change, is tune in and integrate employee feedback – for two reasons: (i) who knows better about what is needed when implementing the change than the people who actually do the work, and (ii) validating stakeholder feedback is the only way to turn superficial compliance into true commitment.


When the reasons driving the change are mostly financial or political, then different viewpoints will invariably exist – in terms of the merits of the change and what needs to change.  Typically there is validity in these differing viewpoints; meaning, it is not that someone is right and the other is wrong.

Critical to public sector change is identifying what needs to change and what needs to stay the same.   The mantra should be, “Let’s change what needs changing and protect what needs preserving!”     The only way to ensure this gets done right is to have these polarized stakeholders and different interest groups working together to find acceptable solutions.

I have spent the past decade teaching a 4 step methodology – I call it the 4-Box Strategic Influencing Model – that identifies and reconciles very polarized viewpoints about the change.   Even more importantly, if this tool is used correctly, it enables people to see the wisdom and validity in the viewpoints of others.    In effect, this tool allows people to develop shared understanding and move forward collaboratively, rather than argue for their merits of their viewpoint.

The 4-box model ultimately empowers people to work together to identify the challenges in making the change work, problem solve together, and develop actions and strategies to overcome these challenges, thereby ensuring change success.

Having diverse but relevant stakeholders work together on the change, significantly increases the likelihood that the change plan will be well perceived by the varying stakeholder groups who must come on board for the change to work.

Leave a Reply