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Leading change in government

In the last few decades the public service has undertaken some major change initiatives to modernize programs and services. Some valuable lessons have been learned along the way. 

The first is actually a simple reality: transforming a national public program or service delivery system in the public service is one of the most complex and deep changes we can lead.

For example, the creation of Shared Services Canada was one of the largest change initiatives in scope in the world at the time. What this means is that, ultimately, there are few experts (either in the private or public sectors) when it comes to leading ground-breaking, transformational change. Essentially we are all learning on the job as we go, and this also includes private firms that provide change consulting services.  In many ways, as became evident in the Shared Services Canada transformation, the answer is in the room. We know our people, we know the complexities of our systems and processes and, with the right mindset and strategy, we are best-placed to lead these types of changes in government.

Considerations when leading change in government

Systems thinking / partnerships

The government is an incredibly complex system. It’s important that we think about the whole system (to the extent that is possible) when leading transformational change. One of the ways we can do so is to try to engage players from all parts of the system, not simply the one we are working in, or the ones most obviously impacted by the change.

If we want to unlock some real change opportunities, ideally we involve managers and executives and their support office in the change process. Relationships, as well as work processes and IT supports, are important in making any change successful.

It is best to get the voice of our clients into our governance structure and into the work of our change teams. Ultimately, the real success of our change will be assessed by our client system.

Setting expectations

One of the best ways to avoid disappointment is to have well-defined conditions for success in our change strategy. Priorities in the government change often. We should try to establish commitment to the change for its duration. Multi-year funding is critical to making many change efforts succeed.

We can better position the expectations of the change by being clear and honest about the return on investment to Cabinet or to high departmental levels when attempting a deep transformational change.

The return on investment, efficiencies or savings on deep changes are not generally realized within the first 12-24 months of a change effort. Often these are not realized until 3-5 years down the road. In the first 24 months it is much more likely we will need to invest funds rather than realize savings. We may even need to account for a transition period post-implementation before efficiencies are realized (for example, to allow for people to learn the new ways of doing things).

Changing mindsets

The federal government is a complex system that relies on rules and processes to ensure fairness and accountability. It’s important that we don’t discount the value of these when discussing and implementing a change.

That being said, the world is changing at a very fast pace and there is pressure on governments to keep pace. Adapting to this by changing the way we work, including our rules and processes, will allow us to continue to serve Canadians at the high level they have come to expect. We should work to change mindsets (both the emotional and rational sides) that don’t accept change as being necessary. One way to do so is by generating urgency around the change.

It can be helpful to remind people that what we did yesterday may have been the right thing to do. We assessed the environment then, we decided we had to change and we made that change happen. Now, we are simply going through that process again because the world out there is expecting even more from us. Our clients may not expect an Amazon delivery timeframe, but they are looking for better, faster service options and more details about their requests and where they are in our system.

The change team

To set ourselves up for success over the life of the change we gain by establishing a strong in-house leadership coalition to guide the change and to direct the process, slowing it down when it makes sense to get people on board. We should avoid delegating the change to a private consulting firm, as much as possible. Or, at the very least, it’s important to have mechanisms in place to ensure knowledge transfer.

When we do use outside consulting firms, we want to ensure that our contract contains some clear deliverables around learning transfer to our operational people and the change team. This would help avoid instances where the consultants leave and the system migrates back to the old way of operating. Ideally, the change team remains connected to regular operations. We can do so by monitoring the relationships between our change team and the rest of the organization to avoid these groups becoming isolated and generating resentment among non-involved managers and staff.

Next steps

Understanding the specific challenges of leading change in the federal government is essential. So is leading change in a virtual environment. This is what we’ll learn about in the next section.

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