If you ask a government employee the question “Why are you doing it that way?” Then the answer will probably be “We’ve always done it this way!” Government agencies are notorious for being inflexible and unchangeable. Many a crusading elected official has discovered the hard way that it not change its way overnight.
However, what is really interesting is that if you ask individual employee how a particular process works, then you will get very different answers. In other words, how a process works is usually a matter of personal perspective and not a matter of procedural directive.
It is hard for local government managers to find a silver lining in the current economy. Dwindling public resources have resulted in a fiscal triage of cutting contracts, reducing service levels, and deciding which employees are the first to be laid off because they are nonessential. It is also hard to convince elected officials that there is any other long-term strategy for addressing the problem other than the political reality of their four-year terms. Many elected officials subscribe to President Ronald Reagan’s admonition about change: “It's hard when you're up to your armpits in alligators to remember you came here to drain the swamp.”
The reality is that government agencies are going through huge organizational changes that they never anticipated. Most organizational change is forced on a public agency by external forces. It is usually the political upheaval of a major election, but occasionally it is the economic upheaval of a recession. In any case, public agencies usually resist organizational change until they are faced with a political or economic crisis.
The organizational dilemma is that there is a difference between private and public sector organizations. Private sector organizations listen to their external stakeholders because their livelihoods and profits depend on customer input. In business, if you don’t listen to your customers, then your rivals will.
But public sector organizations don’t have any financial incentive to pay attention to their customers. This can result in a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. It also can result in government managers being blind to the political change occurring around them.
So, where is the silver lining in today’s economic downturn? Managers have the opportunity to make meaningful organizational changes. Organizational change can be a good thing and a major opportunity to communicate with internal and external stakeholders about their organization’s future; to make behavioral, structural, and technical improvements; and to survive and prosper from that change.
THE CHANGE PROCESS
Most organizational change is forced on public agencies by external forces. That is unfortunate because it creates a reactive climate of fear: members of the staff resist the change process and may even work to sabotage it. There is a better model, however, where organizational change is treated as an ongoing systematic process; in this model, staff members are at the heart of the change process and actually drive it.
Change that comes from within and is staff driven is much more successful and productive than change imposed from outside. Dr. David Carnevale, in his book Organizational Development in the Public Sector, says, “Involving employees in structured problem solving, allowing them effective voice, and respecting their know-how are the core elements in the physics of learning.”
One good example of external forces and positive organizational change is the recent trend for succession planning in organizations. As the working population has aged, there has been a need to find younger employees to replace those employees who have been retiring.
Succession planning has been embraced by all employees because the result has been that as the older employees retired, they provided on-the-job wisdom to the younger employees; the younger employees were promoted and earned more for taking on more responsibility; and the management staff maintained an effective workforce. It was win-win for everyone. I talk about this in the past tense because the concept of succession planning was often put on hold as older employees’ retirement funds lost value and they needed to work longer, and the younger employees often got laid off.
To successfully accomplish organizational change, it is important to understand the difference between rhetoric and action. Creating organizational change by creating a new mission, goals, and objectives is pointless unless the objective becomes an action, and the repeated action creates new behavior.
These actions are best carried out through a long-term strategic plan that fits together with a multiyear budget that is monitored through strong performance measures. Noted leadership trainer John E. Jones said, “What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated.”
Unfortunately, even good strategic plans can be doomed to gather dust on a shelf. Every successful strategic plan needs a person, a team, or a committee whose job is to make sure the strategic plan is carried out at every level of the organization over time. Quite frankly, that person cannot be the local government administrator.
The administrator is too busy in the daily swamp of responsibilities to manage the strategic plan. So I suggest you find someone who is a good project manager. That person needs to report directly to the local government administrator and have the administrator’s total support, because that person is going to need it.
BEHAVIOR IS THE KEY
First and foremost, organizational change is about human behavior. It is about how elected officials, government managers, line staff, and the public stakeholders interact. A dysfunctional organization is one where the players don’t share a common vision or have common expectations and do not work well together.
Having greater resources will improve an organization’s ability to deliver services. Greater resources, however, will not make an organization more efficient or effective. To be more efficient means you need to use organizational change to do the best you can with what you have. And that means changing human behavior.
Carnevale says, “The premise is that the organizational members own their own problems and are responsible for finding solutions to them. OD does not ‘fix’ people through the use of outside consultants.” Owning the problems and the solutions is important because ownership helps reduce the fear on the part of the employees that someone from outside the organization is going to fix them, in other words, blame them and fire them!