It’s So Meta: Managing Change in the Public Sector

Maria’s note: I’ve spent much of my student and professional career reading thick academic articles and translating them into “regular people’s” English. From time to time, I will summarize articles that I find helpful on this website.

The academic article Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006) is an extensive literature review of research on change management. The authors distill dozens of articles and books into eight steps.

  1. Ensure the Need. A change leader must create a vision for change and show that they are not promoting change for the sake of change. If necessary, they may even artificially create discomfort if that is the only way to create movement.
  2. Provide a Plan. If plans for change are left ambiguous, they leave room for too much discretion at the individual level. People who are not in favor of the change may find ways to ignore it or even oppose for many years. In some cases, they may just wait it out until management changes and the initiative is forgotten. A clear plan with goals and milestones is one way to clarify expectations and keep everyone on track.
  3. Build Internal Support for Change and Overcome Resistance. Make room for widespread participation. The more say individuals have in the plan for change, the more they are likely to support and work toward the plan.
  4. Ensure Top Management Support and Commitment. If management decides to oppose a plan for change, it’s often game over. At least one member at the executive level needs to be on the side of change.
  5. Build External Support. In the nonprofit and public sectors, external stakeholders such as funders and interest groups can help or hinder change. If a change is going to cost funding or attract lots of negative publicity, it may not work.
  6. Provide Resources. Change is never free. Employees or volunteers will need time to adjust to the change. Outside consultants and service providers may need to help out for a while. The change might require an investment in resources such as software, physical space or meeting time. Without resources, a change won’t succeed long term.
  7. Institutionalize Change. Incorporate the change(s) into daily routines. Set performance measures and monitor data to keep everyone on track over time. Give regular update reports so everyone can see where the organization is and how far they have left to go.
  8. Pursue Comprehensive Change. Examine all parts of the organization and see if the systems, staffing and training are consistent and support the change. If you want greater employee input and engagement, change policies to allow them to take more action without supervisor approval. If you want to encourage interaction, get rid of cubicles or create a lounge area.

While these eight steps read like a linear plan, that may not always be the case. For example, it may be important to secure top management support before presenting a vision for change to the rest of the organization. It’s also possible that change initiatives might backslide for a while and the change team may have to reconfigure the plan or build more internal support.

photo by: taberandrew

2 thoughts on “It’s So Meta: Managing Change in the Public Sector”

  1. Maria – I agree with your suggestions. In my own work, I focus on two questions: why do people support change, and why do they resist it? I find that leaders who can answer those questions tend to make better decisions regarding the human part of change. I agree that seeing the need is vitally important. It is surprising how infrequently leaders make a case that change is needed before they announce their grand plan for a change nobody knows or cares much about. I advise my clients to make sure that people really get the need for a change before ever attempting to move to the other steps. While the steps aren’t linear, your 1 on the list, should be number one.

    While I agree with you that a clear plan is important, getting people deeply engaged in the planning process often builds support, commitment, and ownership.

    Thanks for a fine post.

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