Change Management within the Public Sector: The Path Forward

by Kathy Roy

After working for many years in change management within the private sector, I thought it would be a relatively easy transition to work with public sector organizations.  After all, the Government of Canada is definitely embracing change, so my particular experience and skills must be required, right?   Well the answer has been both yes and no, it all depends on the day of the week that you ask me!

I have found many differences, but one of the foundational differences lies in the manner that programs define their outcomes for success.  In my experience with the private sector, it was typically linked to efficiency and financial gains. In my experience to-date with the public sector, it appears to be more heavily linked to oversight and elimination of risk.  Yet efficiency is consistently being used to describe the Government of Canada’s future direction.

Let’s talk about the gap. I believe a major difference lies in functional complexity. Within the public sector, complex org structures and layers of oversight have created tangled webs of processes, roles and mandates that are not known, documented nor understood across different functional groups.  In an attempt to improve the situation, public sector organizations appear to be continually seeking the next new initiative to further explain the complexity.

The challenge with that forward thinking approach is that organizations rarely look back and clean up the debris left over from previous initiatives. As a result, many public sector employees have shared with us their confusion and frustration over oft-times conflicting principles, mandates and direction.

But let’s focus on a path forward. We have an opportunity to embrace change, and the future looks bright. Many dedicated public sector employees have both vision and hope for the future. They are simply looking for a clear path forward. And perhaps this time they are looking for a different path forward.

The first step is to clean up the debris.  This is where the path to efficiency is the same whether we are talking the private or public sector.  It involves the definition of strategic work in terms of outcomes and objectives, and the definition of daily work in terms of required inputs and outputs.

But how does an organization identify its state of readiness? How do they even know where to start?

They start by determining their organizational readiness.  They must take a hard look at their current state, and define the business they are in, in order to redefine their functional work around outcomes.  It also requires the elimination of functional work that is no longer contributing to outcomes.

They also must assess their management readiness. They need to take a hard look at the attitudes and behaviours exhibited by management. They must have a clear vision of the future, and set objectives that will deliver upon that vision.  They must also work collaboratively and cooperatively in order to make the tough decisions required to succeed through change.

One great thing about facing change is that millions of organizations have already embraced change, to differing degrees of success.  Readiness can be determined and assessed.  Starting points can be defined and applied. The research is steep, and the lessons are repeatable.

In all cases, an effective step by step approach can be adopted and implemented.  But one thing is certain: The success of the implementation will be dependent on the extent to which an organization knows itself, and has cleaned up its current state.  And there are no new initiatives out there that can replace this fundamental requirement.


Kathy Roy has implemented business transformation and change management projects in complex organizations for over two decades. She has worked with major companies, both public and private, and with numerous business sectors in both Canada and the United States. She is part of Systemscope's Strategic Business Consulting practice.


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