Key ideas for how to manage change

4 Jul 11
It’s tricky to conduct change management programmes in the public sector, with a range of interest groups to please and an ever-watchful media. Faith Boardman has been at the sharp end and offers ten top tips for striking the right note
By Faith Boardman | 1 July 2011

It’s tricky to conduct change management programmes in the public sector, with a range
of interest groups to please and an ever-watchful media. Faith Boardman has been at the sharp end and offers ten top tips for striking the right note


Illustration: Mark Smith

Managing change in the public sector cannot be a private, internal or family affair. Any public sector service or team is answerable not only to ministers, MPs or councillors but also to individual customers, communities, taxpayers, media commentators, partners and stakeholders. All of these potentially have not just rights and needs but views, questions, concerns and positive contributions to make.
Implementing change in any organisation involves stress and a sense of loss for staff. All change managers need to help colleagues cope with job losses and learn new skills and behaviours.

But in the public sector particularly, they also need to maintain a positive balance between the ‘golden triangle’ of their personal concern for colleagues and professional values; the wishes and decisions of elected politicians; and an ever-shifting web of complex external factors.

Otherwise, they can find themselves in the middle of the type of political and media storm that rarely leads to ‘positive’ change.

This happened at the old Child Support Agency and the London Borough of Lambeth, for example – and the single most important factor in turning them around was to create a new balance.

So what should a public sector manager do to bring about real change?

1. Keep ahead of the ‘change curve’
You have to recognise and manage your own reactions to change in order to manage others. At different stages you might feel angry, despairing, over-excited, energised and confident – but don’t assume others feel the same or that their emotions are responding at the same pace as you. Remember that others can be hugely influenced by the mood and approach they ‘catch’ from you as team leader. So deal with your own fears and negative feelings privately; and recognise that others might be at different points in their emotional journey. It’s your job to see what is coming over the horizon in time to help others to adjust.

2. Ensure your approach suits the core culture of your team and organisation
There is no one recipe for success, and charisma (or ego) alone will not get you far. Inventing a personality for your organisation can help (as long as you do it privately and with affection and respect). So, for me, the old [NI] Contributions Agency was a middle-aged, successful man, but overweight, old-fashioned, hard of hearing, and rather set in his ways.

3. Put customers/service users at the heart of change
Too often, ordinary public sector customers are represented by ‘interest’ and ‘party’ groups with their own agendas, ideologies and cultures. Try to really understand how ordinary people experience the service and what they would want if they could choose whether or not to use it. Listen in to real-time phone calls, join staff on visits as a ‘trainee’; set up forums of individual customers that you can use to test everything from new forms to staff training in customer service. Public service should mean serving the public; and many public servants react most positively to changes (and leaders) that clearly focus on that.

4. Open up your organisation to new external influences
Change needs creativity grounded in practicality. Working examples of doing things differently can provide helpful stimulants and reality checks. They can also challenge assumptions about ‘the way things have to be done’ in a positive way that does not rubbish what has been achieved. Get people out of ‘their’ office.

5. Don’t rely on formal hierarchies to create change
Senior managers and project leaders will include those who have gained most – and fitted in best – with the old ways of doing things. Some of them will be the biggest roadblocks. Middle and team managers are key communicators, and need lots of direct support, engagement, information and challenge. Some of the hitherto most disgruntled or overlooked individuals will now come into their own; releasing pent-up energy. Try to spot your potential fellow ‘change champions’ and create new support networks. And license them to do real work.

6. Engage early and often with stakeholders and partners
If they can’t talk to you, get sense out of you and relate to you as an individual then – in the public sector – they will go straight to the press, the politicians and the lobby groups. This is even more so now that many of the changes will mean less direct service provision by local authorities and other public bodies. Meet stakeholders and partners on their territory, and listen to their agenda. One of the best things I did as chief executive of the Child Support Agency was to brave the (mass and occasionally violent) membership of a high-profile fathers’ group at their AGM. And at the London Borough of Lambeth, I was welcomed as a CEO who did not visit Brixton housing estates with a TV camera in tow.

7. Be honest, open and consistent with ministers and councillors
Do not invent reasons for delay, do not overstep your role, and do ensure they can take the credit for successes. But recognise that many have to find their way through their own learning curve much more publicly than leaders in the private sector. If you generally under-promise and over-deliver they are
more likely to believe you when you advise them that some things they want are too risky or too quick. Even if they don’t like that message – tell them anyway if you think they need to listen. That is one of the things that the public pays public servants to do (and it might help prevent another Child Support Agency-type disaster).

8. Be bold and clear about what change means
Change always involves a sense of loss; and that is most deadly when it is in practice less of the same. It is better to build something that is clearly new, and does not pretend to provide the same with less. Be honest and consistent about what you can – and can’t – do.

9. Underpin the vision with realistic and costed plans
Facts, figures and a coherent, practical ‘story’ are all vital to minimising the risks and maximising everyone’s ability to make a difference. They give individual staff and councillors confidence, and a clear understanding of how their ‘piece’ contributes to the overall jigsaw.

10. Maintain the focus and accountability  of everyone in the team
Do not be reticent about monitoring progress closely or requiring people to bring you solutions. But be generous in celebrating successes and recognising concrete progress and new behaviours. Change is a group activity, and often the change manager must be like a conductor – the only silent member of an orchestra but the one who keeps it all together and in time. 

Faith Boardman is development director of the Public Management and Policy Association and a consultant and was chief executive of the Child Support Agency and the London Borough of Lambeth. She will give a change management masterclass at CIPFA’s conference on July 6

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