Report: Successful Change Management Practices in the Public Sector

The quest to improve management of change in public sector agencies is by no means a new one. In 2006, Frank Ostroff, writing in the Harvard Business Review comments, that “the greatest challenge in bringing about successful change and significant, sustained performance improvement in the public sphere is not so much identifying solutions, which are mostly straightforward, as working around the unique obstacles” that are found in the public sector organizations.

These unique obstacles – the profound differences in the missions, purposes, cultures, and contexts for government versus those of private sector business, mean that achieving sustainable change in government organizations requires building a new model for change that is informed by, and organic to the organizations that need to change.

To better understand how individuals inside public sector organizations are navigating the complex changes they face on a daily basis, Management Concepts partnered with Human Capital Media to survey nearly 500 employees in Federal, state, and local government organizations about the challenges, strategies, and approaches that define successful change in those agencies. While many of the things we found in the study simply reinforce recognized best practices for managing change, I thought I’d share two items that were left on the cutting room floor when we wrote the full report.

1. Be aware of outside experts who want to run your change program

One of the things we asked respondents was to tell us if their organization has a track record of successful change, and the strategies they’ve used to manage change. When it comes to using outside consultants, only 3% of successful organizations report using consultants while 35% of organizations who have struggled with change in the past indicate that they use outside consultants. For traditional change management consultants this could a discouraging number.

But, as Andrea Lee, Managing Director for Organizational Change Management at Management Concepts notes, “Successful change should be owned and executed by the organization itself, not by outside consultants driving it. This is why change agent networks tend to work so well and that’s why we emphasize designing change management programs that focus on organizational ownership of not only the change strategy but the change execution as well. The right role for a consultant is in the background, providing advice, support, and evaluation, not leading the change effort.”

2. Culture matters, probably more than you think it does.

When it comes to building an organization where sustainable change is possible, and is in fact, expected, the culture of the organization needs to be a central area of focus. More than half of successful organizations in our survey indicate that they will work to improve culture as part of their change efforts.

Research has shown that organizations with constructive cultures are more adaptable and experience less stress. With norms that focus on achievement, affiliation, and encouraging behaviors, constructive cultures foster the pursuit of higher level individual and organizational needs that are required for successful change. A 2011 study published in the Strategy & Business magazine found that increased spending on R&D failed to drive results in the absence of a culture that is appropriately aligned with the organization’s strategic objectives. Similarly, increased spending on change management strategies likely won’t drive results without an accompanying investment in creating a constructive, well-aligned culture.

Government agencies must simultaneously deal with shifts in regulatory guidance, mission requirements, the availability of mission-critical skillsets, and challenges in recruiting and retaining a high performing workforce all while responding to increasing expectations for a high quality citizen experience, the influence of Congress, and the rapid expansion and impact of technology.

These often competing demands create a context for public sector organizations that can stretch the limits of even the most successful change practitioners. As such, utilizing data-driven insights for the experience and navigation of change in the public sector can provide the information those experiencing change need to increase their chances of success.

We hope that our report and accompanying infographic will provide you with insight into improving the success of your change initiatives. And if you have experienced successful change, share your keys to success with us so that other organizations can benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.

To download the report and infographic, please visit

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Project & Program Management
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