Culture change in government requires guts and leadership at all levels
Rarely a dull moment in the public sector. From the national government to the municipalities: government organisations are under constant pressure from politicians, the media and many others. They have to do everything, and preferably today rather than tomorrow. The latest demand: culture change. But are public organisations capable of change?
Bert-Jan ter Hofte has 20+ years of experience in shaping successful culture change at the national government, province, municipalities and semi-governmental organisations such as healthcare institutions and universities. “The ironic thing is that this continuous pressure makes culture change within the public sector even more complex,” says Bert-Jan. “And now that pressure is focusing on the change itself.” Yet according to the People Change partner, there is hope. An interview with Bert-Jan about the possibilities for successful cultural change within the public sector.
The chicken and the egg
The story has been chewed out in the meantime, so let me summarise it very briefly: after several cases of fraud were extensively highlighted in the media, almost 10 years ago the Tax Authorities were instructed by The Hague to step up their fight against fraud. And so it was done. We all know the end result: Thousands of victimised families – some of whom ended up on the street, or whose children were even placed in care.
What is most relevant to our story is the effect that the (justified) media storm and political unrest had on public organisations: everyone suddenly agreed that a culture change had to take place now. But wasn’t it precisely this enormous external pressure that led to all the trouble in the first place?
“Of course, reality is always more subtle”, Bert-Jan begins. “But in general terms, yes. If we focus on the Tax and Customs Administration for a moment: there is a culture of fear, which has been widely publicised. The external pressure from politics, the media and others definitely plays a key role in this: it makes people feel unsafe, and people who feel unsafe do not usually take entrepreneurial decisions.
“You get autocratic and bureaucratic tendencies as a result,” he explains. “Employees wait for the boss to say something and follow it unquestioningly. Processes are followed slavishly, as it were: there is no critical reflection on what the bureaucracy brings about – on several levels.”
The starting point
What it has brought about this time is so distressing that the magnifying glass is now fully on that organisational culture itself. The call for change therefore seems very much in order. At the same time, it is questionable whether it can be answered: organisational change is notoriously difficult anyway, and in an organisational culture where pressure has a paralysing effect, such a magnifying glass will probably not make it any easier.
“That is indeed far from simple”, Bert-Jan agrees. “It relates to something that we actually come across in practice everywhere, and which complicates the task, particularly in public organisations: organisations knock on the door with the desire to change, but they often do not realise what this change entails: they do not know where they currently stand and do not have a clear picture of where they want to go.”
Understanding where you stand as an organisation is crucial, according to Bert-Jan, because it is your starting point. And your starting point also determines which end goal is achievable. “In the loud call for cultural change, self-managing and agile organisations are quickly called for, in which employees can act situationally, show entrepreneurship, think critically and take ownership, and the organisation is agile and can profit from change. That is a nice aim, but when a government organisation comes to us with that request, I often have bad news for them, because from their point of departure – often a mix of bureaucratic and hierarchical culture – such a self-managing and agile organisation is in the first instance not a feasible goal at all.”
And on top of that comes the second problem – the lack of a good picture of the end goal and the type of change needed to achieve it. “What we often experience is that in the question of where it should go, 80% of the energy goes into – if I put it unkindly – fantasising about the transformation to the desired culture. And I call it fantasising because from that current starting point you simply do not know what you are ‘ordering’: if you are only used to that mix of autocratic and bureaucratic culture and the change capacity of your people is limited you cannot sufficiently grasp what the self-managing and agile organisation and the road towards it actually entails.”
There is hope
So much for the bad news: we may all want public organisations to change quickly right now, but that’s not going to happen. However, according to Bert-Jan this does not mean that we are stuck with the current state of affairs.
“Change is certainly possible, but you have to be realistic about your objective, the change capacity of your people and the time it will take to get there. Eventually, you may even arrive at that desired self-managing and agile organisation, but then you will have to take some intermediate steps. To speak in our terms: you cannot suddenly change from a red-blue organisation into a green-yellow one, then you skip a few steps. But if you are prepared to take those intermediate steps, you can really get far in the end.”
In addition, three factors work in favour of the desired change, Bert-Jan assures us. “Firstly, there are people in every organisation who want to and are capable of change. Secondly, not everyone has to change. And thirdly, you never do it alone.
Willing and able to change
The first collaborative factor can be seen as one of the central tenets of the People Change philosophy: you shouldn’t force change on people, you should look for the people and teams who are willing to go along for the ride.
“It’s crucial that you connect with how people want to and are able to change,” Bert-Jan emphasises. “And the People Change Scan – which is also essential in establishing the starting point – enables us to find the employees who not only want to, but also can make the necessary change. There are people like that in every organisation. The image of the autocratic fear culture is, of course, always a generalisation – you can apply that label to the culture as a whole, but of course there are also employees and teams who are, for example, enterprising, who do not buckle under pressure and who are open to personal development.
It is these employees who are at the forefront of the desired change. “They form the core team together – the so-called ‘change coalition’. They are, as it were, the leaders of change,” Bert-Jan explains.
It is important to note that this need not involve leadership in a hierarchical sense: the leaders of the change can come from all layers of the organisation. “Of course, the top must be committed to the change, but it may very well be that not everyone from the top is part of the coalition.”
This ties in with the idea of People Change that leadership is not reserved for management and board. Bert-Jan: “Anyone can be a leader and – as the name People Change suggests – it is precisely this personal leadership that is crucial in increasing an organisation’s power to change: by working on the personal development of people, the organisation can also develop.”
With regard to this first factor in favour of change, Bert-Jan concludes by noting that within public organisations today, there are perhaps more people than ever who want to work on their personal leadership as well as wanting a culture change to take place.
“The younger generation is taking over more and more, of course, and they are really bringing a breath of fresh air. They want to develop – professionally but also personally. They want a culture that encourages that and they are less sensitive to hierarchy. Partly because of them, in addition to the external pressure, there is also a real desire for change within the organisation, and that is crucial.”
Not everyone has to change
It is great that this group of supporters of cultural change is growing, but what about the rest of the organisation? After all, the idea of a leading change coalition implies that the others will follow them.
By and large, this is true, Bert-Jan confirms. “While the first group of pioneers climb the mountain, they map out a safe route for the rest, so that they can follow with more ease. In this way, change may start with a small group, but it then spreads like an oil slick throughout the organisation. The members of the change coalition act as ambassadors of the change and we train them to coach people in change themselves using People Change tools such as the scan and the approach, so that the power to change increases within the organisation itself, and you do not remain dependent on external change consultants.”
However, this does not alter the fact that within every organisation – and certainly within the more autocratic and bureaucratic government bodies – there will always be employees who, even after the first group has gone before them, do not want to and/or cannot go along with the change.
“You’ll never be able to avoid that, and that’s not a bad thing,” Bert-Jan assures us. “If literally everyone has to be on board, you can never change anything. As an organisation develops, the fit between that organisation and some of its employees will improve, but the fit with others will logically also decrease. It is important to measure this ‘fit’ and to enter into a dialogue about it with each other in teams so that awareness is created and people start working on the ‘fit’.”
“In extreme cases, these people can choose to work somewhere else,” he says. “Sometimes it is very difficult – and understandable – but if you no longer fit together, it is the best solution for both parties. And of course it is not the end, you are probably better off somewhere else.”
However, it often doesn’t even have to come to that, according to Bert-Jan. When the urgency to change is exceptionally high – as is currently the case in the public sector – you can also choose to only include part of the organisation in the change.
“Then you can considerably increase the speed of change. The change coalition will then take part of the organisation with it, but not everyone. Then you get what in the private sector is called the ‘running the business’ and the ‘changing the business’ part – one part exploitation and one part exploration. It is important that the exploration group is responsible for the aspects on which external pressure is exerted – i.e. serving the public and politics, among other things. You then get a two-speed organisation, and you can already see this happening in some places.
You never do it alone
Finally, the third factor that ensures that cultural change within the public sector is indeed possible: you never do it alone. This may sound like a killer, but according to Bert-Jan it is indeed an essential point to stress.
“Because of our focus on personal development, the idea may arise that the cultural change is nothing more than the sum of the development of each individual, but that is absolutely not the case. We work on development at the individual, team and organisational level and design leadership development programmes for these three levels of leadership together with leaders. An organisation is more than a collection of individuals – people work together towards one common goal so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The idea that underlies any smoothly running organisation – everyone does what they are good at, so that everyone’s qualities reinforce each other – applies equally well to change.
“Personal development is important, but you remain who you are: you are good at some things and you will never fully learn other things. By working on your personal development – which automatically means working on increasing your self-awareness – you also learn to recognise your own limitations and what is best left to others. By building on each other’s qualities in this way, change becomes much more manageable.
And yes – then there is also that perhaps more obvious way in which you never do it alone: you always work on the change in a team, so that you can advise and support each other in each other’s development. Nevertheless, in the light of the People Change philosophy, it is certainly relevant to also explicitly mention this way of working together.
“I think the importance of the team is even more important in the public sector than in the private sector,” explains Bert-Jan. “Our personal approach brings lasting change, but also ensures that many people find it a confrontational process – especially within the culture that prevails in many public sector organisations. That is why we make sure that your team is an ally of your change. Within the teams, for example, you work in buddy pairs, in which you are responsible for each other’s development. In addition, we always design the change interventions, such as a leadership programme, together with a design team of professionals, so that changes are not imposed by managers or by us, but are shaped by the professionals themselves.
In this way, the responsibility for the change also lies within the organisation. This goes hand in hand with the idea that you have to teach people to change themselves. “We very consciously put the emphasis on transferring our knowledge to the people within the organisation. We train them in the use of our tools such as the scan and our approach so that they themselves can carry and propagate the change – even after we have left. In this way, leaders in change can emerge within organisations themselves and a new culture is indeed within reach – also within the public sector.”
If you are working on or want to know more about leadership, collaboration and culture change: contact Bert-Jan at email@example.com or 06-51087912.