Virtually every US administration in the past 40 years has launched initiatives to improve government performance, including those of President Bush and President Clinton. There are five principles that characterize successful public-sector change efforts and can achieve the desired results in their governments.
First is to improve performance against agency mission. Public-sector organizations are created to promote a particular aspect of the public’s welfare. Effective and efficient execution of their mission is what taxpayers pay for. It’s also what motivates agency staffers.
Second is win over stakeholders. Whereas leaders have to please stakeholders, the range of stakeholders that agency heads must cultivate is even wider.
Third is to create a road map through three major phases, namely identify performance objectives; set priorities; and roll out the program. In identifying performance objectives, it needs to start at the top and then quickly move to ensure participation and support of a broad cross-section of employees. It is the prerogative of the agency leader and his or her senior managers to define the mission.
For setting priorities is how to adopt the next program and in what sequence. For most programs, it is recommended constructing a 2 x 2 matrix, indicating high and low impact on performance on one axis and high and low difficulty of implementation on the other. Last phase is to roll out the change program. To help keep the rollout on track as it spread to more offices, each successive office would have on the premises a couple of observers from one of the five offices next on the list. These observers would then help lead implementation at their own offices, along with members of the change team and veterans of the previous round.
Fourth principle is be a Leader and not a Bureaucrat. There are two qualities of public-sector leaders that make such work difficult. First, it is in the nature of bureaucrats to respect barriers. Change leaders don’t necessarily knock them over; instead they find ways to see over and around them. The other problem many agency leaders face is the perception that because they are political appointees, their commitment to improving performance against mission may be questionable. Such leaders must convince stakeholders of their sincerity. Agency employees mostly start out believing in the agency’s mission, which, whatever its particular focus, involves serving citizens and taxpayers.
Public agencies can be mysterious places. But the solutions to reforming them are not. What’s required is a recognition that successful change is possible and that a proven set of techniques is available to get you there. Agencies with the vision and courage to undertake meaningful change can use these four principles to achieve their highest purpose.