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Can Government Change?

by Elise Olding  |  May 1, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

Whenever I am visiting government clients, a common theme emerges –  that it’s harder to make changes in the public sector vs. the private sector. That’s one myth I’d like to quell right now. I may have been open to believing that during my first year with Gartner, but now that I’ve been here almost 7 years the evidence points to that being more of a myth than reality. 

I have plenty of interactions with clients in private sector with virtually the same story! Maybe quite unbelievable, but the same sentiment has been relayed by leadership of high-tech companies (I will admit I was pretty shocked!). 

There seem to be some commonalities among government organizations that make them feel they are doomed to change aversion: 

1. Leadership has developed some really good “stories” about why they can’t help their organizations change. One pervasive story worldwide is that the government leadership changes every X years and that isn’t enough time to be able to lead changes in their organization. Another is that the changes are mandated and being done to them. There is a belief that the hierarchical command and control structures inhibit the ability to change. and since employees have been there for many years that they aren’t capable of change.

Want to bust through? Challenge your stories. Be really honest and pick them apart, are they true? The stories we tell ourself are powerful inhibitors to forward action. If we tell ourselves we aren’t good at something it can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Many private sector companies would love to have a strategy set for four years!

2. Leadership loses sight of what they can control and what they can’t control, often with most of the energy and focus on what can’t be controlled. This tends to have a spiraling effect and after while it’s hard to make the distinction. It creates a mentality of helplessness.

Tape two circles on the wall of your cubicle/office. Title one “things I can’t control” and the other “things I can control.”  Control or influence – it doesn’t matter. Whenever you start to discuss a situation – immediately label it. If you can’t control or influence it, you might be wasting your precious cycles. Steer your time to things you can control and influence and chart some positive movement. 

3. A pervasive memory exists that remembers every past failure. The first answer to a possible solution is usually “we tried that once (eons ago) and it didn’t work.” There are also some very strong beliefs about what can work and a lot of pre-empting possible solutions.

Bust through by catching yourself when you begin to answer solutions in this manner. Think about what is different now and what can you learn from the last time?

The examples above above aren’t just limited to government, but they seem to be a recurrent pattern. 

What is always refreshing and reinforcing for me is that for every government agency I meet that holds the beliefs above, I meet two that are tackling change head on. I’m also seeing an interesting trend with successful private sector CIOs joining the public sector – in the UK and North America. I know it’s possible, let’s breakthrough the myths and turn the ship around.

 Who is on board? Can we help change government? Share your tips and best practices and let’s tackle this together. Follow me on Twitter


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Category: communication  employee-engagement  gartner  organizational-change  

Tags: change-government  change-managment  government-change  organizational-change-in-government  

Elise Olding
Research Director
7 years at Gartner
32 years IT industry

Elise Olding is a Research Director covering the complex challenges of organizational change and business transformation from a people perspective. Her areas of focus include organizational change, communications strategies and emerging trends in employee engagement from a hands-on practitioner view. Ms. Olding provides research on a worldwide basis, advising clients on best practices to achieve sustainable change and business transformation. She is a member of Gartner's Business Process and Transformation team. Read Full Bio

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