Tue | May 26, 2020

How to manage a change in the public sector

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade praises King Alarm for responding early to a crisis, and asked why the police took hours. - File

Francis Wade, Business Columnist

Within moments of lying face-down on the ground, King Alarm arrived, followed three hours later by the police. Why? My parents and I had just been held up and immobilised at home by three gunmen.

Little was taken and no-one was physically harmed, but I asked: "Why three hours? Why not three minutes?"

Earlier this year, as the host of CaribHR.Radio (an Internet radio show), I put a tough question to a minister of government from Trinidad and Tobago and also to the head of Antigua's public sector transformation unit: "Why is it so hard to transform the public sector where so much is at stake?"

There are a myriad of reasons, but here's one I discovered in these two episodes: Caribbean countries are stuck with a form of government that makes it hard to effect change.

In a nutshell, the argument goes, the British left us with something they have never possessed: a written constitution. Instead, they have centuries of documented case law, held in place by a robust web of relationships in which individuals and institutions have, in fits and starts, found ways to work together.

After Caribbean countries found their own independence, the British left behind constitutions that were engineered with checks and balances to prevent any single group from gaining the upper hand: an antidote to the dictatorships of the time. However, the British overlooked a fact: They had no first-hand experience running a government with a written constitution and weren't a good role model for newly formed countries possessing only fragile relationships.

Change management

I'm no expert in government, but I do know a thing or two about change management. Erecting barriers to change in any organisation is a bad idea. What I discovered during these interviews is that even commonsense changes with broad agreement are hard to implement, including policies continued between governments. It also explains why our region is riddled with obsolete laws the British have long abandoned.

In the case of Caribbean governments, it means that no matter how hard change agents work, they are limited by the public sector's inability to change itself. For example, having armed responders arrive at a crime scene within minutes instead of hours is easy for King Alarm, but amazingly difficult for governments who must gain the agreement of a wide number of stakeholders with competing interests before even starting: a process that can take years.

We Jamaicans tend to blame individual corruption as the cause for our government's shortcomings, but my interviews made me think it's no single person or party's fault. Instead, our system is doing what every organisation does when it faces change - it fights back, thwarting the goals of even the well-intended.

As a result, the 20-something- year-old gunmen who held up my family are probably using the latest technology, even as our police stations struggle to fix leaky roofs. Unfortunately, criminals' unrestricted access to the latest tools will keep them ahead for some time.

In spite of these obstacles, there is a way to manage any organisational change of consequence. Here are a few principles that apply.

1. Sacrifice

Top-driven change (the most likely to succeed) requires that risks be taken. CEOs and MDs must be willing to be fired at times in order to initiate organisational transformation. The same applies to prime ministers, permanent secretaries and other government leaders who cannot on the one hand ensure their success at the polls by reducing risks, and on the other hand call for massive change. Some have tried the "lead-the-change-but-save-my-skin approach," but it's either seen as hypocritical or produces disastrous results for those it was meant to help.

2. Vision

Although the idea is beaten to death, a vision is essential. I would admit that even in the midst of our most severe financial crisis, I don't know where our leaders are taking our country (vs their party, which is quite clear.) Hence, I don't know what I am being asked to do differently on a daily basis to help Jamaica progress through its current quagmire. Organisational leaders forget that even an inspiring vision must be converted into plain, everyday action that people can understand, especially in times of crisis when the air is thick with desperation.

3. Truth

When the causes of a crisis are not well understood, people get confused. However, the way out is not to repeat cliches, but to say that which is surprising, or unexpectedly authentic. This takes soul-searching by leaders who find it easier to conform, or pander. Stretching for that which is inspiring but true is risky, even though it's the only thing that moves people to action.

These principles can be used by leaders in both private and public sectors to overcome built-in obstacles that thwart progress.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.