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Why Most Government Reform Plans Die

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“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” That quote is credited to the father of modern management, Peter Drucker. He was saying that leaders need to understand and address their organization’s culture in their planning. If Drucker’s focus was government, he might have said “culture eats strategy and reform plans for breakfast.”

The history of reform initiatives, at least as far back as the 1978 Civil Service Act, suggests culture has been a recurring impediment to change. Reform is badly needed but the initial guidance has been silent on strategies to gain employee cooperation.

Organizational culture has been discussed in publications for roughly 40 years. A search on Amazon for books on “management and culture management” found 5,400 titles. When the words “in government” are added, the number falls to 78 but only one is helpful in dealing with culture in public agencies. It was published 15 years ago by Virginia Tech’s Anne Khademian, Working With Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs.

It’s an idea that is broadly understood and accepted as important but never addressed in government reports. In all my years of reading reports, congressional testimony and articles on federal agency problems, I do not recall it discussed as a concern

One of the problems is that it’s never been operationally defined by the experts. They have also failed to agree on the dimensions of culture. Writers tell us that culture encompasses the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people. It sets forth the rules—unspoken and unwritten—for working together.  

It’s relevant to reform because it governs behavior in work groups. It influences virtually every interaction of people in performing their jobs. It affects the time they start work, their tolerance for sexist comments, the way they deal with customers—everything.

Culture plays an important role in every successful organization. More than a few writers have argued that it would be great if government could develop a performance culture. That’s one where employees are committed to achieving results. Employees in high performing companies are energized by the culture. It’s reinforced by their reward and recognition practices.

People enjoy celebrating their successes. That’s true in government as well as the private sector, but  public employees are not supposed to have fun—which is also cultural.

The ‘risk avoidance’ culture supposedly is prevalent in government. That occurs when the prospect of negative consequences for anything less than full success outweighs the rewards for success. When there are no rewards, employees naturally avoid risk.

Government is also known for an almost obsessive reliance on rules and established practices. That’s deeply entrenched in the culture by years of static practices. It makes it very difficult to gain acceptance for new work methods. In successful businesses, the culture encourages employees to solve problems.

Improving Accountability

In the private sector, accountability is indoctrinated in new hires and reinforced throughout careers with goal-based management linked to pay-for-performance. Everyone understands their responsibility for achieving goals. It’s a core element of corporate culture. It would be to government’s benefit to move to a performance-rating system that links pay to achieving goals.

All of this needs to be considered in the context of the experience with performance measurement and tracking systems over the past 20 years. The tools are in place but to date the improvements have not met expectations. Legislation, presidential pronouncements, new reporting requirements, new senior level jobs—despite everything, the performance gains have been disappointing.  

The core problem was addressed in a 2010 report by the National Performance Management Advisory Commission, which had the support of a long list of state and local government groups but was essentially ignored by Washington. The report argued the problem is that “those systems have been superimposed on traditional organizations” where day-to-day management continues unchanged. The report argues, “To make real improvements, organizational culture must also be addressed.”  

The Commission clearly understood the role that rewards can play in moving to a performance culture. It emphasized:

An organization creates a culture that motivates increasing levels of performance by using a system of rewards—financial and non-financial—and recognition.

Now the Trump administration wants to rebuild government “from scratch.” Jobs and working relationships will be redefined. The magnitude of the changes would trigger at least quiet resistance in any organization, public or private. Especially with no rewards for success.

The Office of Management and Budget’s plan for agencies makes change management a fundamental concern. Again, there are thousands of books on the subject. A common theme is how difficult change is.  To quote from the preface by the author, John Kotter, in his highly regarded book, Leading Change, “I truly believe it is impossible to overstate the severity of the challenges caused by an inadequate or unaligned sense of urgency.”

Government has no recent experience with large-scale organizational change initiatives. Few federal employees can claim change management expertise. As reforms unfold, each agency should have one or more individuals with change management expertise advising leaders.  

Culture change is known to be a difficult, long term process. There is no proven strategy or need to undertake an extended study. There are no quick fixes.

But consistent with the Commission’s findings, it will be important for agencies to understand how the culture will impede change. That can be addressed in reorganization planning or in the installation of new management systems. The planning should include steps to secure manager and employee buy-in. That is essential or the results again will be disappointing.

For many government employees, the mission itself is the reason they chose a career in government. In a supportive, trusting culture, they will commit enthusiastically to an approach in which they are involved in addressing operational problems.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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