Cultural Revolution

alaurent@govexec.com

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," wrote Charles Dickens in Tale of Two Cities, his saga of revolutionary France. "It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." As it was in 1789, so it is today for those who fancy themselves government's cultural revolutionaries. In this, the fifth summer of the reinvention revolution, they are at once exhilarated about what has already happened, frustrated about what has not, and resolute, but anxious, about what lies ahead.

Heartened by the National Performance Review's embrace of customers and service, spurred on by the urgency of tight budgets and downsizing, driven by the imperative to perform or lose all hope of winning back public confidence, these agents of change are at a crossroads. The easy wins have been made, the small successes celebrated. From here on out, the soft stuff-changing behaviors and thought patterns of employees-gets hard.

"I have a lot of hope, [but] frustration that change is so slow," says Anna Doroshaw, an employee development specialist in the Environmental Protection Agency Learning Institute in Washington. "Yet, when I look at what's happened in just three to four years, there's been a lot of movement."

That movement is easy to see in the world of Tina Sung, director of the Federal Quality Consultants Group. "Ten years ago, when I was first assigned to do this work, I tried to use the word 'customer' in speaking to a group of senior executives and I had rotten egg thrown at me. 'We're in government, we don't have customers,' they said," Sung remembers. "We now talk customers. Now people understand that once you get the fat out via downsizing, you really have to rethink how things are done." Sung is a change artist who helped transform the Federal Quality Institute, jettisoned in 1995 by the Office of Personnel Management, into the Federal Quality Consultants Group, a self-supporting franchise at the Treasury Department.

Culture change isn't a job, it's a calling for most change agents. They lurk in nooks and crannies all over government, often, but not always, working in human resources, training or organizational development jobs. In recent years they've banded together for hope, strength and solace. The Consortium for Culture Change, a network for this special subgroup of reinventionaries, took shape in 1994. The consortium, working closely with the NPR, devised a 10-dimension plan for federal culture change and has held two conferences on leading change in government. "It's like a support group for change agents," says Doroshaw of the consortium, which has groups in individual agencies as well as a governmentwide presence. "We look for places where we can do something. If I'm stymied in my organization but you're budging in yours, I will help you. Change in yours causes ripples."

Yet even among members of the consortium, there is discontent, a feeling that somehow the ardor has waned for the real guts and heart of reinvention: culture change. "Like Mao's 'Let a thousand flowers bloom,' NPR seeded reinvention labs and got lots of wonderful success stories," says Sung. But, she adds, "we're not managing the momentum. There's a sense of malaise, of waiting it out."

Joseph Coffee, known as an expert in federal agency culture for his 1993 dissertation, "Organization Culture Change in Federal Agencies," says it's time for NPR to take on bigger challenges. "Hopefully they'll get out of the small-wins success stories and look at what's needed in systems change." NPR needs to envision a wholly changed government, Coffee says, and that means wholesale culture change that shakes the underpinnings of government's current hierarchical, bureaucratic system.

Low Risk, Low Expectations

In most organizations, talk of culture change is met with rolling eyes or nail biting. For many, the term conjures the scent of incense, the sound of the sitar, the dim light of candles--New Age claptrap, in other words. Others find terror in the idea that there's anything operating in the office beyond computers, photocopiers and telephones. (So scary, in fact that the Consortium for Culture Change is planning to change its name to the more buttoned-down and controlled Change Management Network.) But culture connoisseurs delight in delving into the underlying norms, beliefs, values and behaviors that permeate a work system and significantly influence what will and will not be done--everything, in short, from inside jokes and office lore to what behavior gets rewarded and when it's safe to speak truth to those in power.

An August 1996 General Accounting Office report on Federal Aviation Administration acquisitions testifies to the power culture wields at work. GAO called culture "an underlying cause" of FAA's 50 to 511 percent cost increases and schedule overruns averaging four years. That culture led FAA's acquisition corps to suppress bad cost and schedule news for fear of endangering funding and exposing themselves to criticism, GAO reported. Fear of retaliation was pervasive. "The hierarchical structure has fostered a controlling environment in which employees do not feel empowered to make decisions or are not held accountable for the decisions they do make," according to the report, "Aviation Acquisition: A Comprehensive Strategy Is Needed for Culture Change at FAA." Lack of cooperation led to bad decisions, auditors found, because FAA organized key players into "different divisions whose stovepipes, or upward lines of authority and communications, are separate and distinct."

FAA shares many cultural attributes with the rest of government, according to Coffee. Government's systems are "hierarchical and exist to control employees and make sure they know their functions," he says. "Employees view the system as protection from responsibility and arbitrary treatment. They are willing to accept limited discretion and narrow jobs in exchange for low risk and low expectations."

Government culture makes customer focus difficult and cooperation nearly impossible. "It's hard to be customer-focused when your contract is with the boss who makes the decision on how well you're doing," Coffee notes. "The system locks people in so they become overly specialized and have a hard time seeing beyond their immediate organization and function and miss the impacts of their work on others."

Kick in the Pants

Only a kick in the pants from outside the organization is likely to uproot the deeply embedded culture of a federal agency, Coffee has found. "Outside threats or crises unfreeze organizations," he says. "They start people looking at what the organization is really trying to accomplish, questioning the assumptions the agency makes." As an example, Coffee points to his own agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A combination of the 1993 Branch Davidian debacle in Waco, Texas (which left 4 ATF agents dead and 16 wounded) and widely publicized charges of sexual harassment and race discrimination within the agency led it to restructure and to question how it treated minorities, women and non-dominant professions. "You mix up the old power bases and people are very uncomfortable. There's a different way to get ahead and they're not sure what it is," says Coffee, chief of ATF's national education programs division. "A lot of unease is part of unfreezing the organization."

Heat from the media and Capitol Hill forged culture change at the FAA as well. "The watershed for us was the [Advanced Automation System]," says Dennis DeGaetano, FAA deputy associate administrator of research and acquisitions. "We were criticized for our management of the Advanced Automation System. We came to realize part of the reason was the way our culture directed us in the way we performed on that acquisition. We recognized we needed a better way to do business."

External threats can take many forms, including politics, public perception and the need to keep up with changing times. "Agencies are changing because their missions are changing," notes Sally Marshall, former General Services Administration personnel chief, now senior consultant with the National Academy of Public Administration Human Resource Management Center. "The Energy Department isn't [about] energy, it's [about] contract management. DoD isn't Cold War fighting, it's peacekeeping. People who signed on for the original mission are finding themselves lost in space. That causes morale problems, and culture change is needed."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) faced a volatile mixture of changing times and politics in 1994, when current Administrator Ricardo Martinez arrived. "I came into a bureaucracy set up for a very, very good reason and a noble goal and that is very efficient. But it was faced with declining resources and the changing role of government," Martinez recalls. "I said the challenge was to get us to look at what we did and see if we could hone the machine." Martinez' toughest task was creating a sense of urgency to pry staffers away from resentment and propel them toward change. As so often is true in making change, bad news became good fortune. "The thing that helped the agency most was the Republican election in 1994. They were so hostile, so anti-regulatory, that people began to be concerned the agency would be attacked."

The Vision Thing

While threats or crises can catalyze culture change, they aren't enough to sustain it, Coffee found. Keeping it going takes a leader with vision and support from on high. In FAA's case, that came in the person of George Donohue, an engineer and pilot who became associate administrator for research and acquisitions in 1994. "He settled quickly on the idea of using integrated product teams and incorporated them across all of acquisitions," DeGaetano says.

Martinez, a trauma center physician, came to NHTSA with a plan to take an operation focused on regulating the automobile industry back to its roots as a public health agency. To do it, he envisioned reinvigorating NHTSA by creating more stakeholders in the agency.

"The easy gains had already been done. Who still thinks it's a good idea to drink and drive? Who still thinks it's not a good idea to wear seat belts? The only way to do more was to leverage others, those who are left holding the bill: other governments, business, the health care community and the public health community. That's why I came here," says Martinez.

Reinforcement and Resistance

Regardless of their enthusiasm or the power of their vision, leaders alone can't make change in agencies. The top-down, headquarters-to-the-field, command-and-control model just can't alter a culture based on those attributes. A more subversive model is called for, according to most change agents, one that surreptitiously attacks the soft stuff-employee behavior and attitudes-by hammering away at the hard stuff-new business goals, performance, and reinforcing mechanisms like hiring, promotions and pay.

For example, when the FAA turned to integrated product teams, the stovepiping GAO cited began breaking down. The team structure rewards cross-division cooperation. Engineers, acquisition staffers and end-users crafting and purchasing new programs together find it much harder to ignore the needs of any group. To reinforce teams, DeGaetano says, FAA is preparing to begin team goal-sharing, a system of financial incentives ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 per employee in a given year to be paid when program milestones are met.

Such changes rarely go down easy, however. Frank Hissong, a geosciences analyst at Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Washington, tells how multidisciplinary teams disintegrated at BLM. To move from a more functional land management approach to one based on ecosystems, BLM put specialists in different subject areas together on teams. "Twenty months downstream, there was so much flak from subject matter specialists we gave up," Hissong says. "Foresters, geologists and other degreed professionals were faced with a change in mission: from exploiting natural resources to protecting them. The people once in charge were topsy-turvied out of their seats of power and recreation specialists, ecologists and cultural resource people were ascendant. Then we put them on teams, and traditional subject matter specialists didn't like it."

Most culture change advocates agree that some employees will resist changes like teamwork and participatory management because they reorder power and create new paths to success. "Many people confronted by significant organizational change are concerned that they do not have the skills required by the new culture," says Lynn S. Kahn, organizational psychologist with the FAA. "You need a very thick skin when first describing to managers how the new culture requires [them] to shift mind-set from giving orders to coaching teams, from controlling decision making to empowering teams. These can be very painful, distressing, hostile conversations that lead to grievances, sabotage of new efforts, and broken relationships."

Including new groups in decision making and giving them more power can co-opt them into supporting a new culture, Coffee says. As an example, he points to the Clinton administration's partnerships with federal unions to win their support for reinvention and downsizing. Martinez said NHTSA's effort to open up the command-and-control culture got a technological boost. "You can't do command and control management when you're on e-mail, he says. "Anybody can write to me. I get communications from the hinterland all the time. Electronic communications have made communications much less formal."

Not Worth Co-Opting

But it's not worth the effort to co-opt some of today's federal employees, change agents say. Government is under new pressure to perform from laws such as the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and from a public used to faster, easier service. High-performing organizations need flexible, creative, risk-taking employees, and some workers won't make the grade. "Half to 75 percent of the existing workforce do not have the competencies to move into the future as organizations change," Marshall says. Sung's estimate is less dire: "There are 25 percent who are what we call lost souls; you just have to leave them behind. You don't send them to extra training, you just let them do their core jobs."

In view of this skills gap, agencies must pay more attention to matching employees with new cultures, Marshall says. "Different people succeed in different agencies. We need to match agency culture and skill competencies. Do we value risk-taking, or not? Are we hierarchical or not, fast-paced or [do we] value stability?" Human resources departments must become "talent broker and scout to go figure out what the organization needs to have to go where it wants to go and how to integrate the skills it has and the skills it needs," adds EPA's Doroshaw.

Changing Culture Drivers

The push to perform in a tight-budget climate means managers have little choice but to make radical changes to improve agency effectiveness. Coffee and others doubt traditional government culture can accommodate those leaps. "A lot of what drives the legal-rational system is the appropriations process," Coffee says. "That's why it's so difficult to bring real change . . . because the behavior drivers don't change." Only when the annual funding cycle disappears are agencies forced to truly respond to customers, he says, because customers become the source of money and therefore of existence. Hence Coffee supports franchising and performance-based organizations as the most viable vehicles for fundamentally reshaping government's culture. Such organizations can't afford inflexible or dependent employees; they have high expectations and expect employees to share in business risks.

"With PBOs and franchising, everybody has to carry their own weight," Sung says. She has high hopes for GPRA, as well. "Having outcomes and measurements and holding people accountable is a major change. They are culture drivers on a higher level."

Some change-makers are cheered by a couple NPR initiatives now under way to assist agencies in identifying where their cultures and systems fall short of high performance. Later this summer, NPR will send culture and reinvention surveys to 40,000 employees. "We want to assist agencies with their cultures, because when you have a culture that's refusing to participate, reinvention goes nowhere," says Leslie Fuller, a Defense Department instructional technologist who is heading up the survey while on detail to the NPR. Survey results will be presented to the President's Management Council and to a governmentwide conference in February. "We're not going to hold up the results to slam agencies," Fuller says. "We want agencies to come face-to-face with realities. We hope organizations that are doing well will let others benchmark them."

In addition, the NPR is focusing on 32 major agencies, asking them to combine their reinvention goals and their GPRA strategic plans, says Sung, who works closely with the NPR. Vice President Gore and his senior policy adviser, Elaine Kamarck, are meeting with the 32 agency heads to emphasize the importance of the effort, and NPR staffers will be monitoring and shoring up the agencies' efforts. Sung believes the 32-agency push will shock some cultures into change. "When the leader says, 'Oh, my God, I have this tremendous stretch goal,' you can't just throw money at it, so you have to ask 'How can we change things to achieve it?' " she says. "That becomes a change in the way the agency does business, and different behaviors in the way an agency is delivering service to customers is culture change."

In the end, however, change agents understand agency cultures change slowly and painfully. Talk with any group of cultural revolutionaries long enough and someone will share this quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Frank Hissong says he's still agitating for change at BLM in part because he was personally affected by the team experiment. "It was a 180-degree role reversal. It required consensus, trust. We had it on our team," he says. "We went on a three-day camp out when a team member retired. Social distinctions and grade and pay distinctions and 'experts' disappear under the stars."

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