How Government Leaders Have Handled Downsizing and Other Big Changes
Engaging the workforce in every step of the transformation process is critical, says one agency head.
Change in an agency’s culture “creates uncertainty, anxiety, fear and absolute resistance,” the head of the Government Publishing Office said during a panel discussion in Washington Tuesday.
Few agencies have undergone a transformation like the GPO (formerly the Government Printing office) to cope with galloping improvements in technology and the resulting demands for fresh skill sets. The key to success, said GPO Director and CEO Davita Vance-Cooks and several other agency veterans who spoke on the National Academy of Public Administration panel, is leaders who engage the workforce in every phase of the change process.
For more than 150 years, the GPO had printed such mainstays as the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, tax publications and National Park Service brochures. “But then came the Internet, which changed every aspect of our organization,” she said. GPO remains “in the midst of continued transformation from a print-centric publisher to content-centric organization” while its employees adjust to the “scale, magnitude, duration and strategic importance of the transformation,” she said. “It strikes at the core of what we do, and it will never end.”
Since Congress passed the 1993 Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act, GPO’s shift from primarily paper products to largely digital ones has shrunk its workforce from 8,600 employees to 1,750. A force once consisting largely of blue-collar press workers is now largely white-collar supervisors using smart machines, Vance-Cooks said. The move from pages to databases—accelerated over the past five years—has dropped the Congressional Record press run from 19,500 to 2,500; the Federal Register went from 25,000 copies down to 2,300, “while our constituents are far more aware of what’s in them because of technology,” Vance-Cooks said.
The most significant amount of time in effecting such transformation is “spent on the human side,” she said, describing her management team’s surveys, town halls (because of GPO’s 12 unions, they can take all day), workgroups and one-on-one talks. “It’s not unusual for me to park my car in the garage and then, by the time I’m in the office it’s an hour later—I’ll talk to people anywhere,” she said. In the absence of such communication, “people will start making stuff up.”
Vance-Cooks takes her cue for her own role from a quote from novelist Ken Kesey: “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” And she cited Kotter International’s Eight Step Process for Leading Change, which includes building a sense of urgency; building a guiding coalition; forming a strategic coalition; communicating the change vision; enabling action by removing barriers; generating short-term wins; sustaining acceleration; and anchoring new approaches in the culture.
“I took it one step further,” Vance-Cooks said of addressing her employees. “I told them how to fix it, that we have a plan, that I have your back, that we’re going there together. The where, the why. We had a management team that spoke with one voice.”
Change does not always make a leader popular, noted panelist retired Adm. Lewis W. Crenshaw Jr., a consultant with three decades in the Navy. While serving as Commander of Navy Region Europe and Deputy Commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe in 2003-2004, he enjoyed a “fantastic office in London with a mahogany elevator” and a nice house across the street from the U.S. embassy. “But I gave all that up,” he explained, because it became clear that his 1,200 people on three staffs were in charge of only one submarine and one ship in Mediterranean, which was far too expensive.
“Change is not going to happen unless you have the support of the people and you involve the entire organizations,” Crenshaw said. “So you be the champion and identify change agents at every level to help you, so people can feel like life will be better after the change.” There will be pockets of resistance, he added, and people who say they don’t know what’s going on. “But if you say you’re changing the culture, all bets are off because people shut down,” he said. “Do the change, and the culture follows.”
Dan Tangherlini, former administrator, of the General Services Administration now president of SeamlessDocs Federal, differentiated between initiated change and “circumstances-driven change.” As a Treasury Department executive, he was in the Dominican Republic on a Friday in 2012 when he got a call giving him 14 hours to decide whether to move to GSA to clean up after a scandal over lavish spending at a training conference. Vice President Joe Biden later told him “it was the second biggest challenge for administration,” the first being alleged political bias at the Internal Revenue Service, he said.
“These things are momentary,” Tangherlini said. “Circumstances-driven change is painful, difficult, you lose sleep and get gray hair,” he said, quoting the adage “never let a crisis go to waste.” He recommended a focus on outcomes and mission. “The tougher form of change is initiated change,” Tangherlini said. “The bigger challenge is finding the energy.”
Change must also involve small things, not just the logical but the emotional, said Rafael Borras, former undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department. He recalled being in local government in the early 1990s when the arrival of desktop computers offered a “new tool for empowering employees.” His team put the cow-decorated Gateway computer boxes on display in the hallways as a “symbol of change.”
Renee Triplett, assistant director of the Secret Service, said, “Never underestimate the voice of the workforce, and never underestimate the change they can bring. Leadership has to be closer to engage the workforce with participate rather than dictate to them,” she added. Leaders who take change on should “welcome the opportunity,” she said. “You should want to be held accountable and accept responsibility to affect that change.”
The conference planners from the Management Concepts consultancy at the event released a new survey on how governmental agencies implement organizational change management. Some 473 respondents from federal, state and local government said the chief roadblocks to change are “siloing, flawed communication and lack of buy-in.”
As many as 74.7 percent said change would have a negative impact on morale, followed by 61 percent who were worried that change would expose critical skills gaps. The report concluded that roadblocks can be eased “by communicating the effects of the change to everyone in the organization, securing leadership buy-in, and employing a variety of push and pull communications methods.”