Can Employees Embrace Government Restructuring?

The success (or failure) of the Trump administration’s plans depends on the answer.

A comment from a reader of a recent column highlighted for me a reality that could undermine President Trump’s plan to restructure government. The reader underscored the deeply entrenched cultural resistance to change in government and noted that employees (specifically in his former agency) are rewarded for not taking risks. It’s not simply that they are uncomfortable with risk, but that they have learned it’s to their advantage to avoid taking risks—it’s a sure way to improve your career prospects.

It’s human to be uncomfortable in new situations. It’s also human to fail occasionally (or perform below expectations) when trying something new. That’s an important component of learning. Improved performance is usually not attributable to working harder; it’s because we learn new techniques and develop better skills. When something is important to us we generally overcome our reluctance and are able to test new ideas and approaches. It’s not unlike the experience of learning to ride a bike.

The reluctance is compounded when an employee knows he or she could be reprimanded or worse for trying—even if the effort is successful. Many federal executives and managers have grown up in that culture. Managers learned early they were expected to enforce rules, and civil service rules reinforce the status quo.

Now the White House is signaling that broad change is coming—an “unprecedented restructuring of the executive branch,” according to the Heritage Foundation website. However, even modest reorganizations will mean jobs must be redefined and new working relationships will have to be established. And if initial changes do not realize sufficient savings, more extensive changes are likely.

The White House Office of Management and Budget in March required all agencies to begin taking immediate actions to achieve near-term workforce reductions and cost savings, and by June 30 develop initial reform plans as well as plans to maximize employee performance.

That deadline is two weeks away. The changes will be transformational, yet the administration has been   silent on how it would help agencies gain employee commitment to the changes. Experience from the private sector highlights how important and how difficult that will be. As Ray Williams explained in a column for Psychology Today, “efforts at [structural] organizational change have systematically failed because the plans neglected the reality that change doesn’t happen without individual people changing their thinking, beliefs and behavior.”  

Experts frequently point out that 70 percent of change initiatives fail to achieve stated goals, and that’s in organizations accustomed to responding to changes in their product or service markets. The prospects in government are certainly no better.

Empowering Employees

The importance of following orders was adopted from the military over a century ago. Managers in the earliest factories were expected to exert close control. That was true in government as well. It’s the foundation of the principles of scientific management. “Do as you’re told” could have been the mantra.  That management style was close to universal until the end of the 20th century.  

The fixation on control ended in the business world when corporate leaders realized employees could be trusted and were fully capable of solving job-related problems. The 1990 recession made business leaders realize they had to improve productivity to survive. They cut costs by eliminating bureaucratic practices and reducing levels of management. (The President’s plans called for similar changes.) Business process reengineering followed. Quality management advocates emphasized the importance of front line workers.  The emergence of knowledge organization highlighted the importance of employee capabilities. From that emerged employee “empowerment.” Today there are start-up companies that plan to operate without managers; employees are expected to work with no direct supervision. Google started that way.

Empowering employees to make job-related decisions makes an organization more responsive when problems arise, relies on the individuals with intimate knowledge of a problem, increases employee job satisfaction, saves money by not allowing problems to get worse, and is far more likely to please customers. A great example from business is the Ritz Carlton hotels where all employees are empowered to spend up to $2,000 to fix or improve a guest’s experience.

As a side issue, research in the military, where all of this started, has confirmed that when fighting a dispersed, often hidden enemy, soldiers need to have the training and autonomy to take risks, function on their own, and be prepared to make instantaneous decisions.

But the willingness to empower has not permeated government agencies. There are of course agencies where at least certain employees have more autonomy—diplomats, research scientists, physicians, etc.  And conversely, there are those where operating within a strict set of rules is essential—corrections officers, airport screeners, inspectors, etc.

Far too many employees, however, are in positions where their ability to perform is constrained. It’s their supervisor, their job description, and the culture.  

Leadership Is Critical

All of this matters because the administration wants to create “a leaner, more efficient, and more accountable federal government,” according to OMB’s guidance to agencies. If the changes are extensive, it will disrupt work relationships, job duties and career plans.  

Two consultants, Emily Lawson and Colin Price, writing in the McKinsey Quarterly, identified four conditions to support successful change:

  • Employees need to understand the reason for the changes and agree it will benefit their organization
  • Reward and recognition practices need to reinforce desired behaviors
  • Employees should be afforded the time and support to develop newly needed skills
  • They must see leaders “embark on their own personal transformation” to serve as role models

They were writing of course for a business audience. Today those conditions do not exist in federal agencies. The authors’ focus was on the role of chief executive officers. Realistically no one working in government has a similar role but, if anything, that heightens the need for credible leadership in each agency. It’s clear from the many books on the subject that organizational change cannot be mandated.  

Government has one advantage: For a high percentage of employees, public service is their purpose.  They want their agency to fulfill its mission. If they are convinced the reconfiguration will be beneficial, they are likely to get on board as long as plans are seen as fair. For that reason, it would help to have employees heavily involved in the planning and rollout. It will also be important to keep employees fully informed as changes are implemented. One of the first steps should be thinking the way rewards are used.

When business initiated the transformation in the 1990s it took a full decade and it’s still ongoing. It cannot be rushed. The most successful companies today offer employees a new value proposition. That should be an overriding goal for government. The country cannot afford to see this fail.