Why Too Many Government Modernization Efforts Fail

Technology “solutions” almost never address the organizational issues critical to success.

Digital modernization. PMO stand-ups. Enterprise risk management. Shared services. AI and CX. All the “solutions” to government’s problems promise to speed, streamline, standardize and modernize, but they rarely address the organizational changes required to actually make them effective, or the organizational changes that result. That is a big mistake. 

Let’s say your agency needs a new website to serve as your primary system for communicating with  users across the country. Your consultants help you analyze existing structures and begin to envision requirements for the new site. The process reveals, however, that what makes navigating your website so problematic for users actually mirrors problems with your organization’s business model: content is siloed and scattered, production is uncoordinated, and people don’t talk with each other across departments. So, while your consultants want to meet about developing a unified enterprisewide taxonomy to get planning underway, your leadership team is stalled because they cannot unmoor themselves from their respective spans of control. This isn’t a website issue—this is an organizational issue.

Or let’s say you want to implement an enterprise approach to risk management (ERM). You begin with the essentials: identify and rank risks; create a risk register and risk reporting tools; establish risk governance; and develop risk mitigation strategies. But what quickly emerges is that people don’t necessarily want to identify their risks because to do so might result in more work for them, or it could uncover a team weakness or even threaten one’s standing with a supervisor. Resolving risk at an enterprise level could mean years of managing risk a certain way at the local level is replaced by standardized agencywide protocols. Resistance to change can impede ERM implementation and itself become a risk to the organization.  

These projects often presume that once people see the worthiness of an initiative—once they see how incredibly smart and innovative and, well, obvious the solution is—they will see the light and jump on board. “We’ll identify change sponsors. We’ll explain the benefits and train everyone. We’ll get buy-in and ‘voila!’ adoption will follow.” Everything will be good to go, no problem. But in real life, change doesn’t work this way: the process is rarely this clear-cut and never linear.   

Enterprise Means Everything

It’s time to build organizational change into every enterprise solution right from the start. The minute you plan an enterprise approach, you are launching a process whose impact will ricochet across the entire organization, where changing anything will affect everything and everyone. Simply put, change is a prerequisite to, and a consequence of, a successful solution and both must be well led.    

So what do you do? These steps will get you off to a solid start:     

  • Create a change plan. A “project plan” isn’t enough. Describe your vision and goals. Say why the change is needed and why it’s needed now. Commit to informing—and engaging—stakeholders throughout the process.   
  • Be straight. Begin at the leadership team level and don’t pull punches. Decide what you jointly will need to change and how you will unify not just your verbal but your behavioral messaging regarding the upcoming enterprise solution.
  • Don’t wait. Leaders often wait until they’re sure about every step of the way before they talk about it. Then, when information does come, language is so lofty and general that people end up not knowing what’s going on because leaders are afraid to say what may actually be changing. Then? Confidence in leaders can quickly erode. Whomever in the organization wasn’t trusted before is trusted less now. And meantime, the “solution” presses on.  
  • Put yourself on the receiving end. Test your messaging. Get feedback. When you describe an enterprise initiative, for example, that will automate key business functions and you tell your staff that this will “free people up to be more strategic,” imagine how you might hear that message if it were directed to you. What exactly would that mean to you? Would you understand how the change might impact your day-to-day work?  
  • Acknowledge uncertainty. Anytime we embark on a path to create change, we are agreeing to hold hands with uncertainty. Your job as a change leader is to talk not just about what is known, but what is unknown. Being a change leader is seeing uncertainty, and proceeding nonetheless. This is not easy. How-to aids don’t tell you, but it boils down to being courageous. A little like driving up the highway on-ramp and seeing the space open up that you need to merge into traffic. Keep moving and you will find the space you need to move forward, but if you don’t move forward you will not find the space. 

Enterprise solutions are as much about the enterprise—the people in your organization—as they are about the solutions. Ignoring this puts your solution, and your organization, in peril. 

Nina Kern is a manager specializing in organizational effectiveness and Change with Grant Thornton’s Public Sector Advisory Practice.