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Avoiding 'Change Overload' for the Federal Workforce

Federal agencies need to consider the emotional reactions their employees are likely to have when told that organizational change, business process change or systems modernization is on the way.

Across the federal government, employees are facing unprecedented levels of change. Government personnel continue to play critical roles in addressing our nation's greatest challenges: recovering from the pandemic, responding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, advancing equity, tackling the climate crisis, and, now, inflation. At the same time, many federal personnel are adjusting to a return to the office or, at a minimum, hybrid models of working. 

Administration priorities set forth in the President's Management Agenda and the executive order on customer experience and service delivery, also call for change—specifically in the way that the government interacts with the public. To meet these priorities, agencies are moving forward multiple transformation initiatives. These efforts are likely to result in changes to organizational models, updated business processes, more digital ways of interacting with the public and federal colleagues and, of course, modernization or introduction of new IT systems to support these new ways of working. 

With so many consequential changes happening at the same time, some federal employees may struggle to adapt. Facing so much transformation, the federal workforce could find the pace of change overwhelming.  Agencies can take specific actions to make the workforce ready for and resilient in the face of change, and to increase the likelihood of transformation success.  

Plan for organizational change management

Too often, the workforce learns about planned changes late in the game. Worse, those announcements often fail to address workers' worries about how the changes will affect them. Federal agencies need to consider the emotional reactions that people are likely to have when told that change is coming. This is true of organizational change, business process change or systems modernization. 

Renewed focus on customer experience across the government promises improved interactions between federal employees and the public. Transformation leaders must look to organizational change management for early assessment of the potential impact to the workforce of envisioned changes, then proactively plan strategies to minimize those impacts. Announcing a new business process or IT system is coming, with a published schedule of training, is simply too little too late. 

Establish cross-cutting governance models to support the pace of change

Organizational model changes, business process re-engineering efforts and large IT system modernizations can individually prove highly complex. Combine multiple concurrent change initiatives, and it can be easy to lose touch with the people those initiatives impact. Simultaneous change initiatives can lead to change fatigue. The result: less than optimal coordination and risk of transformation failure.  

A centralized governance function tracks transformation goals and progress, and can help orchestrate programs' priorities, timing and accountability while keeping core decision-making within each initiative. Focused on the big picture and the federal workforce impact, an overarching governance function helps translate the organizational vision and enhance workforce ability to resiliently adapt to change. This cross-organizational view can help drive critical decisions related to transformation sequencing and deployment, guarding against change saturation and burnout. 

Remember stabilization

Transformation work is not complete the day that the new business process is launched or the new IT system is rolled out into production. Inevitably, the introduction of new ways of working results in questions not envisioned during implementation and training. Celebrate a successful go-live, but then immediately turn your attention to stabilizing the workforces' ability to optimize the new system or process.

A key post-implementation consideration is what the ongoing stabilization goals will be and how the organization will measure success. If we've successfully launched with beta testers, how do we expand adoption to other stakeholders? Are end users satisfied with how the system operates, or have new frustrations and associated system workarounds been identified? Have we budgeted appropriately to continue to support iterative improvements to the efficiency of our processes and experiences of our end users? 

Create dedicated cross-functional groups focused on change management 

Often, change management teams are created when a new enterprise modernization or organizational realignment is underway, only to be dissolved when specific milestones are completed. However, if the intent is to continuously evolve and transform government to better meet the needs of consumers, organizational change management should also be a constant. Continued focus on change holistically helps the government workforce become more resilient and increases the likelihood of transformation success.  

Clearly, change in the way that an agency is organized, how it delivers services or how it operates within and across programs impacts a vast number of individuals, not the least of which is the federal workforce. The creation of a freestanding cross-functional working group comprised of mission, human resources, IT, legal, and even stakeholders—the public, academia and industry—can help support an agency's readiness for change, both today and in the future

Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated: "The only constant in life is change." Perhaps, then, in the government, another constant should be attention to the impact of change. Effective change management in the face of transformation – particularly multiple concurrent transformations – does not happen by accident. Engaging change management at the commencement of a transformation initiative, and continuing to engage change management through sustainment, can improve the likelihood of achieving your transformation goals while positioning the federal workforce to be more resilient and effective.

Scott Sadlon is a vice-president at CGI Federal, where he leads organizational and change management in the firm's Management Consulting practice. 

Pat Pendergast is a director in CGI Federal's Management Consulting practice where he leads organizational and related human capital services programs.

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