Posted in Prose

Leading and managing change in the public service – some personal reflections


Noel A. Ihebuzor

Two types of change – planned and unplanned – are discernable in life. In the public service, planned change is delivered and comes about through successful reforms. Pursuant of such planned change, governments regularlylaunch reform initiatives at varying scales of complexity.  However, we know that not all such reform initiatives succeed.  Indeed the public sphere is littered with the bones of quite a number of failed reform initiatives. The reasons for these failures are diverse.  They include policy inadequacies, poor planning, size, complexity, poor management, socio-cultural incompatibility, limited beneficiary buy-in, stakeholder resistance and tissue rejection, among others. Failed reform efforts represent a huge waste of public time and assets. They erode goodwill and confidence. They can also create bad blood and suspicion between governments and the governed.  As such, every effort should be made to keep them  to a minimum.   In the lines below, I share my reflections on the issue and on how change and reform can be best managed in the public service for the benefit of all.

  1. Good public management hinges on the existence of certain “virtues”. Some of these are Capacity, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Communication, Commitment, Confidence, Integrity, Internal Controls, Transparency and Accountability.
  2. The first four “virtues” are technical, the next three are psycho-affective, and the last three are moral-institutional/environmental.
  3. An effective chief executive is one who knows how to mix these “virtues” to achieve desired outcomes, knowing that every situation would demand a different  mix of these virtues.
  4. Good public management is about a leadership style that brings out the best in followership.
  5. Good public management is about exercising influence. Influence is best when done in a subtle non-authoritarian manner!
  6. Leadership without followership is ineffective. Reform success is leaders + followers.
  7. A good chief executive recognises hierarchies of leadership within followership and empowers these levels of leadership.
  8. An effective chief executive in the public service is a good communicator. Communication and talking down to people are two different things.
  9. Communication is  NOT the same thing as one directional information passing and order barking by a chief executive enamoured of his/her own voice or sense of infallibility.
  10. Chief executives must learn to keep their egos at home when they want to lead change. They should be open to learning and modest/mature enough to accept errors.
  11. The style of a chief executive could alienate a number of persons whose support is critical for the success of the reform package.
  12. Good public management is about doing the right things and doing them right.
  13. Good public management is about value for money. Value here could be people benefit focused or resources to results focused.
  14. Reform interventions and policy changes should be informed by a carefully executed causality analysis and problem tree.
  15. Use a causality analysis and a problem tree to try to understand the situation you want to change before starting to change it. Fast tracking on this important step could spell disaster in the future.
  16. If your causality analysis is poorly or hastily done, the identified interventions are usually wrong and activities based on such result in avoidable wastes.
  17. If a chief executive expends 200 units of resources and effort but gets 20 units of results, then there has been a case of waste of public assets and resources.
  18. To waste public assets and resources is a failure. Actions and reforms that end in failure demonstrate either culpable negligence, poor planning, implementation inadequacies, gross indiscretion in resource management or major personality flaws on the part of the chief executive and his team.
  19. A chief executive can be honest and transparent but still be wasteful.
  20. To be wasteful with public resources is bad. The Igbos say “akpata awunye na ohia anaghi ebute ogaranya” (The person who earns but throws what is earned into the bush will never be wealthy)
  21. If a chief executive plans change and is unable to deliver it, then there are grounds to question that chief executive’s capacity to plan, to lead and manage change.
  22. Change in public management is a blend of continuity and discontinuity. A chief executive who ignores this betrays naivety, and naivety can be a fatal flaw in public management, especially if it is combined with arrogance.
  23. Successful change is the one that builds on the positives of the present as a launch pad for the envisioned future. To ignore present positives, to rubbish them or to be dismissive of them is to invite resistance. It is also to seek to reinvent the wheel.
  24. Change is more successful when the promised benefits of the reform package are so easy to demonstrate.
  25. For every change, even for the best intentioned of changes and reforms, there will be change resistors.
  26. People resist change for several reasons – fear, uncertainty, inertia, reluctance to move away from a comfort zone, self-interest etc.
  27. Change planners must recognise and carry on board the reality of change resistors and come up with proactive and adaptive strategies to manage these.
  28. You need a convergence of interests to move change. Change happens when the ranks of resistors deplete through persuasion and buy-in and when the ranks of adopters and supporters slowly swell. Such a movement requires patience and investment in consensus building.
  29. Failure to recognise the reality and roles of change resistors is to prepare the grounds for failure of any innovation in government.
  30. A good chief executive would undertake a detailed institutional capacity assessment recognise institutional gaps and map out actions to address these before embarking on any change or reform programme.
  31. Chief executive’s will, power and enthusiasm are vital for change but are not enough nor sufficient to see any innovation in government through. .Other important ingredients include building strong constituency support and stakeholder buy-in.
  32. Constituency support and stakeholder buy-in cannot be obtained by a strategy of bullying, verbal abuse, arrogance and or detachment by the chief executive. Constituency support and stakeholder buy-in have to be negotiated.
  33. “I stoop to conquer” should be the mantra of any newly appointed chief executive in government.
  34. A chief executive may need a change management team to push through the change/reform package.
  35. If the change management team is imported, internal stakeholders will feel threatened and use informal power structures and networks to kill/slow down the reform
  36. An effective chief executive uses a change team drawn largely from the inside with a few external persons as change champions.
  37. A chief executive who fails to realise the fact above is naïve.
  38. Change is slow. Government business is slower. To think you can change it in six months or in one year is naïve.
  39. Size is the killer for all change managers. Trying to change everything in one fell swoop is courting failure! The world was created in six days, not one!
  40. Trying to move changes on multiple fronts at the same time can be very exhausting. It conduces at best to partial successes on each front but to failure at the larger impact level because of dispersed and non-focused energies.
  41. The larger the size of the change, the greater will be the tension and confusion in the system. The larger the tension and confusion, the faster your ship of change will hit the rock of failure.
  42. Keep the envisioned change short, simple, manageable and measurable. Succeed with it and then use that success as the stepping stone for the next change.
  43. Successful change is incremental. Chief executives ignore this fact at their own peril.
  44. In governance as in life, incremental small fixes and changes are better and more effective than big bang changes.
  45. Managing a reform/change package in real life involves a series of continuous adjustments, compromises and trade-offs. Rigidity may be fanciful but it can be fatal
  46. When you plan change, think also of the sustainability of the change after you have left office.
  47. Reform initiatives fail for a number of reasons. Unrealistic targets are one of them.
  48. Two other reasons why reforms fail are inadequate environmental scanning and badly done SWOT analysis.
  49. One of the conditions for reform failure is when reforms are politics-based and driven rather than evidence-based and driven.
  50. Blaming institutional resistance and others for the failure of a reform programme and exculpating themselves from any blame whatsoever is a hobby of most ex-chief executives.

Noel Ihebuzor


*** These reflections assume that all necessary resources (especially financial) are available, adequate and timely***