Implementing significant change is challenging in the public sector due to complex government and stakeholder agendas, increased customer expectations and the likelihood that significant change will generate public attention. It is no surprise that the success of implementation varies widely.
In 2017 Nous hosted NSW Government leaders to explore the ingredients for successful implementation in the public sector. While each ingredient appears simple, their collective power can ensure success.
Successful implementation starts with careful preparation – clarity on the problem, a supportive authorising environment and thoughtful timing – and is enhanced by a willingness to be opportunistic.
A sound understanding of the problem provides a strong direction for change
Successful implementation starts with a clear articulation of the problem to solve, the desired outcome and the scale of the change required to get there. These are rarely simple to define. The best answers develop from broad consultation and appreciation of the value provided by different stakeholders. At the same time, there must be clarity on who is ultimately responsible for delivering the desired outcome.
Service NSW is a good example of multiple agencies coming together to develop mechanisms that make it easier for people and businesses to transact with the government. The implementation of Service NSW involved broad engagement with several agencies and providers to progressively expand the services available.
The right authorising environment provides a strong impetus for action. A Cabinet decision or a ministerial or head-of-agency statement provides a clear stake in the ground that can kick-start implementation. This also provides the permission to keep driving and holding others to account when challenges arise.
The NSW Premier’s priorities focus efforts across and within agencies. They direct energy toward solving big issues that have a substantial impact on people’s lives.
There can be beauty in implementing ideas – when there is a widely held view that the time has come. Taking advantage of digital disruption to allow for more seamless interaction with government, as ServiceNSW has done, is a great example. Think carefully about the best time to implement new approaches and adjust accordingly. If the environment appears challenging, ask the question: What options are available to help create a more conducive environment?
A government department capitalised on growing public awareness and the support from the premier to scope and implement a service reform in an area of significant public need. The growing public and political momentum was critical for the timing of this potentially radical reform. The reform proposed a wholly redesigned approach. Alongside a plan for system reform were recommendations for immediate implementation. The balance of long-term boldness and quick wins was crucial to achieving stakeholder support.
Beyond the technical components, delivery – where the rubber hits the road – requires effective storytelling, skilled communication and adaptable leaders.
People join the public service because they want to make a difference. An authentic and compelling narrative provides the answer to two questions: Why does this matter? And how will it improve the lives of the people we are here to serve? The narrative motivates an agency’s people to do things differently and explains to customers and stakeholders what is changing and why. The most compelling narratives bring together images, data and evidence, infographics and personal stories.
A government department undergoing major structural changes communicated its vision and narrative for change through a roadshow. Executive directors spent two days criss-crossing the state to engage all staff at the same time. This was complemented by a video message from the CEO, a strategy on a page and supporting fact sheets, which addressed the impact on staff.
A compelling narrative will take many forms. But always vital is the spoken word, whether delivered formally (such as in a set-piece address or a Q&A forum with staff) or informally (perhaps in the lift or during a floor walk). For a few people, doing this well comes naturally. For most, it requires significant preparation and ongoing attention. Done well, communication can drive change in an organisation. The skilled communicator must be effective at delivering messages internally and to external stakeholders.
The CEO of a government corporation going through a transformation introduced regular town hall meetings for all staff. He preceded these meetings with informal discussions with a cross-section of staff. This helped him appreciate the issues on the minds of staff and allowed him to hone his messages. The town hall meetings drove an increase in employee engagement. The divisional heads who followed up with floor walks saw increased engagement in their teams.
Leaders who drive successful implementation projects share key traits – agility, courage and resilience – that allow them to thrive in the face of obstacles. A focus on the outcome rather than the process means they can adapt and even fundamentally change their approach when circumstances demand. As with communication, these skills come naturally to few people; for everyone else, it takes concerted effort.
The leader of a state operation of a national government agency was tasked with transforming how state operations were delivered. She realised this change was impossible to work through on her own. She took the information to her state leadership team and engaged them in coming up with a solution and making it happen. The team responded with enthusiasm and the approach was developed collaboratively. Staff noted how well the change was managed.
Get in touch to find out how Nous can help your department or agency to implement significant change.
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First published in 2017 and refreshed on 13 October 2020.