Implementing any significant change is particularly challenging in the public sector context, not least due to complex government and stakeholder agendas, increased customer expectations and the likelihood that significant change will generate public and media attention. It is not surprising that the success of implementation efforts can vary widely.
In March 2017, Nous hosted senior leaders from across NSW government to explore the specific ingredients that contribute to successful implementation in the public sector. While each individual ingredient appears simple, it is their collective power that 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
The starting point for successful implementation is 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 a genuine appreciation of the value that different stakeholders provide. At the same time, there must be clarity on who is ultimately responsible for delivering the desired outcome.
Service NSW provides 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 a large number of agencies and providers to progressively expand the services available.
The right authorising environment gets the wheels turning
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 help to kick-start implementation. Just as importantly, it also provides the ‘permission’ to keep driving and to keep holding others to account when challenges invariably arise.
The Premier’s Priorities focus efforts across and within agencies. They direct energy towards solving big issues that have a substantial impact on people’s lives.
Opportunities are optimized when you strike at the right time
There can be beauty in the implementation of some ideas, when there is a widely held view that ‘the time has come’. Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digital disruption to allow for more seamless interaction with government, as ServiceNSW has done, is a great example. The broader message is to think carefully about the best time to implement new approaches and, if possible, 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, media attention and the support and drive of a Premier and Minister to scope and implement a large-scale sector and service reform in an area of significant public need. The growing public and political momentum and support was critical for the timing of this potentially radical reform. The reform proposed a long-term bold vision that outlined a wholly redesigned approach. Alongside a plan to deliver long term system reform were a number of recommendations for immediate implementation. The balance of long-term boldness and short-term ‘quick wins’ was crucial to achieve stakeholder buy-in and support for the reform.
Beyond getting the technical components right, delivery – where ‘the rubber hits the road’ – requires effective storytelling, skilled communication and adaptable leaders.
Effective storytelling embeds the change into an organisation’s DNA
People join the public service because they want to make a difference. An authentic and compelling narrative provides the answer to: ‘Why does this matter?’, and ‘How will it improve the lives of the people we are here to serve?’ It motivates an agency’s people to do things differently and clearly explain 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 their vision and narrative for change through a highly scripted ‘roadshow’. Executive Directors spent two days criss-crossing the state to ensure all staff were engaged 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 skilled communicator delivers the right messages to the right audiences in the right mediums
Although a compelling narrative will take many forms, it is not possible to overstate the importance of 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 select few, doing this well comes naturally. For most, it requires significant preparation and ongoing attention. When done well, communication can have a truly powerful impact in driving change in an organisation. The skilled communicator must be effective at delivering messages internally and also to a broad range of external stakeholder groups.
The CEO of a government corporation going through a substantial transformation introduced regular ‘town hall’ meetings for all staff. He preceded these meetings with informal discussions with a cross-section of staff. This provided him with a fuller appreciation of the issues at the forefront of staff minds and allowed him to hone the messages he would deliver. The ‘town hall’ meetings drove a noticeable increase in employee engagement. The Divisional heads who followed up with ‘floor walks’ saw a further increase in engagement within their teams.
Leaders must be adaptable
The leaders who drive successful implementation projects share a number of key traits. They are agile, courageous and resilient. Such traits allow them to thrive in the face of obstacles. A continued focus on the desired outcome, rather than the process, means they are willing to adapt and even fundamentally change their approach when circumstances demand. As with communication, these skills come naturally to a select few. For everyone else, it takes concerted effort.
The senior leader of a state operation of a national government agency was tasked with radically transforming how state operations were delivered. She realised that this change was so transformational that it was impossible to work through on her own, as she would normally have done. She took the information to her state leadership team and engaged them in the process of coming up with a solution and then making it happen. The team responded with enthusiasm and the approach was developed collaboratively. Staff noted how well the change was managed.