To change an organisation most pundits are agreed you need a visible leader who has a consistent conviction that fundamental change will have a major impact on the organisation’s survival. That person needs to believe not only that change is necessary but they need to have a vision for what the organisation will be after the change – theirs must be the dream. But people will not buy into the dream if they cannot see that the pain and effort of the change will result in a future that is tangibly better for them than the alternative!
Successful change leaders can form a vision that is both compelling and easily communicated. And they communicate it with conviction!
Oh and by the way they will then need the ability to sponsor and see through the management of the change – they need the people skills and the organisational know-how to implement their vision!
So I am left wondering about change in the UK public sector and why it so often fails! Don’t get me wrong there is much to admire in the UK Civil Service, and I should know I was a Civil Servant for many years. They are, for the most part, far more committed and hard working than most journalists would believe. Most still do believe in public service and they really do care for the public they serve. But on the whole (despite, or perhaps as demonstrated by, the ruthless, smoothness of the prime ministerial change), theirs is still a world where tradition holds sway!
But if you think about where the vision for change in our institutions comes from it is not from Civil Servants but from Ministers. Ministers have the vision of the change, they wish to bring about which Civil Servants – faithful to the last – then go on to implement. But in leading their departments senior Civil Servants may well be leading a change for which they have little, or no, real sympathy. Beyond Ministerial whim, they may very likely not believe that personal or organisational survival depends upon the change they are required to make.
In these circumstances where does the fire in the belly, that is required to lead large scale and fundamental change, come from. Ministers have the fire but they are not responsible for leading the Civil Servants! These days Ministers are unlikely to have the people and the organisational know-how to implement their vision – many have been professional politicians for most of their working life!.
The issues are challenging given a world in which on-going large scale organisational change is likely to be a way of life. Am I arguing for political leadership at the top of the Civil Service, as in the US? I don’t think so – we would lose a lot in the process – not least we would have to cope with the huge scale and expensive disruption that changes of government would require.
But I do think the challenges need to recognised and we need to discuss the consequences and risks! It is not enough to be able to write policy papers arguing how your Minister could go about implementing their manifesto pledges – you need a slick ability to move your organisation towards the Minister’s vision and changing vision. It always was a challenge but it just got, and will continue to get, bigger!
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