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Changing the Culture of a Government Agency

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can you change the culture of a federal agency with constant political leadership changes? Because of constant change at the top, no one actually follows through on strategic plans. Long-time federal employees know that if they just wait it out, the leadership will change and they won’t have to.

This Too Shall Pass

Dear This Too Shall Pass,

Confucius was once asked what changes he would make if he were emperor. His answer: I would change the language. Confucius’ argument is that language is the most fundamental influence of all; what you think, how you think, how you feel, and ultimately, how you act, are all shaped by the liberties and constraints given you by your language.

Measurement is the language of organizations. If you want to change organizational behavior, start with the language. Some have tried to blame inefficient government bureaucracies on the bureaucrats. They assume the reason service stinks at the DMV and is stellar at Nordstrom is because of the people themselves. That’s baloney. We’ve done plenty of research in government agencies and found inspired, capable leaders as much in abundance as in many Fortune 500 companies.

The primary obstacle to influence is that there is no external forcing function that demands accountability for results. Consequently, prioritization becomes political rather than natural. In a commercial enterprise, owners and customers create natural accountability. Organizations that don’t serve them well suffer—sooner or later. Hence, commercial enterprises are generally observant of measuring how they perform for owners and customers.

In government agencies, there is no demand to measure service to owners and customers; it becomes the prerogative of leaders to measure what they will. For example, a new law can be passed demanding that having a paperless office is of higher priority than getting road projects done on time and on budget.

Now I know I’m not telling you anything new here. But this background is important because my central recommendation is to focus your influence on this one key change. You’ll never change the fact that every four years or so you’ll get a new photograph on the wall to match the political appointee at the top. But what you can do is try to build support for an internally imposed measure that aligns with the needs of those you serve.

A few years ago, I worked with a governor of a state in the US who was remarkably effective at driving change. Her primary influence was requiring senior civil service staff (and her appointees) to develop stakeholder aligned scorecards for their agencies. She didn’t have to reach down and micromanage much of anything. Her mantra was, “If you don’t have data, you lead by anecdotes.” And she was right. By simply requiring every agency to identify mission-aligned metrics that they would track religiously, she created a sense of accountability and a motivation for change that had been lacking previously.

You don’t have to be a governor to influence in this way. For example, Bill Patrick, from the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services was able to influence a very important change. Bill worked in a state office in Fort Wayne, MI that offered financial services to low income residents. Customer service was pitiful—terrible wait times for counseling, inconvenient scheduling process, etc. Yet within a matter of months, customer satisfaction rose from 23% to 82%. The first influence key Patrick used was simple measurement. If you want to create awareness and motivation for change—change the language. Create credible measures that align with the fundamental mission of the organization and people will have a hard time resisting their effect. By simply documenting the degree of the problem, Patrick rallied support for his effort to influence change. And he succeeded spectacularly.

The main thing commercial agencies have that you don’t, is a forcing function. But good leadership doesn’t wait for a forcing function. Introduce a new language (measure) that is inarguably mission-aligned, and you’ll open the possibility of dramatic change.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

1 thought

  1. Brian Austin

    An interesting perspective but one that indeed has value but I would suggest that language has some deeper merits than just measure. This is shown in your example where I would suggest that the words “credible measures” are more important than just measures. Saying that government agencies are inefficient because they do not have metrics is a very limited view. I have worked in government agencies for many years and they are buried in metrics. The fundamental problem is not the measuring but that lovely word “credible” and to it I would add another called “meaningful”. They are just simple words but mean the difference between hero and zero. Too much is based around non-credible targets that are ignored as they offer no incentive for anything beyond someone’s wishful thinking and on meaningless measures that just go to fill an obscure economists pipe-dream but do nothing for anyone else. They are both based on good intention but we all know that about the road that is paved with good intentions. By all means spread the message of measure but don’t forget to put some realism and end use into them as well. (A view from an obscure public servant in Australia)

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