Government Change

How can the government manage its change agenda for the best chance of success?



by Elizabeth Ferguson (nee Henshilwood), Crelos Ltd

The progress of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first coalition since the Churchill led “national government” of 1945, is being followed avidly by political commentators and the general public alike. Both Cameron and Clegg set the benchmark high in their first speeches as Prime Minister and Deputy, with bold statements of radical reform, Clegg even stating that this government will bring in to play “the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the Great Reforms of the 19th century”.

This type of rhetoric is all very well, but what does it mean in practice? What does a “government built on clear values of freedom, fairness and responsibility” actually look like and how will it go about changing the fundamental contract between state and people in order to hand “power to the people”? Organisational change consultancy, Crelos, considers the psychological and behavioural implications and potential pitfalls of this ambitious change agenda from a centralised, apparently power hungry and often mistrusted state, to the place described by Cameron as “one of real change where people pull together, come together and work together”.

This ambition could seem as though Cameron and Clegg are setting themselves up to fail, particularly given the starting point. Professor Roger Steare and Pavlos Stamboulides in “Who’s doing the right thing? Ethicability Moral DNA Report 2008” compared ethicability scores (a combination of rule compliance, social conscience and principled conscience) from the UK with those of other western economies including the USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand. The UK scored the lowest in all three elements. About the results, Steare and Stamboulides comment “The below average scores for the UK suggests that there needs to be a serious debate about British values and British society.” Cameron and Clegg will need to confront this debate head on.

The first Queen’s Speech under new Prime Minister David Cameron, given at the State Opening of Parliament on the 25th May, laid out the coalition government’s plans for the so-called “Big Society”. Important to the government’s agenda is a transition from centralisation to localisation where communities and individuals have more power to, for example, establish “free schools”, which has already attracted interest from more than 700 groups.

In his article on the Telegraph website on the 19th June, Matthew d’Ancona referred to Matthew Crawford’s “The Case for Working With Your Hands”, an inquiry into the nature of manual work which has caused great excitement in America. Crawford describes the white collar employees in the book as “nothing more than cogs, subject to the “intellectual technology” imposed upon them by centralised bureaucracy.” D’Ancona goes on to use this description to explain the situation that teachers are in today. “Teachers have been incrementally stripped of the discretion that used to define them as professionals. Most schools are outposts of the town hall and local branches of the Department for Education before they are autonomous civic institutions”.

The proposed significant change in the relationship with “the Centre” requires the public to move from a state of dependence to independence and ultimately interdependence. This is a developmentally complex journey, akin to that of moving from child to adolescent, to fully functioning adult and it is likely that some teething pains will be felt along the way. Some parts of society will enthusiastically enter this new world of freedom, responsibility and power to impact the local community. However, others such as young people who are classified as NEET, the long-term unemployed and sick and even the small percentage that make their “pay packet” by working the system, might find that the rest of society moves on, while they become either active “blockers” or increasingly detached.

It will be interesting to see how budgets are distributed, who remains ultimately responsible for them and how return on investment and value for money are evaluated, given that these may look very different from one community to another. A question to resolve will be the areas of responsibility that are pushed out to local communities and those which remain in the hands of the Centre. For example, decisions to build a new run-way or power station cannot be taken locally or actions will be delayed or not taken because of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect.

Those leading the change are advised to learn from proven behavioural change methodology, such as the Transtheoretical Model (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1986), used by consultants at Crelos. This approach, developed on a model for the rehabilitation of drug addicts, takes individuals through five specific stages (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance) to increase the likelihood that the desired change will be made and sustained.

This model of change particularly highlights the preparation required to set the scene for any change, an emphasis that many business leaders overlook when implementing change. Communication on both emotional and rational levels, of why the change is necessary, what the objectives are and what will happen if the changes are not made should be communicated honestly and regularly during this phase. Before the announcement of the Budget on June 22nd, Cameron, Chancellor George Osbourne and other members of the government were vociferous in their communication about the emergency budget, in order to prepare the public for the worst. This is a clever tactic; by spreading a degree of fear and doom, anything better than this state appears to be a bonus. However, this approach can only be used a few times before people wise up to it and it becomes a less useful approach.

Along with preparing for the changes that are coming, politicians and civil servants should consider how to motivate and engage the public, so that they will play an active role in these changes rather than being passive passengers. To do this, an understanding of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is required. Extrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from outside an individual, for example rewards such as money or exam grades. In the situation that we are facing, where we are unlikely to be rewarded by money or a prize for our participation as active citizens, it is important to tap in to intrinsic motivational factors, such as the pleasure gained from being involved in an initiative, the enjoyment of a challenge or the fulfilment gained from solving a difficult problem.

For some time now businesses have invested time and resources in the assessment, development and maintenance of an engaged workforce, whereby employees make the discretionary choice to go above and beyond the requirements of their job. The government will require an engaged nation to fulfill their ambitious plans. For these plans to be truly successful it will be essential to engage all levels and parts of society; not an easy task.

To do this, as well as implementing more strategic “engagement” processes, Cameron, Clegg and colleagues will need to draw upon their personal leadership skills. In times of difficulty or crisis like war, environmental disaster, terrorism, but also economic crisis as we are going through now, research has shown that the use of specific leadership behaviours becomes even more important. These behaviours include regular, clear communication, the presentation of benefits for the different groups (individual, family, community, country) and methods for building confidence in the future and ensuring that the strategies in place are the right ones for achieving the desired results. It is also important to use empathy to show that leaders are in tune with what is going on at other levels of society and to give individuals the opportunity to make their views heard and feel listened to.

“Citizen centred” is a phrase being widely used. This replaces the model of 35 different services all helping one individual, sometimes over-lapping or allowing gaps in care to take place, with the individual in question having a “relationship manager” who will have the responsibility for bringing together a multi-disciplinary team to provide the individual with the care that they need. The multi-disciplinary team structure is something that has been used in business for some time, originally initiated as a way of giving the best service possible to customers who often need input from more than one specific function. This model, when working effectively produces fast and customer focussed service, but can be difficult to operate in a hierarchical management structure or if the culture is one of “tribalism” whereby managers and teams are protective of their own territory, function or expertise. On an individual level it requires specific behavioural competencies such as the ability to facilitate the interactions of a number of people and the ability to question and clarify to understand another’s perspective.

Such team-working behaviours will require execution by the government to enable the coalition to come together as an effective team, rather than falling in to patterns of “group think”. This is, as defined by Janis, 1972 “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.

Groups that fall in to a consensus, or worse a group-think style, will discuss different points of view but not properly challenge or build upon them to make a better solution. In the short term this approach can minimise any possible damage to personal relationships, but in the longer term will mean a lack of constructive challenge and questioning and dissatisfaction can build to bursting point. Collaboration, where individuals or teams work together in the pursuit of common goals, requires a degree of introspection of behaviour and ways of working in order to get the best out of all involved.

Some commentators have apportioned a degree of blame for the 2008 financial crisis to the consensus type approach adopted between boards and executive teams of some of the large and worst affected banks, whereby constructive challenges were replaced by acquiescence and “group think”. The coalition government will need to learn from these past mistakes. Although they may want to portray a united front, in fact they will need to collaborate, challenge and communicate with honesty to be most effective.

With cost cutting forefront in everyone’s mind, we wait to see how the nation’s spending can be controlled without care for the vulnerable and the provision of healthcare and education in particular, being adversely affected. This will require the public to unite around local initiatives, but as already discussed, this may be easier said than done, particularly when the common human reaction to difficulty is to resort to “self preservation” – focussing on the needs of yourself and your dependents, rather than on those of the wider community. The coalition government has set itself a huge change agenda, but the question remains whether it has the strategies, tools and behaviours at hand to drive these behaviours through? In business, the reality is that nearly 60% of change projects do not fully meet their objectives (2008 IBM study of more than 1,500 change management executives from 15 countries). If the change in question is the fundamental contract between the State and its citizens, then the chance of success must be even slimmer.