What’s the secret to success in public sector transformation?
What’s the secret to success in
public sector transformation?
Dr. Kelly Rowe
Transforming a public sector department or
organization is not easy. Significant shifts might be resisted or underfunded,
or the ministry/department may simply lack the capability to implement the
change. Leaders of the transformation are heroes just for stepping up to the
At a recent IPAC Annual Conference panel,
we explored service transformation with government leaders and Nous CEO, Tim Orton. (You can
read more here.) The panel agreed on the need for agile transformation
governance, for ensuring teams delivering transformation have the right
capabilities, and for gaining political buy-in in order to fund and drive the
change from the top.
But in practical terms, what needs to happen
for leaders to get a transformation right? And how might those needs shift before,
during and after a transformation?
Success requires much more than just a program
management office (PMO); it needs an authorizing environment enabled by
fit-for-purpose leadership and governance across the lifecycle of the transformation.
(The authorizing environment includes the formal and informal (hard and soft)
authorities required to deliver on government functions.)
It also requires an agile approach, which
means being in tune with the dynamism and change of the operating environment, and less driven by
process and analysis. Transformation leaders need that mindset and capability
in them and around them.
We have worked with hundreds of government departments
and ministries across the world to advise on, and support delivery of
transformation programs. In so doing we have engaged with a great many senior public
sector leaders and their stakeholders to understand the key success factors.
There are four phases of
It is evident from our work with clients in
Canada and abroad that there are four phases of a transformation, each with its
own objectives and focus, and each requiring distinct governance and
and agreeing on the approach
state of transformation delivery
wind down and continuous improvement
To illustrate these phases, we will use a
six-year transformation scenario: A large government department with a service
delivery mandate needs to re-orient its operating model to become more
service-focused, enabled by digital tools, agile in the way it operates and
staffed with the right capabilities.
We will look at the scenario from the perspective
of the leader who will be accountable for the transformation (such as a deputy
minister), identifying the questions the leader should be able to answer from
key stakeholders (and from themself).
and agreeing on the approach (Year 0)
Your minister, secretary of cabinet and
colleagues will ask: Why this and why now?
This pre-transformation phase requires
confirming and making the case for change. At this time the funding needs to be
secured, so it must be clear the investment will be worth it and the desired
outcomes and (potentially) savings will be realized through the transformation.
This can take the form of a clear and comprehensive business case that addresses
the key drivers of the change (such as an inability to deliver business
outcomes or low client satisfaction). The benefits of the proposed change
should therefore be transformative as they address multiple aspects of the
Articulating the transformation approach is
also important. The approach should include the overarching objective and
desired future state, the key focus areas of change, the mechanism for the
transformation to unfold over time, critical dependencies (such as technology
implementation) and milestones.
The decision-makers around the table at
this stage need to be those who understand the potential impacts and outcomes,
who hold the purse-strings and who know the organization well enough to define its
strategic approach, considering the organizational requirements and operating
This is NOT the time to bring several deputy
ministers along to weigh in – think lean and purposeful to develop the case for
change and the transformation approach.
the transformation (Year 1)
Your staff will ask: What is this and
what does it mean for me?
Once funding and the strategic approach have
been approved, you will need to share the news with department colleagues. More
than just updating them, you will need to use your relationships and influence to
bring them into the fold, to get them onside with the change, and to get them ready
to help drive it.
This is when staff and leaders could become
anxious about the change; in some cases,
the change process begins, only for people to realize that the rationale or endpoint
may be unclear. Your job (with your team) is to champion
the proposed change, its impacts and benefits, and solicit input on how to reshape
parts of the operating model, including the culture and the way services are
Co-design can be valuable – this might
involve inviting staff to articulate what the new culture should look like or
involving external stakeholders in redesigning services.
You should also appoint a Transformation
Lead, who will be responsible for running the transformation program smoothly
and reporting into the program governance body. This person should have
experience transforming organizations and have strong skills in leadership,
project management, stakeholder engagement and change management.
At this stage the people around you should
be internal communications and change management leads, direct reports/associate
deputy ministers (ADMs) as well as your Transformation Lead.
You need your team to develop the
transformation governance structure, project plan, risk register, benefits
realization framework, and articulation of the steady state. These should be developed
in partnership with your departmental/ministry chief administrative and
information officers (CAO and CIO).
This is the time to explore external
delivery partners to help you deliver the transformation. Partners can add
capability and expertise but also much-needed capacity for implementing the
changes, so your staff can continue on with their important day-to-day work.
state of transformation delivery (Years 2-5)
You should ask yourself: Is this
working, and if not, how can we make it work?
Now you are in the thick of it, delivering
a transformation across your organization. You must focus on keeping up the
transformation momentum, quickly making decisions and removing roadblocks, monitoring
the performance, and mitigating risks.
At this stage, the transformation deadline
can be at risk if momentum lags or if the end-state vision becomes distorted or
diluted. We often see change-resistant stakeholders dig their heels in – that is
when change leaders need to seek to understand concerns and possibly provide
stronger top-down direction. To mitigate this risk, leaders should undertake well-managed
engagement and continually reinforce the culture change and benefits to
employees and stakeholders. Leaders must model the new culture throughout the
transformation delivery years.
During this phase, your team needs to include
people who can accept risk for the organization, assess data on progress and
benefits realized, and make quick decisions about people, policy, funding and
technology. Using an agile governance model, you will have agreed on an
overarching timeline and phases but rapidly need to pivot and learn in order to
achieve your desired outcomes.
wind down and continuous improvement (Year 6)
Your minister, secretary of cabinet and
colleagues will ask: What did you achieve and how will we sustain the change?
At this stage, the major change has been
made and the focus turns to assessing the outcomes to date and quantifying the
benefits of the new operating model in the years ahead.
For the benefits to continue to accrue and
then sustain, you will need to establish capability and oversight mechanisms. Formal
reporting should be established from a continuous improvement lead and from
your CAO – people who will be accountable for driving the benefits and
overseeing progress for several years following the transformation. You should
also seek formal reports from your ADMs on how they are sustaining the change.
Transformation can be complex and
challenging – but is essential
Success! It’s time to congratulate your
team and celebrate – you have earned it. Public sector transformations are
notoriously complex and challenging, but if you remain agile and have transformation
governance and leadership that is fit for purpose, you can create the authorizing
environment and achieve the change you desire.
The benefits of successful transformation
are manifold – for citizens who can rely on better services, ministers who can achieve
greater efficiency and colleagues who can work in a way that maximizes their
impact on the world.
As you endure the inevitable frustrations
and setbacks, it is valuable to keep focus on the reason why you are
undertaking transformation the first place.
To hear more on this topic, join us at
IPAC’s Leadership Summit on March 2, where we’ll be hosting a panel on “Leading
Transformation” and going into greater depth with senior public sector leaders
on the topic of transformation.
Kelly Rowe is
a Principal at Nous Group, an international management consultancy with an
office in Toronto.