Driving Real Change in the Public Sector Requires Strong Leadership

The public sector sometimes gets a bad reputation for the services governments and not-for-profit organizations provide—and some of that criticism is warranted. In the absence of direct market competition, public services can grow stale and out-of-date; customers’ needs can be ignored, and costs can continue to rise with little measurable improvement in service quality. However, there are many examples of communities and organizations responding to their customers’ needs and providing top-flight services. A necessary component of successful service improvement efforts is the presence of a leader willing to do what it takes to make such a transformation.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the chance to observe the work of many innovative public-sector leaders who have successfully transformed their organizations—both at the state and local level. These leaders have driven significant and sustainable improvements to public services while maintaining or improving service costs. Though I’m not an expert on leadership, I’ve been able to identify some common elements among the most successful leaders. They include:

  • A willingness to challenge the status quo – If you’re not willing to challenge the pervasive “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality, then your efforts are doomed to fail. With any transformation effort, there will be opponents—those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. A successful leader must “count the cost” from the beginning and understand there will be conflict, mistakes and tough days ahead—but the goal of service transformation is worth the effort.
  • Empower people to make mistakes – Change requires trial and error; people will make mistakes while trying to accomplish something new. Leaders must convey they have the backs of their co-workers, even when it gets tough.
  • Encourage an “idea culture” – If possible, it’s best to learn from the successes and failures others have had in similar situations. Leaders can encourage their team members to research best practices and case studies and to discuss how they may apply to the situation at hand. Successful leaders encourage consideration of lessons from private-sector organizations and around the world.
  • Exhibit “impatient patience” – Successful leaders exhibit an impatience to get started, but patience for the final results; good planning is essential and must not be overlooked. However, when structuring a project to allow for quick wins, creating early momentum is crucial. Likewise, good leaders understand change takes time, and results will sometimes be slow in coming. They must be able to withstand the charge of “it’s not working” from the inevitable critics.
  • Use political capital – Effective leaders reach out to mobilize support for change from other stakeholders, e.g., elected officials and citizen groups. They’re able to identify the effort’s allies and engage them to generate support for change through all phases of the effort. They’re not afraid to be out front leading the effort in the public’s eye and to demonstrate how the effort is connected to larger policy goals.
  • Get into the weeds – Leaders should avoid micromanagement but must gain a working knowledge of the major issues involved. They must understand the technology being used, how success will be measured and the basics of how the customer experience will change as a result of the effort. To accomplish this, they must be adequately briefed and must make learning about the effort a priority despite their busy schedules.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – The successful leader must have a message that succinctly conveys why the changes are necessary and the resulting benefits. The message must be rooted in the realities the community or organization faces and explain how the service improvement effort will position the organization for the future. It must identify clear winners, e.g., the projects or priorities that will benefit from the service improvement. The leaders also should make clear from the outset the measure of success. The various stakeholder groups will require different messages depending on their interests and sophistication levels, but the messages must never contradict one another.
  • Stay focused on the big picture – There will likely be days when success is in doubt or the naysayers appear to have the upper hand. These are the days when leadership can be particularly lonely. However, the successful leader must keep things in perspective and maintain a steady hand on the tiller. Course corrections likely will be necessary; these are not a sign of weakness, but of flexibility and a willingness to adapt. In all situations, the successful leader must be ready to move to the front and—once again—explain why the effort is crucial.

These are some conclusions drawn from years of observation; you probably have your own rooted in similar experiences.

Because we’ve “been there and done that” as leaders in the public sector, the BKD public sector consulting team can help your organization as you plan, implement and accomplish service improvement efforts. Click here to learn more about the services we provide.

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Mike Brink

Mike focuses on operational excellence and data analytics in the public sector. He has 20 years of experience working on public sector issues from positions within government, management consulting and the business process outsourcing industry. He has worked in a range of business transformation roles involving sales, quality, technology implementation, process re-engineering, managed competition, project management and sourcing.

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