Motivating Reform - The Certainty of Change

By Gay Hamilton

The reasons for public service reform have been heard repeatedly - public services everywhere face the dual pressures of spending reduction and demand from citizens with ever-higher expectations. In dealing with global economic issues and striving for change, governments are becoming acutely aware that further belt-tightening will probably be needed and public service reform is no longer a periodic measure to remedy specific issues. Rather, it is an ongoing learning and evaluation process that, to be successful, must be integrated into the mind-set of the public service. Economic realities the world over translate into such pervasive issues as job cuts, pay freezes, increased workloads and pension reform. In the face of such uncertainties, public servants can be assured of one thing - the certainty of change.
Change, reform or transformation, whichever it is called, public service employees are facing difficult times whether they are the frontline workers, managers or members of the most senior leadership. In tough times, as expectations mount for financial savings, leaner bureaucracies, procedural review and operational re-design, staff are called upon to lead change and implement plans. These very tasks may cause them to experience stress and worry about the future of their jobs. If they are to succeed, change managers must approach their task with a clear view of outcomes but they must also recognize that the management of people is tantamount to positive results.
In a world where staff is desperate to hear good news, it is logical to assume that communications play a major role. The language around public service transformation leans toward upbeat and positive terms about citizen engagement, motivation of public servants and capacity-building for the next generation of public servants. It appeals to the notion of innovation in practice and sustainability within the global context as objectives of public service transformation.  However, one must consider where this leaves individuals when they are asked to contribute ideas and participate in the implementation and evaluation of change practices in the face of recruiting freezes, downsizing and redundancy terminations.
The management of uncertainty must, therefore, be part and parcel of innovative practice in transformation. Public service managers are engaged in processes that demand a change in organizational culture and are underpinned by leadership and management development as well as shifts in core values in the workplace. Using a broad range of means to achieve change, management must try to align new ways of delivering services and simultaneously instil trust in a difficult environment. Governments are experiencing unprecedented people management challenges.

How then, do public service employees remain motivated when they may be in a state of hyper-vigilance regarding their futures? One way is to ensure that they clearly see the connection between their jobs and a new narrative that is emerging about government. Change managers worry whether public servants will contribute during difficult times and whether those who continue after reorganisation see themselves as survivors, more stressed and even less motivated. These questions surface in the course of reform processes and governments are increasingly convinced that employees must be onboard for transformation to work. To this end, a number of means to ensure employee involvement and to gain their inputs are being deployed. These include consultation, brainstorming sessions and the adoption of a new narrative with clear intentions, organizational values, as well as a meaningful and positive vision.
How does a change manager know if employees are truly engaged? Some have integrated mechanisms to measure engagement as a first step to understanding the degree to which employees care about their work and how this influences the effort they are willing to contribute. When such tools are used, it is important to also commit to following up on the issues that emerge and reassure employees that management is listening and is sincere in its efforts to be inclusive. Communication of this nature is increasingly entrenched in management strategy along with employee recognition policies and career planning to name a few options. Further, governments do well to remember that engagement is not only key to motivation but to retention as well.

According to a 2012 study entitled “Leading Cultural Change, Employee Engagement and Public Service Transformation”, carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in collaboration with the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), there are four drivers of employee engagement:
  • A compelling narrative - employee engagement levels are better where the focus is on citizen needs, where employees receive recognition and when the institution has focused on leadership development and communication;
  • A culture in the organization that is synonymous with integrity – leadership listens, follows up and is sincere in its efforts to be transparent and minimise pain ;
  • Leadership development – leadership training that fosters the types of behaviour required to deliver citizen-based services;
  • A voice for employee - the ability of employees to feed their views back to management 
These drivers or any single methodology of public service reform cannot, of course, be applied evenly from country to country. Commonwealth countries are at many different stages in this process and face a myriad of barriers to achieving success. While countries like Canada and Australia dealt with the legacy of British bureaucratic systems and have been actively pursuing the full spectrum of both citizen and public service engagement for the past decade or more, many developmental countries face a different reality. For them, societal and historical challenges related to political struggles, corruption, lack of accountability and a public service that is sometimes motivated by self-interest engender very different expectations and citizens and governments react accordingly. A few examples are given below.
India. For years, numerous attempts have been made to examine how the provision of public services can be improved in India. The combination of political and economic factors, such as corruption and poor service norms have at times, thwarted the process. In 2004, a service-based ICT improvement initiative (Chand, 2006) introduced in Maharashtra, India, provided a public service reform lesson for the country overall. Its success rested on an innovative leader, Dr. Nitin Kareer, who moved away from the traditional top- down approach and involved stakeholders in consultations, took culture into account, proceeded with organisational re-design and involved departmental employees in every stage of the project. The result was service-based reform that not only stuck, but affected cultural change in the workplace.

Seychelles. There have been recurrent calls from civil societies and international institutions for better working conditions including better pay packages for public sector workers to bring them to acceptable living standards.  As recently as 2013, the Seychelles leadership pointed out that the human resource is the most valuable asset that any country and any organisation can have. The country is adopting a fair remuneration scheme (Seychelles Nation, Dec. 20, 2013). Its aim is as much a vital move to ensure a motivated and effective public service as to attract and retain talent in the public service.
Jamaica. In 2011, the Government of Jamaica began addressing a number of longstanding structural weaknesses, which had posed barriers to recovery in the face of the global financial crisis of the time. Jamaica recognized that public sector reform would be key to the government’s ability to recover and sustain future growth. As Jamaican citizens are taxed in order to pay for the public service, the size of the bureaucracy becomes critical in terms of debt management. Further, Jamaicans had been expressing dissatisfaction with the performance of the public service for some time that implied that a review of past approaches to reform might be overdue. In an earnest effort to improve public service capacity and productivity, Jamaica has engaged in lesson- learning from the experiences of Canada, Ireland, Sweden and New Zealand in successful public sector reform and debt management (CaPRI, July 2011). Even more importantly, Jamaica has looked to experiences of policy failure and has reviewed the problems that have hindered reform in the past and how other countries have addressed them successfully.
These are just some examples of how countries are reacting to global trends in demographics, infrastructure requirements, fiscal emergencies, citizen expectations, and global events. Nations are dealing with operating models that are changing rapidly. They are recognising that a robust, effective and competent public service must be prepared to deal with models that are suited to the 21st Century, such as e-government, service integration, focus on human capital and public-private-partnerships. The shape of government is shifting. Collective wisdom, citizen expectations, partnering and networking are at the centre of innovative practice. Finally, transparency and accountability have never been as high a priority. Traditional government is being replaced with a combination of players that includes all levels of government, civil society, the private sector, the public sector and most especially citizens.
*This article was first printed in the Ministers Reference Book: Commonwealth 2014, published by Henley Media Group, June 2014

Leading Culture Change, Employee Engagement and Public Service Transformation, CIPD with PPMA, Nov. 2012

Leading Culture Change,  Championing better work and working, CIPD , May 2014

Rt. Hon. Francis Maude, MP speech: “Future of Government Services: 5 Public Service Reform Principles”, Dubai 2014

Driving Successful Employee Engagement: A Major Opportunity to Keep Public Sector Employees Connected and Committed, International Public Management association for Human resources, 2012

Reinventing Public Service Delivery in India: Selected Case Studies, edited by Vikram Chand, Sage Publications and The World Bank, 2006

New law addresses public service salary review, Seychelles Nation, Dec. 2013

Towards Public Sector Reform in Jamaica: What local an international experience tell us about successful public sector reform, Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), July 2011.