Public servants are tired of change-washing — not change

people at a conference

Written by Thea Snow, Senior Programme Manager for Government Innovation, Nesta, &, Abe Greenspoon, Organisational Health Lead, Statistics Canada

Change-washing (noun): the process of introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture.

If you were to look up the word “change-washing” in the Oxford English dictionary, you wouldn’t find it. That’s because we made it up. But it seems to us to be a helpful word to describe the experience of many public sector employees.

People in government often talk about “change fatigue”. This is generally interpreted to mean that everyone is tired of change. In fact, our experience working in and around the public sector in Australia, Canada and the UK, suggests that many people are tired of a lack of change.

Public sector employees are simultaneously exhausted by the constant superficial tweaks to systems and services that require retraining and relearning – but, fundamentally, change nothing – and frustrated by a lack of meaningful, deep change.

Acknowledging that two forms of change exist – superficial tweaks (Type A change) and deep, sustained reforms (Type B change) – helps to frame the notion of change-washing, which so often frustrates those who are truly committed to reforming the public service.

Change-washing occurs when public sector reforms are represented as Type B change, but are, in reality, Type A change.

We set out some examples below.

Example 1: Data analytics

Across the world, data analytics is being heralded as a tool that will change the way public services are designed and delivered.

However, while data analytics can offer extremely valuable insights, it can only bring about Type A change when applied in isolation. This is because, while data answers “What’s happening?”, it doesn’t answer the more important question of “Why is this happening?”

For example, while data-analytics tools might help social workers identify which children are most at risk of being removed from their families, it does not help social workers understand the root causes that have contributed to these children being at risk in the first place.

As this previous blog argues, while data analytics can be very effective at optimising existing systems (for example, supporting social workers to make faster, more accurate decisions), it offers very little in terms of revealing deeper insights into the system’s underlying deficiencies and addressing those.

For this reason, any claims that data analytics can, on its own, do more than optimise existing systems, is change-washing.

Example 2: Change management

A second example is the promises that have been made in the field of change management. John Kotter’s Leading Change has been the most influential work in this field. Kotter uses an eight-step process that ends with “anchoring new approaches in the culture”.

This is the world of top-down transformation managed with gantt charts and dashboards. This idea of a well-organised, predictable and planned process that ends with us anchored in a “new way” is tempting to believe, but we believe the approach is frustratingly flawed.

For large organisations, these kinds of transformations can take several years, resulting in new static organisations. The problem is that, with the rapid changes we’re seeing in the world these days, by the time these transformations are complete, the “new way” will likely be the “old way” and we’re back to square one.

“In the public sector, traditional forms of change management have ultimately just led to frustration and, too often, they’re used as just another form of change-washing”

In the public sector, traditional forms of change management have ultimately just led to frustration and, too often, they’re used as just another form of change-washing.

Example 3: Methods vs mindsets

For those interested in public sector reform, there are great tools and methods emerging to support the innovation process (see, for example, Nesta’s 20 Tools for Innovating in Government). However, these methods can lead to change-washing, if applied in a superficial way.

As they grow in popularity, more short courses are popping up purporting to “teach” these methods in as little as a few hours. Yet framing these methods as tools that can be mastered in a three-hour short course and then applied in an organisation to solve problems is to miss the point.

Properly applied, these methods are actually better framed as mindsets. They are approaches that take practice, reflection and years to master. They are also approaches that must be lived and breathed – not simply pulled out of a toolkit and applied in a random context. To treat them otherwise is to use them in a way that can only be characterised as change-washing.

So what should we do?

Bringing public sector (and all other) legacy organisations in line with the future of work will require us to spend more time and go deeper. There are no quick fixes for organisational change. As usual, talk is cheap and real change will require more hefty withdrawals.

We appreciate the Government of Canada’s Beyond 2020 initiative, with its focus on mindsets and behaviours, which we think sets the right tone at the top.

Even better, Toby Lowe’s work on practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity, and his vision towards human learning systems, gives us more depth in terms of how our organisations might look in the future.

And, best of all, Nesta, with its skills, attitudes and behaviours that fuel public innovation and Kelly Duggan’s advice about the practice of reflection, gives us some practical tools at the local level that we can use to get started. This deepest and most practical space is where we need to focus our energy.

Our organisations are systems — often very large ones — that are being run by humans. As such, they are complex and they are adaptive. This means that the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive.

In this context, we believe real, genuine change takes individual and group dedication at local levels. It requires occasional insurgency, habitual reflection and constant learning. In other words, teams need to become evolutionary entities that deeply practise new ways of working and are constantly changing.

“Teams often have much more agency than they think to effect local change. To do so, they must identify what’s not working and begin to practise new ways that do”

Teams often have much more agency than they think to effect local change. To do so, they must identify what’s not working and begin to practise new ways that do.

Teams can practise new ways of meeting; work radically in the open; explore trust and psychological safety; and discuss authority and decision-making, and explore new models for both. These are things you can have influence on and are the foundations for deep, sustained change (Type B).

As Aaron Dignan, author of Brave New Work, put it recently: “Teams need to do radical things at a non-radical scale, rather than doing non-radical things at a radical scale.”

Far from creating change fatigue, this type of local and meaningful change is energising, empowering and the sort of change we so desperately need.

Originally posted on Apolitical here

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