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Effective change management

Posted on from Abelard

Managing change is reported to be the biggest Challenge facing the public sector and that the public sector has to overcome issues of poor communications, greater bureaucracy, less control over their teams and lack of clarity in their roles which then affects wellbeing of staff and employee performance. So how can HR play its part in shaping the landscape of public sector organisations and manage change effectively? Sue Wardle advises.

Lack of communication

With the current focus on public spending cuts, inevitably attention will turn to job cuts, and getting more out of existing resources. The public sector has a reputation for not focusing on cost efficiency and lacks experience on how to manage it well.

As a consultant, I work with clients from across the public and private sectors undergoing periods of fundamental changes to their organisations. The key to managing any change programme successfully is communication, and yet this is the one area that is never done well enough, in either the private or public sector.

Differences between public and private sector

A recent article in the Financial Times ( quoted a figure of £18bn spent every year on ‘back office’ services – a key target for public sector cuts. The article goes on to say that £4bn of savings per year could be found – but this will not be easy or quick.
The public sector exists to provide services required by members of society. Cost management is important but has not been influenced by shareholders or competitors, so often the disciplines associated with the need to make a profit – including cost efficiency – are not as strong in the public sector.

Another difference is that public services can be used as a political football, with many initiatives imposed by a new minister or government at the same time, but without consideration of the combined impact further down the line. For instance, in the NHS, three initiatives happening at the same time have seen the Working Time Directive reduce doctors’ hours, changes in specialist training result in less experienced junior doctors and UK immigration rules reduce the available pool of overseas doctors. The result has been significant pressure on the existing resources.

There is no doubt that the public sector recession has started, and that job cuts and budget cuts are a reality. The Challenge for the public sector is to manage the changes so that the service is not adversely affected and, importantly, so that the impact of the remaining staff is minimised.

Impact of change management underestimated

There are some common problems that occur with projects, regardless of sector. When we start work with a client at Abelard, we always stress the importance of considering the negative impact on morale. Many people undergoing a period of change feel out of control and uncertain about their own future, which may lead to the loss of key people, reduced effectiveness, and increased absence from work.

Projects can be derailed by unforeseen events, or the expected Benefits can be diluted by the impact of other change initiatives.

Often in the public sector several layers of management exist within one organisation, meaning that there can be less clarity of who is accountable, and therefore responsible for delivery. This is exacerbated if there is more than one agency involved. The result can be slipping deadlines, additional meetings - leading to frustration.

Create change agents

If there is one message to take away and do differently it is to communicate, communicate, communicate. In my experience of change management programmes this is one aspect that is very rarely done well enough and yet can make an enormous difference to the success of the project.

The most successful projects are those that have the understanding of the people most affected by it – the people who will have to live with the change and pick up the extra work. If you don’t bring them along with you on the journey they will likely kick back at the solution and make it hard to implement.

Better communication will not only bring people with you but will also improve the quality of your project. By having better conversations with stakeholders and those who will be affected by the initiative, your project plans will be more complete and realistic. By connecting with other change programmes, unforeseen events will be reduced.

The change management journey

Those people involved in or impacted by a change initiative need to go through the change journey. It can help to think of this process as the 5Cs.

  • It starts with the stakeholders becoming conscious of the need for change (even if they don’t agree with it).
  • Then feeling able to have their say and have their issues listened to by having conversations.
  • This will evolve into helping to shape the change by working together towards the common aim or co-operating. At this point the stakeholders can be advocates, even if they don’t agree with the reason for the change.

For many projects this is enough, however for the most successful the final 2Cs will be evident:

  • There is trust that the change is being effectively and fairly implemented even if there is some negative impact - working relationships forge into collaborations.
  • The change in approach becomes a cohesive part of the working culture and processes, after the change has been implemented.

However this journey does not happen on its own, it has to be enabled. Generally that’s where an external consultant or experienced project manager comes in. An external company or dedicated internal manager can help this process happen smoothly and successfully.

Plan the communication

At the start of the change programme, identify the stakeholders and decide how regularly they need to be updated. They will include those directly involved in implementing the change, those who will be affected by the change, and others who need to be kept informed. Don’t forget to include customers or suppliers. Then determine your communication strategy, determine the priority and importance of each stakeholder, summarise their interests and keep a record of their key issues and plan your management and communication approach for each group.

For some, a weekly face-to-face discussion might be necessary while for others a monthly email update will be sufficient.

As the project gets off the ground, involve stakeholders in the process as far as possible – explain the need for the project, solicit feedback, understand their different perspectives and accommodate them where possible.

Most importantly manage expectations and be honest – few people like change, especially when it affects their job. As far as possible quash rumours, and tell the truth, even if the truth is that you don’t have an answer yet. This will help to build trust and faith that the project is being competently and fairly managed.

Clear, timely and frequent communication with all stakeholders throughout the process Results in a workforce and community which understands the reasons for change, feels involved in the solution, knows what is expected and by when, and feels able to cope with the resulting uncertainty.

Defined roles, chain of command & risk management

Of course communication on its own is not enough. Set clear objectives, this will help with the communication and to explain ‘why we are doing it’. It provides a stake in the ground that makes evaluation of possible solutions easier and provides a measure of success – did the project achieve what it set out to do?

Good planning is obvious but vital to ensure deadlines are achievable, to understand the impact of any slippage and it will help with managing expectations of your stakeholders. In one case, a project that we reviewed was perceived as failing by the impacted community. This was because the project team were too busy communicating their progress in a way that worked for the stakeholders. Once this was done the perception changed.

There should be clear accountability, a project or change manager with oversight of all elements, and an owner for each action in the plan who is responsible for its resolution. I would recommend that the key roles and chain of command are documented at the outset and agreed by the steering group. This is especially important if there are a number of parties involved in implementing the change, and will save a debate later about whose fault it was that something was missed. It means that key tasks are less likely to fall through the cracks, and ultimately make the project easier to manage.

Another area that is often poorly managed is risk management. Unexpected problems will always occur, no matter how well the initiative is planned. Risk management simply means taking time at the outset to consider what they might be, how likely they are and how much impact they would have should they occur. This process also means that possible solutions are considered rationally and objectively when all is calm. Risks should include the people issues and should be monitored and added to regularly.

Smooth changeover

Change is rarely smooth, but it is an increasingly regular feature of the workplace. It is easy to become ‘change’ fatigued and lose any goodwill from the workforce, however if managed well it will result in a real change in practice and culture that will be an investment for future change initiatives.


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