Government transformations in times of extraordinary change: Key considerations for public-sector leaders

Article by Scott Blackburn, Thomas Harrington, Andrea Vidler, and Brooke Weddle: “Enacting major change in large, matrixed government organizations is always a challenge, with the COVID-19 pandemic adding another layer of complexity. Although just 20 percent of public-sector transformations meet their objectives, an equal focus on improving both performance and organizational health improves the odds of success by as much as 79 percent.

Maintaining a dual focus on performance and organizational health (see sidebar, “Defining performance and organizational health”) is even more important during periods of immense change. Leaders in high-pressure situations and rapidly changing environments may find themselves focusing on performance and neglecting organizational health. The leadership team may not understand the full value of investing in organizational health, the right resources may not be allocated to it, or leaders may simply lack the capabilities and experience needed to address it. But when leaders fail to address organizational health, they fail to help their agencies reach their full potential for performance….

Define and implement a bold performance agenda

Government leaders are under intense pressure to rapidly deliver better performance for their constituents at a low cost—all within a high-stakes, often opaque environment of unprecedented change. Our experience indicates that the most successful transformations include the following four elements.

Aspirational goals. When leaders set goals that are aspirational—those that seek to achieve an organization’s full potential—performance gains are higher. Bold goals set using internal and external performance benchmarks force organizations to think differently and inspirationally and to move beyond the normal incrementalism that marks yearly budget planning or strategy setting. Once set, these aspirational goals can be shared widely and transparently across the organization—at employee town-hall meetings, in senior-leadership meetings, and on message boards and computer screens throughout the office—to increase buy-in and translate to clear and measurable bench­marks for all staff. Top leaders should also genuinely commit themselves and their organizations to achieving the targets.

Balanced portfolio of pragmatic initiatives. Aspirational goals will guide the changes to come. The best transformations provide opportunities for hundreds of people across the organization to identify and implement concrete performance improvements. Initiatives will help achieve the aspirational goals and can be filtered based on priority—What should we accomplish this quarter? What can we push to next quarter to ensure our focus remains on the top priorities?—and then tied to initiative owners who will drive them to completion. Senior leaders can then commit to supporting initiative owners as sponsors who remove roadblocks and coaches who expedite decision making.

Execution ‘engine.’ Leaders can set a series of regularly scheduled meetings, weekly or monthly, to focus on reviewing performance and results, taking care to go beyond progress on activities. This engine provides a regular and open channel for teams to elevate key issues, get to the heart of problems, and build a forum for low-stakes dialogue. The most successful organizations have a regular rhythm to these meetings and focus on reviewing whether teams are achieving results, what can be done to move faster and work more effectively, and what barriers need to be removed…(More)”.