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8 Tips for Changing Culture in the Federal Government

There are so many long-running projects in government that have failed to gain traction or reach full implementation. When leadership sits down to figure out why, one of the top reasons (outside of cost overruns and missed deadlines) tends to be culture, or the necessity of culture change.

Of course, that’s a pretty big undertaking. So, where do you start? How can you start making change? What’s most important? Below is a collection of culture change tips from a variety of sources.

  1. Recognize that your people aren’t the problem: Government employees are awesome. Sure, you have some that are just putting in their time, but most come to government to affect change and help people. Their motivation isn’t the issue. So don’t treat culture change like your people are the problem—paying them more, constantly offering rewards, all of those types of programs won’t make them different people. Instead, you have to change the environment within which they are working.
  2. Embrace ever-changing leadership: Don’t make it an excuse. Make it an opportunity to promote culture change that transcends shifts at the top. When you have a different leader every four years (or more), employees have a tendency to get stuck in a belief that the new initiatives and the excitement that comes with them, won’t last. So, if they just put their heads down and do their work, eventually one initiative will go away and the next one will start. When you start working toward culture change, explain to everyone why it is necessary now; link your explanation to your customers and their wants and needs. Next, set the boundaries within which your team/agency/department will now be operating. Link this to your customers by offering tangible ways to measure each person’s performance and how that relates to the customer’s desired outcomes. Explain (and continue to show by example) that the new way of doing business applies to everyone. Hold yourself accountable to the new culture while holding employees accountable. Celebrate and recognize accomplishments, and use mistakes or unwillingness as teaching moments.
  3. Know your customers: Who are your customers? What do they want? What would they consider successful service from or interaction with your agency? Don’t implement culture change by anecdote, instead, collect data on your customers (internal or external). Look at this data against your organization’s mission. This leads to…
  4. Change your language: Use the intrinsic desires of your employees to implement culture change by speaking in terms of outcomes for your customers. Instead of having performance metrics that solely link to the job of the employee (i.e. came in on time, performed X tasks per day, completed a report by deadline) create measures that align with your mission. Some of these can be difficult. But think about what your customers want and how you can improve that. At the end of the year, can you improve customer satisfaction by 10%? 20%? What would it take to get there?
  5. Don’t wait for forced change: If you see a place for improvement within your culture, change now instead of trying to implement quick changes in response to a problem.
  6. Make change a group activity: Culture change is an easier sell when it happens among co-workers, rather than coming from the top down. So, give your employees the opportunity to be creative and offer the opportunity to help redesign work processes, organizational structure, etc. Dan Beard, a former commissioner of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation, took his position in 1993 noting that he wanted to create a more exciting place to work and an overall better organization. He did this by working creatively and involving his employees, even though it meant doing more work with less money and fewer people. He consolidated field offices, cut employees, reduced the layers of management, cut the number of SES positions, helped remove unnecessary regulations, and reduced the number of senior officials. He did this all with the support of teams of employees that he encouraged to redesign the culture of the organization. And he listened to and responded to all of the suggestions he received.
  7. Take risks: Here’s a great quote from Mikey Dickerson, administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, in an interview with Government Technology: “The government perceives risk differently … government agencies tend to say and be proud of the stance that they’re very risk averse and can’t afford to let anything go wrong. But like most private companies — even when they’re just kidding with themselves — they see themselves as being risk takers … government [officials] tend to feel that if they do things the way they’ve always been done, then that’s a low-risk approach. And they still feel this way even though the way they’ve done things in the past has led to bad outcomes again and again. Whereas [in the private sector], there was always a kind of default attitude of trying to do something new. In the end, both types of approaches have about the same amount of risks and they fail a decent amount of time. When you try something hard that’s always going to be the case, they just look at the risk and reward trade-off differently.”
  8. Don’t sacrifice speed for quality: Culture change is difficult and time consuming. But it isn’t worth speeding it along without making the case for it, involving your employees, or vetting various ideas, because the change won’t stick.

What are your tips for implementing culture change?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great tips! I would recommend making change social. Use social networks, hold town-halls and web conferences, and make the change very visible – posters, etc. Culture change requires 100% participation to be effective, so socialize it continuously using a variety of media to reach everyone, especially your field employees.