Government employees are impacted by frequent transition, but not necessarily frequent change. I know, that seems counterintuitive. How can one occur more often than the other? Aren’t they the same thing? Transition and change are used synonymously, but they have slightly different meanings.
Transition – To make a transition; passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another; a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another. (Merriam Webster)
Change – To become different; to replace with another. (Merriam Webster)
So, transition is more about the Process of change. And, Change is the end result.
Barriers to Government Change
Deep tradition of program turf-protection-
People who have worked in their program area for years are wed to their processes and are likely resistant to change. Many feel a deep connection to their established day-to-day process and perceive change as a threat to their specific job. Change might also be seen as a decrease in their value as an employee or for their program.
Employee labor unions serve an important role in supporting and protecting government employees, but contract language can make achieving change harder. For instance, an employee in a certain job classification shouldn’t do work that’s considered above their level, or outside of their scope. But, when people are free to explore and push beyond their skill-level, change is often the outcome. Resistance can also come from those who are more senior and feel their toes are being stepped on.
The executive branch receives budget approval from the legislative branch. Because of this, the election cycle means funding could be cut or reduced from one year to the next. Also, funds can be allotted for new legislative initiatives, but then pulled together by a shift in legislative member priorities. Transitioning through new leadership priorities may happen fairly regularly, but seeing them through to the end result (change) is often stymied by funding issues.
A high percentage of government employees are retirement-eligible, with many of them having worked in the public sector their entire careers. They have seen many transitions, with a few real changes along the way. But, some have done their work the same way for their entire careers. I fully expect that new, younger government employees will proactively push for change and will not tolerate the status quo.
Making Change Stick
What can we do to make real change happen in government? Quicker adaptability and more flexibility will need to occur at all levels of government. Labor unions must find ways to allow more flexibility with worker roles that allow for growth in responsibilities. We can’t sustain a “not my job” mentality, supported by rigid job classification restrictions.
We need to do a better job of communicating internally about the “small wins.” Successful change should be lauded and modeled. Strong and regular messaging about the positive aspects of agency change can help win over a few of the skeptics.
Ensure employees have dedicated time to support the change, as well as to measure the outcomes, and suggest other changes.
Make sure your agency builds a culture of learning and collaboration. Both of these values make employees feel safe to explore and question the status quo. The only way real change can happen is when people feel free to push the boundaries and create new pathways to change.
Additional reading on this topic: https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/change-goes-better-staff-feel-appreciated/
Kimberly Nuckles is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.