How to Be An Effective Change Agent in Government

We’ve all been there. You confront a process, tool or template at work that you know could be better. You even know how to fix it. But, when you try to make the improvement, you hit a brick wall of bureaucracy and cultural aversion to change.

At today’s Government Innovators Virtual Summit, we heard from Carmen Medina, a retired Senior Federal Executive and author of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. After working in the CIA for several years, she used her experience as an internal change agent in government to help others become rebels at work, too.

In her work today, Medina said she often encounters a situation like the one above. She talks to potential changemakers all the time but, more often than hearing success stories, she hears laments like, “So I’m trying to make change but all I’m making is enemies.”

This is especially true in government where Medina says, “Orthodoxy is common and strong.” So how do you break that cycle of resistance to change, without sabotaging your career? Medina offered five strategies to become a more effective change agent:

Strategy #1: Align with status quo values

Medina admitted that, “real radicals often don’t want to hear this one.” Nevertheless, it’s essential to align your ideas with the status quo values of your organization.

“Trying to change the value system of an organization is very difficult, especially if you aren’t in leadership yet,” Medina explained. “Instead, try to find an adjacency. If you link your idea, it won’t be such a shell shock to everyone else.”

For this tip, Medina offered an example from her own experience in the public sector. Early in her tenure at CIA, she tried to advance the idea that the Internet was important to the agency’s future. But she met resistance because she was arguing for a “theological change from the secret information mindset of the agency.”

After realizing her messaging was accruing more resistance than acceptance, Medina pivoted to align with the agency’s view of information. Instead, she sold digital transmission as a way to be more secure in how they sent information. “As soon as I made that connection, it was so much easier to advance the argument because it was aligned to their values,” Medina said.

Strategy #2: Find and make allies

“The volume of your supporters is more important than the purity of your idea,” Medina said. “You want to get as many allies as you possibly can to support your idea.”

The more support you have for an idea, the less likely it will be for leaders to pushback without at least hearing it out. Plus, you’ll have an easier time crafting your idea into a well-honed strategy if you have more perspectives in its creation.

For this tip, Medina added a bit of caution. While it might be easier to gain supporters at the onset of an idea, it’s tougher to keep them onboard if you don’t share the credit with them. “Move at a speed that keeps your supporters on board,” Medina said. Be careful not to lose them because you’re too determined to maintain a high speed.”

Strategy #3: Navigate the bureaucratic landscape

But to really effect change, you’ll need to do more than just gain supporters. According to Medina, you need to get the right supporters on your team. “Learn all the different creatures you find in bureaucracy,” she said.

In many cases, making sure you follow the right channels and speak to the right people can help you further an idea. For instance, Medina recommended finding the people who are tied to decision makers so you can get their ideas about how to address those leaders before you pitch an idea.

Not sure where to start in a complex government filled with departments and leaders? Medina said budget or executive offices are great places to learn the ropes of how the bureaucracy of government works. “Then when you go back to where your passion lives, you’ll be all the more effective in making change,” she said.

Alternatively, seek people who have significant experience in your agency and ask them things like “When have you seen change be effective here? How did it work?” That will help you hone your change strategy to the bureaucracy of your agency.

Strategy #4: Tell stories that appeal to emotions

“Sometimes we get uber rationale,” admitted Medina. That’s where you lay out facts that support your idea without thinking about connections with your audience.

While it helps to have data on your side, “Telling stories to appeal to emotions is a more effective way of gaining supports and getting your point across,” Medina said.

She suggests coming up with an emotional tagline for your change effort that connects people to the idea in a more visceral way. They’re more likely to remember that connection than the details of your idea.

Strategy #5: Master the meeting

Last, make sure you’re presenting that emotional appeal in an effective manner. “Every change agent wants an audience where they can gain support and give their idea more life,” said Medina. To gain that support, you’ll want to foster interaction with people, rather than just speaking at them.

Medina cautions against assuming the “know-it-all complex” where you speak for most of a meeting and fail to engage with others. In fact, she recommended speaking for no more than one third of an idea presentation. Take the rest of the time to answer questions and engage with potential supporters.

“Always approach it as an opportunity to make allies,” Medina concluded. That’s the real secret to becoming a change agent – recruit supporters and keep them emotionally engaged in your idea.

This blog post is a recap of a session from GovLoop’s recent Government Innovators Virtual Summit. For more coverage, head here.

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Carmen A. Medina


I don’t know why I didn’t see this when you first put it out, but it is a really nice summary of my ideas. Many thanks for doing this.