Does The Government “Chew Up People Who Drive Change?”

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This topic contains 22 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Peter Sperry 7 years, 10 months ago.

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  • #168881

    Time (August 30) has an article about two Feds who tried to introduce efficiency into the system, working to eliminate unproductive staff and unnecessary layers of approval, only to be punished in the end.

    It concludes:

    “As long as government chews up people who drive change, it will attract people who embrace the status quo.” (Full article here)

    (Cross-posted from the FCN Group at LinkedIn; feds only there, please)

    Does the government inherently punish change agents? Or are some more successful than others – and why?

  • #168925

    Peter Sperry

    No, I do not think government inherently punishes change agents. Some agencies and offices might but government is not monolythic. (nor is it the one thing we all belong to!!) The Federal government employs several million people spread across several thousand departments, agencies and offices. Statistics 101 teaches that with number this large, measuring any particular characteristic will produce a bell curve of results. Some people and offices will be in the upper range, some in the lower and most spread through the middle. In general, I think most government personnel and organizations skew slightly towards the higher ranges but we need to learn how to operate productively dealing with people and organizations across the entire bell curve.

    Most organizations, government or private sector, resist change agents because they are often chasing the latest fad or seeking change merely for the sake of chang with no real return on investment. But resistance rarely actually involves punishment and change agents who do thier homework, demonstrate the positive potential of their proposals, develop a track record of demonstrated results and work with the system to change the system are often more successful than we realize.

    Finally, I am not sure the two examples cited here make the point very well. Regardless of the quality of their work or results produced, an appointee who tries to evade statute or regulation for any reason will not be around long. This fact is one of the first items discussed in the ethics briefings for new Schedule C appointees and I am sure PAS appointees get the same instructions. Appointees are encouraged to recomend changes to regulations but until those changes are adopted, they work within existing rules or risk losing their jobs. Trying to end run the personel regulations to hire a new deputy and then complaining the ever unspecific, unidentifiable “they” were out to get me will not elicit any sympathy when standing in the Chief of Staff’s office. The same sort of dynamic applies to senior career executives signing off on and attending the most embarresing event the agency has had to explain for the past decade. People who reach that level are expected to have a certain amount of common sense. Failure to utilize it has consequences.

  • #168923

    Pamela Corey

    I think Peter is right in saying that not all agencies/offices punish change agents but I believe some do.

  • #168921

    Mark Hammer

    From what the article conveys, Claire Johnson was not merely a go-getter from the private sector. She appears to have been not especially astute in: a) understanding the difference between the private and public sector, and b) the area of change management. That is not to say that nothing needed to be changed. Rather, there are ways to do it, and ways to do it, and what one person views as cutting the Gordian knot may well be Samson pushing the pillars out. Don’t complain when the temple falls down on your head.

    Stated another way, one of the least effective ways of achieving buy-in and co-operation is to tell people bluntly “Everything you know, believe, and do, is all wrong”. Government does not “chew up people who drive change”, but it does frown heavily on those who confuse furnishing good guidance and persuasive advice with grabbing the steering wheel.

    Make note: unlike businesses, government was there long before you arrived, and will still be there long after you’ve gone. Their ways may not be the most efficient, but it is the highly complex ecosystem in which those ways have evolved.

  • #168919

    Jeff S

    I worked for a manager who was only interested in his own ideas. He would completely ignore those with opposing views. Incidentally that is why I was sent to another division. All is well though my new boss is always looking for ways to make changes and listens to all ideas even some far fetched items that actually worked.

  • #168917

    I don’t think the government inherently punishes change agents. But I can’t get something out of my head, that somebody said to me a long time ago. I mentioned that I wanted to apply for a promotion when it became available and this person said, and I quote – “Get in line.” Meaning, there is an informal respect for time served, and whether you’re qualified or not, the person who’s been here longer has privileges.

    These are the kinds of things that change agents run up against, especially younger or newer ones. They come into the system, immediately see the dysfunction, and expect that “logic” will set things right. They don’t get that there is a lot more going on, and a lot at stake for people.

    The first person in the article was a political appointee which introduces a layer of complexity to the story – the career civil servant vs. the political appointee operate in two different circles. It it is not unusual for career civil servants to get the vibe that politicals think they’re sort of stupid, backward, lazy bureaucrats vs. the politicals get the vibe from the civil servants that “we will wait you out.” So the challenge for the “political” is very much to respect the ecosystem and not act like a bull in a china shop. And indeed, according to the post, she had a “secret mission” to get rid of feds – so what would you expect?

    The second person in the article was from the private sector and moved quickly to implement change, but was not sensitive to the perception of the public regarding government waste (or was, but attended the conference anyway). At that level – as an executive – he should have known better. There it looks like there was a culture of excess, he got caught up in it, and didn’t do enough to respond, for which he was held accountable.

    Everybody here makes good points – do your homework, respect the process, respect the people, don’t try to change the inflexible. Every incident is different and requires a different calculus about how to drive change.

    What I’ve found is that there are always going to be people who resist constructive change – some by not doing anything, others by mildly resisting, still others by ferociously organizing to keep the status quo intact. But the more you stay focused on a goal that is genuinely helpful – the more you include other people in the process in a meaningful way and not as a pretense – the more you are willing to adjust based on real conditions – the less you need credit – and the more persistent you are – then the more likely you are to be effective in making necessary change happen.

  • #168915

    James E Lytle

    I started working for the government just under 3.5 years ago. In that time, I have come to realize that the agency for which I work probably cannot be reformed. Waste and mismanagement is standard operating procedure where I work; and my working to change that norm seems to inevitably lead to nothing but grief and long hours with no real reward. Today, I heard a manager of a project, on which I have worked 50-hour weeks, steadily, over the past five months, tell the incompetent contractor supporting the project, that my expectations of the contractor were unreasonable. She revealed that the Deputy Director of the Agency, wanted a report written in such a way that I am fairly certain cannot be defended, based on the facts. What that woman said I expected of the Contractor in that conversation, to which she apparently did not know I was privy, was absolutely untrue; and since I have caught her in out and out lies several times over the course of the past months, I wonder if she was accurately representing the “wishes” of the Deputy Director. Then again, the Deputy Director has allowed that woman to manage a few, similar projects; and all of them have been dismal failures, and hugely wasteful. Millions have gone out for absolutely no benefit to the agency or its mission.

    All I have been working to accomplish with that contractor is to get good, solid, and defensible work from it; but instead the agency will now get work that will eventually embarrass the agency, and bring down the wrath of our Inspector General and the Congress upon the agency, yet again.

    I don’t know about most of the government, but I have now spent time at two smaller government agencies, working to correct bad business policies, practices; and procedures; and in both of those experiences, I have “enjoyed” the experience of having my efforts undermined by middle-level managers who were allowed to sabotage the reforms.

    Until Civil Servants start to understand that this hatred of the government, with which we all have to deal, is directly due to how horribly that many of those Civil Servants fail to perform; until Civil Servants start to understand that that our fellow citizens see waste and incompetence within government, and hate us, working for the government is going to become less and less rewarding.

    In my opinion, the WeBes described in the article are truly evil people, and I don’t think they should not be allowed to keep their jobs. That man who hid his face in the newspaper every time Ms. Johnson approached should be fired. With civil servants like the ones described in the article, and like the woman running the projects at my agency, true reform of government agencies will never be accomplished. Maybe those who are advocates for waste and mismanagement are not the norm across the government; but my experience tells me that they are, and that Civil Servants are lazy, self-important, selfish louts, who will eventually alienate the entire country

    I feel “chewed up” this evening, as I write this. Tomorrow, I will go into the office, complete my tasks, turn in my work, and on Monday I will move on to work on some other project at the agency. Oh, and tomorrow I interview for a job outside the government.

  • #168913

    David Dejewski

    I will ask the question from another angle: Does the government reward change agents?
    I think it would be interesting to line up anecdotal evidence in the form of a specific list of change agents who have been rewarded vs change agents who have been punished. We’ll never get a good list, but which list might we think would weigh more at the end of the day if we could?
    How about this one: Does the government train, coach, or otherwise encourage change agents?
    Or just noodling here: Does the government coordinate change agents? After all, two or more change initiatives acting on the same space tends to cause conflict, does it not?

  • #168911

    I wasn’t expecting to see such an honest comment, James. I just want to say that I applaud you for being brave enough to tell your story. Also that it would be a terrible loss to government for a dedicated employee with integrity to leave. That means the bad apples spoil the whole barrel!

    If economically and mentally possible stay and fight the good fight. Most people genuinely want to do the right thing and that includes the Federal Government.

    This is why venues like GovLoop are so important. As David points out let’s make a list of what works and doesn’t work and then train each other to drive positive change. More important let’s get leaders at a high level to join the conversation and become evangelists themselves.

    I never thought I would work for the government but now that I am here, it has become like a cause to me. We are who the American public turns to in time of crisis and for basic needs alike. We do a lot of things well – others not do much. But if we don’t take an active role in shaping how the civil service works, we will be prone to the kind of systemic issues you describe. If we lose the trust and confidence of the people we will become irrelevant and eventually get replaced.

    So while it is painful to read your story it gives me hope. If we can drain the wound and bandage it we can avoid surgery or amputation so to speak.

    As for what happened I hope you report it officially.

  • #168909

    Eric Ryan Pace
  • #168907

    David Dejewski

    Eric – I’m going to challenge your comment, not because I don’t agree with it, but because I think there is an important relationship between the individual and the institution that individuals act on and in.
    When we sign up for military duty, for example, we do so with the understanding that we will live and potentially die by a set of rules called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). We learn that otherwise minor offenses in the civilian setting, like falling asleep on the job, can be punishable by death in a wartime situation.
    What the institution has “done” in this case, is motivate individuals to stay awake while they’re on watch (and others lives depend on them). They did this by establishing a set of rules, prescriptive actions if the rules are broken, training trainers, drafting contracts that require signature, and maintaining a standing military judicial and penal system that judges and enforces the law.
    The civil service system also has an ecosystem of rules, enforcement mechanism, support structures, training, etc. OGE 450’s and the systems that support these documents, are an example of a system a civil servant lives within.
    When we make a claim that every civil servant has an affirmative duty to do X… I wonder what exists within the civil service system to support that claim. Is it in the PD? The Joint Ethics Regulation (JER)? The civil service handbook? Orientation? Ongoing training?
    If the government hasn’t established a support system around a concept, then I agree that it doesn’t “do” anything about it. It is silent on the issue. Individuals are left to battle over opinions – which frankly don’t hold up well or for very long in a Byzantine bureaucracy.
    If we talk about affirmative action, and I ask people to provide evidence that the government supports the program, we’d quickly produce a list with regulations, training opportunities, mandatory training, marketing materials, legal watchdogs, Congressional testimony, a history of putative actions, etc.
    When we talk about individuals as change agents, we get what?
    When we talk about individual responsibility to ID and eliminate “WeBe’s,” what do we get?
    I can point out a bunch of statutory references to change, transformation, etc. But they are at an impossibly high level, unevenly executed, unreliable interpreted, physically changed (from what was “too hard to do” to what we think we can safely report on), uncoordinated, and generally unsupported by the support structures I mentioned earlier. Looking closely at the systems at work within government, this might make one think that the government doesn’t take them as seriously as some other programs.
    What does the government do (or have programmed within it’s various mechanisms) to support change agents?

  • #168905

    Peter Sperry

    If it were ever properly implemented, the Government Performance and Results Act should empower change agents. First, they could provide input to the strategic plan regarding selection of organizational goals. Second, they could suggest meaningful performance measures. Third, they could help align goals and activities so they are mutually reinforcing. Next, they could provide input to the annual plan about how programs and projects could operate most effectively to support the goals in the Strategic Plan. They could help integrate the annual plan with the organizations budget request and help show how resources requested will produce results promised. During preparation of the annual report, they could discuss lessons learned and what changes may be required to improve organizational results. Essentially GPRA was intentionally designed by the legislative staff who drafted it (I knew some of them) as a mechanism to organize, focus and support change within the executive branch that could eventually deliver better quality results at less cost to the taxpayer. Unfortunately, they never got buy-in from either the Appropriators or the career leadership in the executive branch. Consequently, GPRA has become more of a paperwork drill than a meaningful tool. But the potential remains if people will use it as designed.

  • #168903

    David Dejewski

    Peter – I agree with your assessment of GPRA. That worthy instrument started with the 103rd Congress almost 10 years ago (1993). I believe that like Clinger Cohen (1996), the Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (1999) and the Defense Business Transformation effort (as described in the original version of 10USC2222), it’s still full of “should’s,””could’s,” failure to get buy-in,”potential,” missing critical elements, and a perception of being “a paperwork drill.” What’s missing?

    There are a few ways to kill a raptor (an extremely efficient predatory bird):

    1. You can shoot it, trap it or poison it. Each of these techniques can be pretty messy – especially if the press is watching. Not politically advisable.
    2. You can starve it by withholding resources. This can take a while, is also pretty obvious, and also not politically advisable.
    3. You can starve it by setting it free, wishing it well, and giving it a half-dozen rabbits to chase. The hawk that chases six rabbits at once catches none.

    Have we got something that’s worked? I don’t mean on a limited, one-off basis. I mean worked to reward, train, coach, coordinate or otherwise encourage or sustain change agents.

  • #168901

    What works, in government:

    1. Drawing on change agents in a local environment to solve a local problem innovatively. Example: CBP’s Small Vessel Reporting System, which started as a pilot in Florida. I worked on the outreach for the project, which is critical when you consider the potential threat a terrorist can do with hidden WMD in a small boat, where they might leave the U.S., pick up a weapon, then try to come back in “under the radar.”

    2. Appointing change agents as leaders. Leaders, for all their human frailties, are normally extraordinarily driven workaholics who are literally unable to fail. There is something inside them that motivates them to persist no matter what. The problem comes when they get scared. But when they are confident and charging toward a noble goal, people are drawn to that and they will follow.

    3. Putting change agents in charge of social media, especially YouTube because this is a medium most people can follow and comment on. Government words are usually too complicated and too negotiated for the average person to understand.

    4. Letting change agents find ways to engage the average citizen – through media they can easily use, like texting or telephoning. Example: See Something, Say Something (also coordinated between public sector, private sector, local, etc.)

    5. Putting change agents in charge of cross-functional initiatives like cooperation between the public sector, private sector, academia and NGOs – nationally and internationally. Example: human trafficking, anti-counterfeiting.

    6. Establishing a real and transparent process for change agents to submit and then follow up on ideas.

    7. Instituting training for people in change management – how to initiate then maintain change. This could take the form of coaching. You would be surprised how often the stupidest things get in the way of the most significant game-changers. If you know ahead of time what works and what doesn’t you can eliminate years of frustration. Example: Sharepoint is incredibly good for workflow, but the word “workflow” scared me. So I asked someone at work to show me. I told her about my word block and she said to call it “playflow.” Now I can deal with Sharepoint.

    8. Supporting change agents with a team of people who can support them in action. Normally there are people who are good at building and people who are good at maintaining, people who are technical and people who are social, and all of them are needed to make change stick.

  • #168899

    I think this needs to be a separate post so others can add their ideas.

  • #168897

    OK it’s up, here so we can build a list.

  • #168895


    There are a couple of issues with “change” in the Federal government.

    1) In many cases, leaders are judged by the change that they implement. In one of the agencies I worked for, leaders were in and out of a leadership position within ~2 years. Long enough to look at what the last person mandated, deem it a failure, blame the last guy, write up their own plan for “change,” get it approved, see it about 40% of the way through, get moved on to the next post, and blame the guy that followed for not doing it right. Rinse and repeat. Things in the government take time and too often, an innovation isn’t given the room to breathe to find out whether or not it should be solidified into a new way of doing business (with the accompanying SOPs, policies, lessons learned, best practices, etc) before another reorganization/restructuring/change plan is introduced. So you get a lot of superficial changes – desk swap, title revision, role redefinition – and not a lot a lot of fundamental shifts in the way business is done.

    2) As others have pointed out, there is a reason why things are the way they are in Government. Maybe those reasons are no longer valid (see ridiculous laws that are still on the books: In Montana, it is illegal for married women to go fishing alone on Sundays, and illegal for unmarried women to fish alone at all.) But at some point, there was a rationale for just about everything. Getting to the rationale would allow change agents to find a new way to meet the old intent or discern whether the old intent is still valid.

    3) The government is FULL of change. New budgets every year. New administration every 4 or 8 years. A new congress with new intentions and pet issues. Political appointees. New scandals. New laws. New executive orders. Few commercial businesses are subject to that much volatility with regards to long-term intent. Consider No Child Left Behind: take a huge organization, give it a new set of mandates, give them a few months to try and figure out how to implement this across the entire nation, decide that it isn’t working, and with a new administration, rewrite the whole business. With big changes and big challenges at that level, it doesn’t surprise me that changing the few things that are stable and consistent from year to year generates a lot of resistance.

    Not saying that this is a good thing, just pointing out some of the possible antecedents

  • #168893

    Steve Radick

    You should check out the site – I think all the folks commenting here would love the stories and inspiration there. Also, check out my post on corporate rebels at

  • #168891

    Steve Richardson

    I won’t defend ignorant comments like “get in line.” But – as someone with gray hair who has been working at change for awhile – I will caution you to avoid the temptation to match disrespect for your ideas with disrespect for existing policy or practice. New people need to learn what is before creating a vision of what can or should be – not to earn the right to speak but to build a credible and convincing case for change. Not everyone will be open even if the case is solid, but virtually no one will support new ideas that are half-baked.

  • #168889

    Steve Richardson

    Excellent post! One might conclude that one of our problems is too many change agents! We have plenty of people who want to make a difference. We also have lots of experience changing things just because someone new came along looking to make their mark and not having time to properly plan and implement massive change. In fact, at any point in time we’re so busy with policy-oriented change that it’s impossible to focus on process and system level issues, which might have more impact but also require longer commitments.

  • #168887

    Many great comments here. The big takeaway for me is heartfelt commitment – ideas are a dime a dozen and cold analysis is easy. Do you care about the Agency, its mission and it’s employees? Do you understand their pain points? Do you have the determination to see it through? The guts to stare yourself down, take honest advice and recognize when YOU need to change? If you do then change is not just possible but you will have an army of supporters and co-leaders working right alongside you.

  • #168885

    Joe Williams

    What I have found to be true is that left to our own devices, we tend to hire people very much like us. In government, where we are ruled by processes, procedures, regulations, standards, etc., that tend to drive systems towards maintaining the status quo, and therefore attracts people whose preferences are for little to no change. The system perpetuates itself. People who drive change face that added challenge. However, savvy individuals can be “intra-preneurs” in government – it’s a matter of understanding the general tendency of government to resist change and that politics (both office as well as “true politics”) play a role in the success or failure of driving change.

  • #168883

    Dale M. Posthumus

    Does the Federal Govt necessarily “chew up” people? I would say no, but it has an inherent tendency to do so more than other organizations. I believe bureaucracy of any kind tends to stifle change and rewards maintaining the status quo. The larger the bureaucracy, the greater the tendency. I have worked in the Federal and state govt and in both large and small companies. It may be less important to reward change then to not punish failure when people try to better. Change is risk and risk can mean failure. Good fialure must not be punished.

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