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7 Tips for Implementing Change in a Bureaucracy

Published on Mar 01, 2017.

As a young professional in the world of Public Service, I am thoroughly aware of the heartache that bureaucratic institutions can cause a reform agent. As Americans, we are reminded everyday how hard it can be to work with such agencies, whether you are at the DMV or at a university, bureaucratic institutions are increasingly hard to work with. Silos, lack of communication, and decreased interdepartmental knowledge can all cause frustration while working with these organizations. So why is it that the institutions that need change the most are the least likely to experience reform? Robert M. Gates’ book A Passion For Leadership offers an in-depth analysis of change reform and leadership lessons learned from multiple decades in public service at our nation's highest levels.

Implementing change is one of the most difficult tasks to take on at any level for a leader, let alone in the stagnant and old fashioned bureaucracies of public service. Outlined below are 7 important tips for leaders in public institutions to consider when looking to implement change covered in A Passion for Leadership.

1. Organize task forces

One of the most common occurrences within large bureaucratic organizations is silos. Departments are separated and very little collaboration is done within groups of these organizations. These silos make change almost impossible without breaking them up. The use of task forces can help break up segregation within the organization and cause groups that normally wouldn't work together to engage in discussion.

2. Require transparency

A leader must be transparent with the organization. Keeping employees in the dark provides another excuse for lack of follow through or effort. Transparency also creates an element of trust which is the most important aspect of any reform leader.

3. Be aware of consensus

Consensus within your task force or ad hoc groups is dangerous. Employees should never completely agree on a solution. Humans naturally disagree on solutions, these disagreements are healthy and help further the change within the organization. If the group comes to an agreement quickly the likelihood is that this idea is not very well thought out. You need a task force leader in place who will ultimately continue to push the group towards your goal while continually pushing them for better and more innovative ideas to incorporate change. After all this is the real world, we can’t all agree on everything.

4. Require deadlines

Deadlines for change are important. By using deadlines you are able to combat those individuals who may be out to stall your process until you as a leader have run out of time or you have been run out of office. This is especially important in public service where you don’t always know how much time you have in that seat.

5. Be micro-knowledgeable

A common mistake reform leaders make is micromanaging their employees. Micromanagement erodes trust and can cause conflict within your organization. Instead of staring over the shoulders of employees waiting for them to change their processes, try showing a legitimate knowledge and interest in what they are doing. When you meet with them be so knowledgeable about their area that you can continue to move them forward towards the ultimate goal while still holding them accountable for their processes.

6. If you don’t have the guts, don’t take the job.

Making changes that affect hundreds and potentially thousands of people is difficult. If you are not prepared for such a challenge don’t take the job. If you get to the point in the job where you are happy with the changes you’ve made but can’t think of other ways to innovate the process, quit. The most important part of leadership is making tough and timely decisions. Don’t be afraid to say no if you can’t fulfill the promise you are making by taking the job.

7. Ensure follow through

Set deadlines, be micro-knowledgeable, hold ad hoc groups accountable, hold yourself and your staff accountable for being transparent and getting the job done. Customers and employees are constantly promised innovative changes, yet how many times do leadership teams actually follow through on these promises? This is increasingly a problem in the public sector and has caused our bureaucratic organizations to fall far behind in customer satisfaction and overall employee happiness.

Nowhere is it more difficult to make changes than in bureaucratic organizations. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to make real changes that will positively affect your organization, don’t waste it. Employees and customers alike are tired of waiting and being promised things that never come. Make the decisions that need to be made, however hard they may be, or let the next person in line get their chance.

Written by Tate Glasgow
The Center for Professional Development
Northwest Nazarene University

A Passion for Leadership by Robert A. Gates