Picking a path: How change should happen
In structuring up the change, reformers have a series of stacking choices they can make:
- Gradual and iterative or punctuated and big bang. Can change be made through evolution and continuous improvement, or is it necessary to break with what went before?
- Sponsorship or leadership. Where will reform be sponsored versus led? Should they be the same role or different?
- Centrally or de-centrally focused. What is the appropriate balance between being closer to the impacted communities (more devolved) versus achieving greater consistency and alignment (more centralised).
- Singular, collective or distributed leadership and decision rights. Is accountability held in one place, multiple discrete places or are there shared accountabilities? Who will work the levers identified, and have accountability for decisions?
- Singular, collective or distributed resource model. What necessary skills and knowledge come from public, private, voluntary and community sectors? How are resources combined and aligned?
Ultimately, people are at the heart of reform. Shifting behaviour and investing in relationships takes time and relentless focus, placing great demands on leaders and people.
Leadership is the critical enabler to any change effort, whether at the organisational or system level. Reform amplifies the ask of leadership due to the complex nature of what is being led – this is not about managing a well-defined path, but navigating an unpredictable journey. The key elements of reform leadership are vision, courage, collaboration and enablement.
Leading a reform requires clarity of vision and recognising that the ‘southern star’ we are aiming for needs to be kept in view and communicated throughout the journey. Great reform leaders create energy and enthusiasm for change, even when the journey is difficult. This also requires reform leaders to find their own wellsprings of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration, which can be challenging at a personal level. Establishing cross-system leadership forums is often seen as a mechanism for collaboration and joint action, but can serve just as effectively to build a supportive coalition.
Reform doesn’t follow a smooth path. There are dead-ends, unexpected complications, difficulty in aligning participants and actions, and often new priorities that may arise. A system resists simple fixes and which means that many attempted reform efforts will suffer short term failures or setbacks. It also means that solutions may require dismantling of long-held structures of power, funding and decision-making. This requires courage of reform leaders – to call out the things that need to change, admit to failure and accept learnings, and to continue to stay the course and push forward a reform agenda even with head winds. There is personal risk involved in leading reform – taking on a reform agenda can result in spectacular and high-profile failure. While we need reform leaders willing to take those risks, placing the outcomes ahead of their career trajectories, we also need to create an enabling environment that values courage and vision, and places these above short-term successes.
Because reform is usually a system-wide effort, there will be multiple players in the system, with differing motivations, who must work cooperatively to give effect to the change. Leadership in reform requires skill in creating coalitions of the willing, developing mutual action, and establishing trust and collaboration. Too often we observe the forums for collaboration becoming forums for management and oversight. Here, tikanga offers us greater insight into what may be required – investing time and energy into establishing deep trusting relationships as an enabler for collaborative action. Systems analysis and practice that seeks to uncover motivations, strengthen shared aspirations and vision, and develop genuine partnership actions, can be useful in equipping leaders with the insights to lead collaboratively.
Finally, an enablement mindset in reform leaders means they recognise that they are supporting the system to change itself. Leaders must view themselves as the ‘base of the tree’, upholding the actions, initiative and judgement of the frontline operators in the system. A top-down command and control mindset does not work in reform, because there are too many moving parts – no one leader, or group of leaders, can maintain the full system view and orchestrate actions. A leader of reform needs to invest significant time into building the capacity and capability of the system to change. This means investing in people, enabling them with the right information, tools and processes, and building a culture of safety and confidence to take action.
New Zealanders are acutely aware that there is only so much talent at every level – from governance and leadership, to the domain and technical expertise that individual reforms need. Pragmatically, reform requires a broad set of skills, experience and expertise, not all of which does – nor should – reside within the public service.
In the immediate future we are likely to tackle this in two ways. Firstly, mechanisms drawing on the knowledge and talents of business, iwi, communities and our institutions are needed to resource reform with the right people. This includes investing in capabilities outside of the reform programme (and the public sector) itself.
Secondly, by being smart about deploying resource across the reform agenda, enabled by greater coordination and agreed prioritisation criteria, skills and talent within the public sector can be moved and accessed more responsively.
“We need to be able to deploy resources across the Public Service to support the government to implement its programme. It is [the job of the Public Service] to do this, not the job of government to organise around us.” – Peter Hughes
Both come with a risk to be managed. A descent into poaching talent between participants will leave lesser resourced organisations short. A highly mobile talent pool also robs individual reforms of depth and continuity.
“Public service outlasts the government of the day - and should enable consistency of implementation. But the problem is we turn over quickly between roles, we have a highly migratory public sector. If we are not careful, we just end up shifting the deck chairs which is why we must continuously develop new talent into the service.” – Matt Tukaki
Reform is expensive and resource intensive. The Auckland supercity reforms cost hundreds of millions of dollars and while annual savings were projected from the merged organisation, many reforms do not deliver a financial return on investment due to a focus on improved services or social outcomes. The same reforms also involve hundreds of staff, contractors, and consultants in their initial set-up phase, with many more involved in longer-term transformation projects designing, building, and implementing organisational, process, and technology changes.
Funding reform and finding the capability and capacity to deliver is a significant challenge. The recent Reform of Vocational Education cost $280 million for the merger of 16 polytechnics into one new organisation, and the creation of six new workforce councils. The current Three Waters reform has a package of at least $2.5 billion budgeted, in addition to implementation costs for the four new water entities. These are sums that must be justified against other calls on Budget allocations, such as additional Government services or investments to drive wellbeing outcomes, and all fit within annual operating allowances in the order of $3-4 billion.
The ability to lead and deliver reform is also a rare talent, as diverse teams often many hundreds-strong with skills across leadership, strategy, policy, operating model design, organisational change, human resources, finance, information technology, customer experience design, machinery of government, and industry sector experience must be hired and deployed against uncertain challenges over an extended period.
Some people have the opportunity to work on several reforms during their working lives but for many, one is enough as it can be stressful and demanding. The large size of reform teams also means a mix of sourcing models is needed, as public servants are supplemented by assistance procured from the commercial or contract sector. As a result, it is difficult for the public service to build and maintain deep reform experience within its workforce and make that available to subsequent reforms. Reform teams can often feel they are doing reform for the first time, and many of them are — models for capturing individual and organisational learnings, and sharing those across reform teams, are not well developed in the public service.
If the cost and scale of reform cannot be scaled down, we can explore mitigations such as different resourcing models and improved knowledge capture and dissemination to reduce the barriers to good practice and learning from experience.