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EIPM Readings #2: Leading change in the public sector – INASP Blog

EIPM Readings #2: Leading change in the public sector


There is a lot of literature that talks about change management and leadership in the private sector. Why is there a gap in the literature to address these dimensions within the public sector?

In an effort to cover this gap, colleagues from Politics & Ideas, a think net of researchers and practitioners, shared this paper that I am summarizing for you today, Transforming Whitehall, Leading major change in Whitehall departments, by the Institute for Government. It’s about how Whitehall adapted to one of the major reforms that the civil service had to go through (well, that is before Brexit), which sheds some light into how this sector implements institutional reforms. This paper shares a few lessons and recommendations which can inspire others. It is about the UK  but some ideas can be useful to others.

The private sector has an enormous amount of literature written on change management, but this paper argues that, although there are some lessons to learn from them, the public sector’s context operates under different rules, which affect deeply how things work and how change can be achieved. I couldn’t agree more. Some characteristics of this context are not new to us and are shared across countries and cultures:

  • Dual leadership: A minister’s incentives are not necessarily aligned with those of the department. High-level turnover of ministers makes commitment to change difficult.
  • The mission and value of departments are ambiguous and fluid because they are based on ministers’ policy directions. This causes no single clear direction which makes prioritising for change hard. Change in civil service is triggered more by a major crisis, a change in policy direction or ministerial dissatisfaction with status quo – rather than continuous improvement. The fact that there is no competitive pressure to maintain service quality means departments focus where it is possible to make savings.
  • Working across government: Departments have a lot of autonomy and often act in silos. However, decisions made, for example, in Number 10 or treasury affect everyone. It is difficult for civil servants to work against the grain and invest in working across departments.

Instead of drowning in these challenges and difficulties, I propose to start a conversation that could help public officials navigate their contexts better.

  1. Change is hard. Highlight the positives and set a clear direction
  2. Give back office functions a more strategic role: This means that HR, internal communications and IT play pivotal roles in how a department operates particularly in this day and age when management of information is a key issue. They deserve representation in departments’ boards.
  3. Related to the above, internal communications proved to be a key element for navigating change effectively. It helped address concerns from staff, support leaders to set the context, support them to explain change to staff, etc.
  4. Staff engagement is always crucial but sometimes overlooked and lost in the pile of responsibilities managers have to deal with. However, paying particular attention to staff and maybe making engagement part of the assessment for performance reviews and promotions can work.
  5. Permanent secretaries could be held to account on how they communicate with staff about change, support leaders and managers to motivate their teams.
  6. Senior leaders working together for the department rather than just their own area within it found that having more ‘corporate leadership’ was a critical asset. It was easier to navigate and make big strategic decisions working together than individually. However, they also say that it has been extremely challenging and time consuming and in some cases it required changing personnel on the executive team.
  7. Building in the politics: Political priorities are not always in line with running departments effectively. Since this is unlikely to change civil servants need to focus more on building alignment with ministers through relationships that allow the right conversations.
  8. Leaders must manage relationships across governments with those who support or block change; better cross-departmental working could improve service delivery.

For those interested, the paper goes into a lot more detail. I also encourage you to join the series of webinars that INASP and Politics and Ideas are organizing from October 2016 to March 2017. In these webinars we will discuss some of the policy  issues, bringing in the experience from policymakers working in difficult environments. We hope it can contribute to the analytical framework ‘Context Matters‘ and its practical implications. If you want to participate, get in touch at

The EIPM Readings #1: Scaling up evaluation as a source of learning and improving programming in Mexico was published here last month. Please, do get in touch with me if you have come across something interesting that I should include in this reading list. Special thanks so far for those who have pointed to the useful reading material .

Clara Richards
Clara leads INASP's work on Evidence-Informed Policy Making. Clara’s role is to design and implement capacity building interventions to support research use and advocates for EIPM and to build strong relationship with EIPM’s partners..

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