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March 14, 2023

Catherine Daly

6 Reasons Change Management in Government is Challenging

3 minutes

Public sector organizations around the world are grappling with numerous challenges including inflation, an aging population, immigration, urbanization, security, aging infrastructure, and demand for modern digital services. To address these challenges and uphold the public’s trust, government organizations are implementing transformational change initiatives.

However, research by McKinsey & Co. found that 80 percent of public-sector transformation projects fail to meet their objectives.

Table of Contents

Bonus Content: 5 Best Practices to Drive Change in Government

Why is Change Management in Government so Difficult?

Organizational change is never easy. Change management in government is particularly challenging as there are numerous partners, policies, and cross-departmental or agency priorities. This intricate web of interests can make it tough to execute change efficiently.

Let’s explore several reasons why government organizations struggle to effectively manage change:

Red Tape Slows Progress

Governments are often large organizations with complex hierarchies and systems in place, as well as legal and regulatory constraints, that can slow down the change process. The bureaucratic nature of government organizations can make it difficult to navigate and implement change effectively. The approval process for even minor changes can take months, if not years, which can be frustrating for those trying to drive change in public sector organizations.

Short Leadership Tenure Can Stall Initiatives

The turnover of leadership in government can be high, which makes it difficult to implement meaningful change and maintain project momentum. For example, a review of ministers of health across 23 countries from 1990 to 2009 found that half of them served for less than two years in office. This lack of continuity can undermine the effectiveness of change initiatives, and lead to a lack of trust and engagement among employees and community.

Too Many Priorities Affects Focus

The issue of too many priorities and trying to reform too much, too quickly, and across too broad a field is a common challenge in the public sector. Government organizations are typically responsible for a wide range of services and functions, each with its own set of priorities. As a result, leaders may feel pressure to address multiple issues simultaneously, which can lead to a lack of focus and ineffective change.

Limited Resources to Manage Projects

Resourcing can be challenging in government because change management is still widely considered a "nice-to-have" rather than an essential aspect of organizational success. This can result in a lack of investment in change management expertise and resources. Subsequently, As a result, smaller teams take on change management projects on a part-time basis in addition to their regular work. This competing priority makes it hard to devote the time and focus required for effective change, and this can lead to a high failure rate of government transformation projects.
Bonus Content: Change Management Tools for Government

Political Considerations Create Roadblocks

Government leaders often face pressure from various interest groups, political parties or regions, each with their own priorities and agendas. This can create a complex environment where change initiatives may be seen as politically motivated or divisive.

Further, government leaders often have limited political capital, particularly in sensitive services such as education and healthcare, and in scenarios where ministers serve in a minority or coalition government.

Resistance to Change from Citizens or Employees Stifle Progress

Change can be difficult for people, and this is particularly true in the government sector. Employees in government organizations may resist changes to established ways of doing things, and citizens may have conflicting opinions about changes that make prioritizing difficult. The resistance of employees or citizens can stifle progress and make it difficult to implement change effectively.

Governments are also more risk-averse than private sector organizations, as the consequences of failure can be more severe. This can make them more hesitant to implement significant changes.

Everyone wants progress.
Nobody wants change.

Paul Romer
Economist and political entrepreneur

Starting Your Change Management Journey

To address these challenges, leaders in the public sector need to prioritize change initiatives and focus on those that are most critical to achieving the organization's goals.

They also need to engage community and communicate the rationale and benefits of the changes to build support and buy-in.

If you are embarking on a change management initiative in the public sector, ThoughtExchange can help you focus on the people aspect of change.

Download our Enabling Change Management in Public Sector Organizations in Government guide for best practices on managing change and some tools to help you along the way.

ThoughtExchange can help to ensure your transformation projects are successful. See how.
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Catherine Daly
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Catherine is a professional writer based in Vancouver, B.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (for passion), a master’s degree in marketing (to pay the bills), and has over 15 years of experience working with big tech brands like Adobe, Hootsuite, HP, Oracle, PayPal, and ThoughtExchange.

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