Public Sector Change: Three skills you need

Driving public sector change? What are the top three skills needed? Our Managing Director Lucy Trueman reflects. 

Change in the public sector

Over the last 15 years of driving change in the public sector, I’ve worked on projects and programmes around adults and children’s social care, workforce transformation, organisation wide programmes and reviewing general overall approaches to change management.  

I have often found that, in the public sector, which has suffered 10 years of austerity and cuts, people who specialise in change and project management have been lost from organisations, which puts more pressure on our service managers to do this type of work on top of their day job.

Change management is a relatively new discipline, but there is a whole host of models and theories out there. A quick Google search for change management brings back over 50,000 results. Many of us will have been attended training sessions around the change curve, hierarchy of needs and other common models. Whilst the theory is interesting, when it comes to driving change in the real world, how easily do these things translate? 

What skills do you need to drive change?

1. Engagement Skills 

Meaningful, real change happens through people. In the public sector we are lucky in this regard. We have amazing people who are driven by a passion to make a difference, not just earn a pay check. Yet so often I see change programmes that do not harness this power. There’s often a distance between those setting the policies and strategies on how to change an organisation, and those delivering the services, who the change affects. Close this gap. To be a good facilitator for change, get out there and speak to front line staff and people in your communities. They have the best ideas about how to improve services, and staff members who care enough to shape change programmes and lead them are precious, they will make the difference you need.  

2. Focus – what’s important? 

There is a real art around focusing on what’s important and what makes a difference. This is where the academic models and books don’t necessarily help. It’s very easy to get lost in models, plans, strategies and terminology. I challenge everyone who is driving change to keep it real and authentic. If you cannot explain to a friend or family member outside of the sector why what you’re doing is good idea, you’ve probably got lost. This is great test. I use my Mum for the job! Driving change is challenging, and as much as we like to think it is straight line (or curve!) it’s much more likely to be a massive random squiggle! So, for every change we make happen, we need a core set of principles, something to come back to and to check if we’re achieving what we set out to achieve. This doesn’t have to be a huge document, it can be three or four bullets, but we need to anchor back to what’s important constantly, and not get distracted from this. 

 3. Commitment and resilience 

Driving change is a commitment, and it takes time, courage, effort and resilienceWhen starting out on a change journey, make sure you are clear on who will take responsibility for leading the project, and that you give them the time and support needed to do that well.  There can be times when driving change leaves you feeling like a lone voice in the dark. Self-awareness, resilience and commitment to the cause are crucial skills that any change delivery partner needs. 

The Importance of Capacity

Although not a skill, this is a crucial element. Many public sector organisations have great people, but don’t have spare capacity for leading change. It’s important to be realistic about the level of effort and resource it needs to do this well. 

This is one of the reasons that the bulk of our work is change delivery, not consultancy/advice. People need the capacity to drive change, it’s very difficult to do this on top of the day job, so whoever you identify to support you with your change journey, make sure you factor in realistic capacity to do the job. 

What next? 

If you are about to embark on a change journey check that you: 

  • Have engaged relevant people 
  • Are clear what’s important 
  • Have the commitment and resilience to drive the change 
  • Have the capacity to deliver the change. 

There are, of course, many other skills and components required, but based on my experience of delivering change in the Public Sector, these are definitely my top priorities. What would you add to the list? 

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