Culture Change in Government: No Small Task

Per our framing, we’ve spent the last several weeks exploring theories of culture change, ranging from Schein (dimensions) and Handy (structural forces) to Eoyang (complexity).

Now let’s move to a specific scenario, to tie this all together.

With focus on large organizations, the Federal Government is a good place to start. This is even more timely given the recent push by the Obama administration for “open government”. The President’s January 2009 “Open Government Directive” (OGD) mandated that agencies move to a more open, participatory, collaborative stance.

As I’ve said in my GovLoop posts, that’s no small task.

Let’s explore the cultural forces underlying the challenges ahead.

Bill Eggers and John O’Leary in their 2009 book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government” offer some excellent insights, especially when held up to my prior posts on Schein and Handy.

The Agency Dimension. Like Schein, Eggers/O’Leary recognize multiple dimensions. While they claim there is no overarching “government culture”, they identify several operating cultures for each agency, according to the mission of each. Without naming specific agencies, the authors categorize the space by role: enforcers, instructors, helpers, processors, builders/fixers, housekeepers and scientists. To each they assign a cultural mindset which drive behavioral biases. Their distinctions are useful, as they bring focus to diverse objectives of each agency. Semantics could be debated. But Eggers/O’Leary are pointed us in the right direction. This alone has value to OGD planners.

Culture Clash: The Great Divide. But they also focus on an even more critical dimension: the divide between political appointees and civil servants. This is where Handy’s framework of 4 structural forces is immensely helpful. The political appointees in agency leadership roles follow Handy’s central, power-based, shorter horizon mindset. The civil servants? Clearly aligned (if not defining) the role-based, bureaucratic model, embracing structure, continuity, and focused on long-term horizons.

That means a deep culture clash runs through the management chain of the Administrative branch of our Federal Government.

Casual observers and insiders alike will quickly see this as ineffective, with compounding inefficiencies due to distrust and delays. Doubtless this was never part of the design. The U.S. Constitution is silent on culture. But the effects are nonetheless pervasive. Government moves slowly, often at cross purposes.

Raising the Bar (Further). To make matters worse, our last post developed a very modern concept of effective collaboration that, when deployed into complex, highly structured organizations, favors adoption of still another cultural structure: Handy’s ‘task/network’ model.

“Open Government” must be adapted and applied to the cultures of seven operational delivery models (per Eggers/O’Leary), supporting three non-aligned, competing structural forces. And that’s not to mention generational divides: a critical dimension to be certain, with yet another set of change factors.

No small task, indeed.

Path Forward with “OGD”. For Open Government to succeed, culture change must be taken on aggressively. Political appointees and civil servants must learn to see and to bridge their long-standing cultural divide. And both must seek to understand and adopt a new culture of networked collaboration that is inherent in the OGD vision, extending the work of government beyond its borders, involving and engaging citizens.

Al Gore and his “NPR” team ran into these obstacles in the mid-1990s, when “Reinventing Government” took a run at these topics, but the challenges (or politics) of the day seem to have won out over lasting change.

Will history repeat itself?

Perhaps not. Obama’s “Open Government” mandate appears to have a vital combination of leadership backing and increasing momentum.

Beth Noveck has not only helped to shape the vision for this, she has been asked to lead it, as Deputy CTO for Open Government. In her 2009 “Wiki Government”, she lays out the challenge in the context of fundamental transformation:

“The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

What does this mean to our concept of Government? Noveck continues:

“Citizens are no longer talking about the process; they are the process. The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise to engage.”

The Open Government vision is as strong as it is ambitious.

Significant work lies ahead. But in corners of the world and even in Washington, that work is underway.

What’s Ahead? Next post, I’ll make an updated pass at John Kotter’s well-circulated “8 Steps” toward cultural intervention. I’ll argue that all of his ideas still apply, but that they’ll need to be amended, at a minimum, to cope with complexity. Your input would be valued.

In the special case of Government (which I’ll keep on radar) those updates will need to focus on the impact of 3 divergent cultures: political, civil servant, and collaborative .. as well as the many operational dimensions that compound those differences.


5 thoughts on “Culture Change in Government: No Small Task

  1. Interesting piece. I think you capture much of the current state of affairs. My two cents on this are contained here: In it I agree with you, from a different perspective. So many want to focus on technology and open data as the only solutions. People and culture change and language usage are equally at the table.

    Others took some different perspectives from Gov20LA in February.

    But clearly, it is the amalgamation of these various forces that have created the crucible that is forming the base “Gov 2.0” or Government 2.0 thinking and actions.

    Nice job.


  2. Thanks for comments and links Alan. Agree on the crucial role that people play .. understanding, implementing and using the technology and data it exposes .. or to your point, not using it .. which brings “culture as a barrier for 2.0” to the forefront,

    Btw, it’s not just a Gov 2.0 challenge. It impacts Enterprise 2.0 too.

    Fear is a factor, as you indicate, but so is simple awareness and appreciation of the power of the new collaboration paradigm. Beth Noveck in “Wiki Government” has much to say about citizen engagement. Outside of perhaps EPA and TSA, few agencies have built a deep, meaningful dialog with the public. Perhaps Peer-to-Patent is the first app that truly engages the public in the process of government. is certainly a foray into better vendor engagement.

    Are you aware of other places where the public is starting to engage directly?

    Done correctly, citizen engagement and Gov2.0 puts “We the people” in a whole new light.

    Gov2.0 has yet to grapple w/ the virtual community concept. Lots of energized, passionate citizens are a few clicks away. Would be great (and relatively easy) to connect the dots. It proves citizens are willing to engage. Are the agencies?

    Thanks for your leadership in the dialog and the issue. I’m with you, let’s get people talking on the core issues, not just circling on the semantics.

    Culture: a core issue.

  3. “The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

    The above is very much true. Nevertheless, leaders still have to step forward and lead that culture change. Leaders have to publicly state that they value “taking risks and implementing collaborative strategies.” Leaders have to articulate a vision of what that change looks like in a way that little room for ambiguity. Leaders have to prioritize what they want their organizations to focus on so that there are opportunities to take risks and make change happen. Leaders also have to recognize people that succeed in doing so not just by rewards by also by narrating stories to others about these efforts that resulted in positive change. This will encourage others to do the same. Is this alot to do? Absolutely, but that’s what comes with being a leader.

    The point about leaders prioritizing what they want their organizations to focus on is sometimes not emphasized as much as it should be. Every organization has what I call a “Capacity for Change.” If no prioritization of effort is provided, organizations can exhaust themselves in trying to do too much. This point, referred to as “Motivate the Elephant, is well made in Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book, “Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard.” I recommend this book for anyone involved or interested in organizational change (and who isn’t these days?).

    Lastly, work associated with cultural change is often referred to as “change management.” That is not the best term. Yes, change must be managed but to succeed, it really must be led. Change leadership is a much more appropriate term and reflects the leadership work that must be involved for cultural change to succeed.

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

  4. Hey Joe,

    I agree on every point.

    Can’t agree enough on the need for strong and courageous leadership. Orgs will look for every possible excuse not to engage on the hard work of change.

    Leadership to “hold the line” is critical.

    Had the pleasure of seeing one of the Switch authors (Dan?) present in NC and left the session absolutely transformed on the topic of effective leadership, in terms of engagement. Watch for their next book .. it’s a must read, it should be out by now.

    Agreed on CM. As I cited earlier in my Culture as Barrier to 2.0 post, “you manage things, but lead people”. Grace Hopper said that I believe, a long, long time ago. But it’s still true.

    I hope you’ll have some insight to share on my upcoming Kotter post. Leadership is implied in his 8 points (“sense of urgency”, “clear visioning”) but not expressly mandated.

    Perhaps we’ll have to add another bullet.

    Keep those insights coming, Joe. We’re definitely on the same page.

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