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The Dynamics of Change in Public Agencies and Organizations

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Antwain T. Leach

Public agencies and organizations are critical components of our highly complex system of federal government. The work for which public agencies are created to perform affects society and is impacted by it as well. Our society and culture is constantly changing, progressing and transforming. These dynamics uniquely contribute to the constant state of change that public agencies and organizations face.

Leach MayPublic agencies and organizations face pressure to change from internal and external forces. In most cases, public entities answer to public officials. The public at-large ultimately holds these officials accountable. Therefore, it is no surprise that public organizations must undergo continuous alterations. This dynamic is not immediately apparent however. Because public agencies and organizations are so ingrained into our society, it is usually assumed that their pace of change is also on par with the pace of change of our wider society. However, as I shall explain this generally is not the case for public agencies in America.

Public agencies face challenges to respond adequately to their different environments, audiences, regulators and clientele in a timely and responsible fashion. This article will focus on some of the internal and external forces that challenge public agencies to respond. In doing so, I hope to generate a better understanding and appreciation for how positive and significant changes are taking place within public agencies and organizations and how their effects can be beneficial.

Perhaps one of the most conspicuous examples of change at the organizational level is the Obama administration’s adoption of human rights as a central tenant to America’s foreign policy. Not since the Carter administration, from 1977-1981, has a U.S. president placed the promotion of human rights so prominently within their highly populated portfolio.

We have witnessed some of the effects that the adoption of human rights as a central priority has had both domestically as well as abroad. Under this policy, we have seen:

Support for basic human rights has been an ideal for previous administrations, but never has it been more advocated, defended or valued as a condition for normalized relations with the U.S. than now. There are undoubtedly more gray areas with the application (or non-application) of this policy, but the progress made under this administration is unmistakable. There have been other changes in different public agencies besides those involved in federal foreign policy. In many cases, the pressures for these public organizations to imitate change stems from similar sources and situations.

Many of these challenges and pressures for public agencies to accept change emanates from society itself. Some of which include citizens becoming more vocal with respect to their expectations toward public organizations. The success that the gay & lesbian community and also the human rights community has had recently in forcing change in different agencies, as well as the legislation and policies they have been able to influence, is a testament to this fact.

Over the past several decades, members of the public have become more aware of various government agencies they frequently interact with, and they have become more conscious of their responsibilities to them as citizens and clients. This familiarity has allowed citizens to become more knowledgeable and comfortable in holding government agencies and officials more accountable for the services that they are created and commissioned to provide.

Another source that places pressure on public organizations to initiate change involves the way in which globalization is transforming common practices. Traditionally, one of the strengths of public administration was the clear-cut, hierarchical system developed by the state and adopted by the entire public administrative apparatus. Globalization challenges this mode of traditional practice because it alters some of the basic roles of governance. This is because it requires less commanding and controlling, and more persuading and empowering.

Public organizations must also continue coming to terms with the need to aggressively compete in the global marketplace. Public managers must acknowledge this reality and should seriously consider adopting a more international perspective as they formulate their strategic operating plans. In order to overcome the challenges that the phenomenon of globalization presents, public administrators must develop new and innovative ways of thinking and performing. Also, new partnerships with other entities must be established, particularly with business. By establishing transnational and inter-continental ties with business, public agencies and organizations will be afforded the opportunity to not only change and improve alongside the spread of globalization, but also to be in a position to provide effective leadership, guidance and expertise to other entities within different fields.

Developments within society also affect public organizations in ways that are internal. An example of this is the current manner in which leaders emerge and are understood. The proper understanding of leadership may seem elusive because of the way it has changed over the last several decades. The traditional view of leadership was one in which power operated in a very structured and orderly fashion. Organizational structures such as the top-down, vertical command design of the military is a good example of the traditional perspective and working operations of leadership. Traditional leadership is also a form of leadership that usually featured only one star individual, or in some cases a very small group of individuals, making most of the decisions within an organization in a very exclusive fashion.

More recently, leadership has shifted from a hierarchical operation to a more systems-oriented experience. This systems-oriented experience refers to the way in which leadership now requires operations from across many different networks and organizations in order to get things done. Understanding and taking advantage of these new inclusive leadership opportunities is important for managers in the public sector. The public sector will continuously require the collective efforts of volunteers and other outside groups to assist in achieving their many goals and implementing their programs. This will require public agencies to become more innovative as they seek to devise updated ways to take advantage of the many different strands of personnel and human capital encountered while engaged in their operations.

Another major source of change comes from the way in which technology has, and continues to, reshape the way that business is managed and conducted. The speed at which technology moves can transform traditional modes of operations at lightning speed and with great accuracy. Technology is reshaping the landscape of the modern-day work environment as well as the public sector’s entire labor force. It has the capability of transforming the current operating structure of public organizations to make them more efficient, streamlined and in many ways, more convenient for all stakeholders.

Public organizations are tools for the government and for the public. In our modern age, they must change, adapt and seek innovative ways in order to achieve their desired results. This means that public organizations must not only identify internal challenges that are encumbrances upon their ability to change, but they must also clearly identify the external factors that may present challenges for change to occur as well. After making these realizations, public organizations will be in a better position to reflect the values of those whom they are created to serve and represent.


Author: Antwain T. Leach, MPA, is Editor-In-Chief of The American Listener. Previously, he served as president of the Center for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and was employed as a congressional aide in the office of former Congressman Bart Gordon, where he worked on public administration issues. You can reach Mr. Leach at [email protected].


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