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Leading for Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jerry Newfarmer
December 18, 2015

Government organizations live in a state of constant change. Sometime the change is good, like reorganization that increases efficiency. Sometimes the change isn’t so good, such as a significant cut to the budget. Sometimes it’s neutral. Leaders and staff members change, issues change and tools and techniques for providing services change.

Most of us have worked with people who fear change in all its forms. They are the ones always exclaiming, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Equally frustrating, though, are leaders who see themselves as “change agents” and want to tinker with all the details of their organization.


Change is a good thing, but only when it’s necessary and carried out with a clear strategy and goals. To lead a government organization effectively, a leader needs to strike the right balance on managing change, embracing it when will help move the mission forward but never chasing it simply for novelty’s sake.

When thinking about the changes your organization is facing, there are some guidelines to make sure they’re needed and to implement them successfully.

Establish a goal of continuous improvement. Organizations that succeed in performing at a high level, over a long period, recognize the need for continuous improvement. They see individual changes as steps in a long and coordinated process, rather than one-time steps on unrelated issues. This requires articulating a strategic vision to employees and explaining how proposed changes are part of a larger strategy for improvement. Tie accomplishments back to the vision of continuous improvement as well.

Treat employees with respect. In addition to making sure the people in the organization understand the overall vision and how each change fits in, approach them from a starting point of respect. Assume they want to be part of a successful, respected organization and enlist their help in creating it. The employees you work with are trained to serve the public and they want to do their jobs well. Using these assumptions as a baseline will help create the right environment for embracing change.

Engage and nurture employees. Giving individual staff members new roles and responsibilities has two benefits. It gives employees new skills and prevents stagnation. It also broadens the organization and makes it more resilient. This includes promoting participation in professional organizations and boosting your training program if it’s been languishing. Opportunities like these increase employee motivation and satisfaction.

Acknowledge accomplishments in continuous improvement. Your employee recognition program is an important strategy in achieving goals of continuous improvement. By celebrating achievements in the process, you will reinforce the importance of the goals you have set and keep the process moving forward.

Set expectations. The carrot is better than the stick, but make sure managers are encouraging energetic supervisors and front-line staff who want to improve the operation rather than holding them back. Reinforce the expectation that everyone in the enterprise can contribute to good change by holding senior managers accountable. Require managers on the staff to prepare and carry out a current improvement plan every year, or every two years if you’re on a two-year planning cycle, which is actually the best practice. Refine your performance appraisal program to solicit subordinate feedback about managers’ performance.

Lead by example. When you demonstrate personal leadership by communicating your commitment to continuous improvement, staff members will understand that it’s core to the organization’s work and they will look for ways to reframe their own work in that light.

Both change for the sake of change and a steadfast refusal to change are obstacles to organizational growth. By emphasizing continuous improvement as the framework for change, you will help employees understand their work in a new light and help them view change as something to value, pursue and embrace.

Author: Jerry Newfarmer served as city manager in Fresno and San Jose, Calif., as well as Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. 

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