The kind of change management I learned some 10 years ago seems scarcely relevant to local government today. Back then we were taught that change was a process that started with defining measurable stakeholder aims, creating a business case and analysing risks, dependencies, costs, return on investment, and dis-benefits.
We knew that good communication that told people about the reasons for the change and the benefits of successful change, along with frequent updates on progress, was important for countering the assumed emotional antagonism to any change.
And we knew we had to monitor to outcomes of the change after it was implemented to check it against the business case we had written at the start.
There was an implicit assumption that change was an occasional disruption, usually driven by external events (budget cuts, political changes, boundary revisions etc) that messed with the smooth running of the organisation, and as soon as it was over we could all get back to the comfortable steady state that was our natural home.
I originally trained as an artist and was taught that you only got better at what you did by questioning your work all the time, even if that meant tearing it up and starting again just as you were getting comfortable. Indeed, getting comfortable or complacent was the enemy of creativity.
We have a powerful image of local government vested in the Mayor and his chains and the Town Clerk in his wig, perpetuated in lazy journalism and easy writing, that still colours our mental map of local government. Anyone working in local government knows that it ain’t like that anymore, but the image is so powerful that it lurks at the back of our thinking when we try to examine new ways of doing things. In the same way librarians are characterised as tweed and cardigan wearing petty authoritarians, and the media can’t show a library without it having a large sign reading SILENCE. Libraries don’t look like that anymore and the librarians I know have tattoos and piercings and wear jeans, but that doesn’t stop the cipher we hold in our minds being more powerful than reality.
We need some fierce creative self-examination to help people swim in the sea of ambiguity, change and continuous adjustment that characterises local government today. We need a new way of doing change that recognises that change is the new constant. We need a methodology that focuses on exploring the best way of delivering services now, one that understands what people want from our services, rather than concentrating on our own emotional attachment to the way we used to work.
More on what that methodology might look like in a later post.