Here's how to break free.

Whenever the executive administration changes in Washington, D.C., other changes often follow. Many federal agencies get new leadership and take on new missions. Employees feel motivated to do things differently, and their managers turn to learning professionals to help make change happen.

In the current change cycle, government agencies should be poised to make real change. Government managers have been improving their ability to plan, to set measurable objectives, and to act strategically. Federal budgets are more likely to be tied to performance than in the past.

But according to some observers, the existence of results-oriented management systems has not made a dent in public-sector organizational culture. This conundrum was explored in July 2008 at a conference on transforming bureaucratic cultures.

Organized by the American Society for Public Administration and The Public Manager magazine, the conference explored challenges facing government managers in the areas of human capital, technology, communications, governance, performance, and accountability.

"In a post-silo organizational culture," stated the conference program book, "chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and chief learning officers (CLOs) would be fully involved in the organization's strategic planning and management systems."

Moreover, these activities would be integrated through a process that would engage federal managers to work together on the government's most challenging priorities. But judging from the comments of people attending the conference and the topics addressed by the speakers, that kind of government is still emerging.

What it takes

With so many elements to coordinate, what single action might provide the biggest leverage in changing a bureaucratic culture?

Thomas F. Dungan III, CEO of Management Concepts, a training and publishing organization serving the federal sector, says it all boils down to keeping employees engaged. "Bureaucracies cannot survive when employees are engaged and they take pride in their work." He adds, "When I go home at night, I want to be able to talk to my kids about what felt good about my day. What I've learned from our clients in federal agencies is that they do, too."

Dungan has developed a leadership model that aligns a person's life, work, organization, and community around a mission. "Federal employees feel good when their government work is aligned with their personal sense of mission, their values, and their vision for public service. When it is, they give their loyalty, commitment, and their discretionary energy."

To overcome inertia in government, the single biggest thing to change is the culture, says Bob Tobias, director of public sector executive education at American University. "People in bureaucracies resist change when there is no organizing principle behind its implementation," he says.

"The more individuals and their managers and leaders understand the mission and vision of the organization and how they are linked to them, the more receptive they are to changing themselves to accomplish goals."

Change fails, research shows, when employees are put in new roles but don't understand what they are supposed to do and how the work aligns with the vision and mission of the organization.

"When another reorganization is proposed that is not linked to mission and vision, people say, 'Why bother?' Change won't succeed unless organizations do the hard work of creating a vision and mission, and then linking them to performance. That changes the conversation," says Tobias.

He believes that failure to coordinate people's work with vision and mission was the reason why pay-for-performance failed at the Department of Defense and at the Department of Homeland Security, where it was directed to be abandoned by Congressional fiat.

"The performance management system was not clean and clear, so the reward system by definition couldn't be clean and clear." Surveys of government employees show that many believed that pay-for-performance was arbitrary.

According to Tobias, "That's because the coinage of a performance management system is not how hard a person works but how much they accomplish. Appearing eager, pleasing the boss, and coming in on Saturdays are not measures of performance. Without an objective performance management system, pay-for-performance was based on subjective performance measures."

It's common to recommend aligning work with an organization's vision and mission, but it's hard to do. Tobias points out that in government, this task should start with the president and his political appointees. "In the past, they have sometimes been selected and evaluated for how much public policy they create, not how well they implement it," he says.

If a public policy expert is selected for critical federal positions but has never managed the performance of large numbers of employees, they may delegate performance management to a subordinate. This is risky because without support from the top, the creation and implementation of performance management systems often fail.

"If President-elect Obama is truly serious about performance, he will spend his most valuable resource - his time - on leading a performance initiative in the federal government," says Tobias. Secretaries of departments will be responsible for its creation and implementation and for meeting outcome goals, and the president, as the leader of the executive branch, will monitor whether or not they're doing it."

Veterans of culture change

Another obstacle to overcoming bureaucratic cultures is the perception that it's too difficult to do, says Christopher Boyd, a psychologist and educator at the Veterans Health Administration. "It is easy to underestimate the complexity of change. A person must have the position, the sponsors, and the time and ability to sustain a change effort or have it seen through by others. Even people who create change routinely at the micro level find it daunting," he says.

Boyd draws lessons about successful change from his experience at the VHA, where in 1995, former Under Secretary for Health Ken Kizer changed the culture with a powerful vision - the VHA must give the best care anywhere. "Kizer provided the vision, but he didn't impose implementation plans on people," says Boyd.

"He supported experimentation, and nobody was punished for things that didn't work. This allowed people to be creative and to engage in changing the way we delivered healthcare."

Kizer's transformation plan had three major components - reorganizing the operational structure of the VHA; introducing performance accountability; and developing an information infrastructure that would support the needs of patients, clinicians, and administrators.

The success of the turnaround of the decades-old organization is well documented. Streamlined processes and quality of care positioned the VHA to compete well in the healthcare market of the 1990s.

Although support for Kizer's vision eroded when he left the VHA, elements of innovation persist, says Bob Means, who was the VHA's CLO from 1995 to 2000 and is now national director for research development and dissemination of innovations.

"Major change was possible at the VA," he says, "because implementation of the change was decentralized and supported by local culture and belief." Employees were trained to be "para-ethnographers" who could look at their own practices and see what to change. "Change handled this way tended to last," says Means.

The learning function at the VHA made major changes along with everyone else. "What drove the biggest change for us was moving learning out to the work site - the bedside or the office - so that content, context, and community were all one," says Means. "Seventy percent of learning is informal, and it's fundamentally social, with people making sense among themselves about what needs to be done."

Research at the VHA showed that when delivering primary care, 85 percent of learning that changed performance behaviors was related to corridor conversations and chart reviews. Formal training contributed less than 10 percent to performance.

Means believes that taking the learning to the work site "institutionalized the idea that we were helping people with their work, not training them." Most learning at the VHA is still delivered through events, but Means feels the alternative approach is "far more powerful because it's driven by the learners and their work. We keep looking for new ways to support them."

Recently, the Employee Education Service and the VHA have partnered to create work labs where learning and work can be integrated at VA facilities around the country. The labs, known as Learning XChanges (LXC), are high-tech learning environments intended to foster informal conversation and collaborative learning. Some of the methodologies used by the LXC staff include appreciative inquiry, real-time strategic change, open-space technology, action learning, water cooler logic, and accelerated learning.

"Our goal is to transform the VA into a learning organization," says Means. It has taken many years and many projects to make the organization comfortable with the change, but, he states, "we sustain it by making learning part of people's work. We're not held accountable for event-based learning. In a work-based environment, people are accountable for the work."

Overturning a bureaucratic culture is definitely easier when there is visionary leadership, but what can an individual government employee do? Boyd maintains that there is always something one person can do to build consensus, to prepare a foundation for change, to test a vision, and to find people of like mind to create a movement.

"Find the fire: Blow on the embers," he says. "The notion that change only comes from the top is a half-truth. It's not the end of the story." t+d