It takes courage, patience, persistence, resilience, clear communication and a collaborative approach to lead transformational change in any organisation.
Leading change within government, particularly in bureaucracy, can feel insurmountable; but it is possible.
From the work I’ve been doing with governments over the last fifteen years, thinking about the people who have inspired me and the qualities it takes to drive change, I’ve come across incredible women. These include Dawn Routledge – acting Government Chief Information and Digital Officer NSW, Diane Owenga – Programme Director of The Policy Project at Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet New Zealand, and Sonia Cooper – Deputy Commissioner, QLD Public Service Commission.
Dawn has been leading transformational change in NSW public service through the government’s digital and open government programs in NSW. Prior to this she was the Executive Director, Policy & Innovation in the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation where she was responsible for leading ICT and digital government strategy for NSW Government.
Diane is currently leading a whole of government policy-making transformation, which has potential to enrich the way the public can participate in decisions made by government. Sonia has vast experience providing strategic and organisational leadership, capability building and change management in both the public and private sectors over the last 27 years. It’s easy to see why these women inspire and energise me.
Dawn has been at the forefront of change to open government in NSW since joining the public service in the early 2000s. She shares sound advice for having long-term impact: “Change is difficult for many people, as the outcomes are less certain than the status quo. The ability to communicate clearly what is happening and why it is happening is one of the most important elements of lasting change.”
It’s important to trust yourself and believe in longevity of the positive change you are making. Disruption is also about challenging the status quo, so you have to be frank and fearless.
There was a time, after 10 years of working in the public service, on my first day at a new organisation I asked a very senior bureaucrat how social impact was considered in their process. Everyone in the room looked at me blankly. I felt I was asking a ‘stupid question’ but that one question was a catalyst for long-term change. Social impact is now embedded in a very important process of government. Change happened and no one acknowledged why it happened, or where it came from. Being a changemaker is not about being a hero or owning the outcome of the transformation.
Be brave enough to speak up if you don’t understand or agree with something. Sonia says, “Back yourself and build confidence. Be positive and constructive. Take the time to listen and observe. Always be open to feedback and reflect on your own mindset.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you feel vulnerable. Think of it as appreciative enquiry. Make sure the person you’re asking knows you are asking because you value what they have to offer. Ask questions with the desire to learn from and with others. This demonstrates an openness to being influenced, to changing, and encourages others to think beyond their own frame of reference.
“Digital innovation is not just about technology, it is a cultural change. Collaboration is key to making sure voices from government, industry, not for profits and the community were heard,” says Dawn.
When leading change and collaboration you can’t expect things to go your way. Don’t be wedded to your beliefs about what you think the outcome should be. Incremental change is a long game that requires many hands and great trust, but it can snowball quite quickly so you have to be ready for that too. Be patient and hear other people’s perspectives as they go through their own journey of change. Perpetuate change by creating space for the people you work with to share their lessons and celebrate successes.
In government, it’s not about big quick wins you can own, it’s about supporting the people who want to deliver the incremental changes that make a difference. “Build relationships and explore new ideas and thinking in this rapidly changing world,” says Sonia.
“Being humble enough to recognise where we can do better, being flexible, knowing when people are ready to try something different, and when to support them,” underpins Diane’s experience as a policy advisor, where change is a long process of evolution. Her ‘Pepper Pot’ approach is about “being selective about the opportunities to follow and the different ways to pursue them with purpose that also helps build credibility.”
Taking care of one’s own resilience has been incredibly important for us all. For me this means being surrounded by people who believe in me, and finding and connecting with other changemakers helping governments implement democratic processes between elections, encouraging public participation and social innovation. I am inspired and motivated by my peers who are working towards similar goals implementing change within governments across Australia and New Zealand, and around the world. We actively share lessons and support each other’s work and it’s really helping us maximise the difference we are making. Together, we are more effective.