How do you implement change?

History has been harsh on bureaucrats and their ability to implement change. A movement towards a new understanding of how to lead implementation processes is emerging. New Northern European study examines modern approaches to implementation in the public sector.


Jeppe Ostersen

Business Manager
T: +45 5161 7921

By Jesper Toft Madsen

If you see no behavioural change among practitioners acting as front-line staff four years after having launched a reform, well, then you stare failure in the face.

The risk and actual failure of large-scale change projects in the public sector is a well-known phenomenon. Although politicians, executives, scientists, consultancies and practitioners have all attempted to grasp the complex ecosystem of implementation for decades, failure continues to haunt and hamper the development of even the most sophisticated welfare states.

This could be about to change. A recent study performed by Ramboll Management Consulting documents a new trend that could make implementation more successful in the years to come.

- We see a growing understanding of what drives a successful implementation. It needs to be guided by a solid knowledge base of implementation and supported by strategies and tools that have been selected and tailored to the specific needs and possibilities in the local context, says Jeppe Ostersen, Business Manager of Social and Economic Impacts at Ramboll.

His argument is based on fresh insights from interviews with 30 public-sector leaders in Northern Europe and a comprehensive analysis of the latest developments in implementation science, which is now published in the white paper “New Approaches to Public Sector Implementation”.

Link: Download the white paper on implementation

From letting it happen to making it happen

For a very long time, Nordic welfare states have tried to ensure high-level legislation by communicating top-down from ministry lawyers to the public, and more recently via advanced IT platforms and best practice websites.

Recognised implementation scientist Dean L. Fixsen has labelled these approaches “Letting it happen” and “Helping it happen”, which translate to bureaucrats doing little or nothing at all to facilitate implementation processes. Why? These leaders are confident that their decision will be carried out rationally throughout all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, and that the desired change is an inevitable outcome.

The new approach, which Jeppe Ostersen argues should be used more, can be referred to as “the enabling approach” – or “Making it happen” as Fixsen would call it. This represents a movement towards a more dialogue-based and involving process based on capacity building and cooperation.

Click to enlarge. This figure shows scientist Dean L. Fixsen’s labelling of public-sector implementation from a hierarchical top-down approach to increasingly more co-creative and tailored bottom-up approach.

This understanding marks a new wave of public reforms. In Finland for example:

- Previously, the implementation of governmental programmes and strategic initiatives was made more or less top-down. Such procedures tended to lead to huge lists of set tasks for different agencies, which were very hard to verify and measure. The new implementation procedure focuses on strategic objectives and gives governed agencies and entities more freedom to formulate their tasks themselves, which will contribute to strategic goals, explains Antti Joensuu, Strategy Director at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.

Related article: Why top executives struggle with change

The change of practice also entails more cross-administrative collaboration to manage complicated challenges, such as immigration, better.

Turning evidence into meaningful change

When change processes drag on for decades and face multiple delays, it is often caused by the high level of complexity and resistance throughout the implementation chain. The process requires consistent changes in procedures, practices and ways of working. And this is where the individual capacity building comes in handy.

- Speeding up the implementation calls for local support. Organisations have to understand and apply new practices in local settings, and capacity building can help design the process, says Ejler.

As effective implementation strategies to a greater extent involve bottom-up thinking and capacity building, there is no quick one-size-fits-it-all solution. However, this does not automatically remove the need for classic top-down implementation strategies, the implementation expert emphasises.

- There’s obviously a difference between following a simple recipe and raising a child. Solutions should be tailored to the specific context. This means that the leader must be able to differentiate organisational complexity, assess the readiness to learn among practitioners and estimate the scope of the change.

- Only then may the leader choose a path. Too often, the rationalistic top-down solution has remained unchallenged, but it may still be relevant for less complicated change processes, for instance. Or in those cases where the decision is certain to face reluctance, but has to be carried out anyway. The art is to turn rational thinking and evidence into meaningful change in all parts of the chain.

How that is done can be explored further in the white paper that features several models and possible steps forward depending on the situation at hand.

Link: Download the white paper to get more fresh conclusions from the study and specific advice on how to approach an implementation process.

Become an Implementation Expert

New Approaches to Policy Implementation

Get the knowledge and practical tools to manage the complexity of policy implementation.
This white paper provides you with step-by-step methods that enables you to accomplish efficient implementation.

Download the white paper here.

How to overcome barriers of change

Implementation is not just about logic and analysis. People are often the key. This article sheds a light on frontline leaders as the prerequisite for successful change.

Read how frontline leaders can enable change

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