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Change management for government in the face of digital disruption

Digital disruption has the potential to reshape our world faster than perhaps anything in history. Ten year’s ago digital handheld devices were a relatively new phenomenon. Now there are currently estimated to be more digital devices in the world than people operating them (United States Census Bureau, 2014).

Digital disruption is going to have a heavy impact on government services like healthcare, education, social services, and defence and it may even change the socio-political scenario. Any disruption is inherently unpredictable and risky which is why so much attention is being focused on the speed of technology and how it impacts almost everything we do.

The velocity at which digital disruption occurs is leading to a more structured change management response. As organisations rush to keep their people engaged, such an engineered approach can be counter-productive. The use of structured change management models has been embraced by many government departments and hundreds of public servants, over recent years. This is so they can help raise the success rates of change across government, whether it be machinery of government changes, policy or program changes – or even organisational culture. In an attempt to control the direction of digital disruption it’s natural to seek a tangible model and system that we hope can guide us through the flurry of activity and fast pace of everything. 

However the rate of current disruption is moving at such speed that we can only really seek to shape the change, and respond to it. We cannot control change and force it to fit within a structured model. To some extent this might work but constraining change projects and stakeholders to a model means that innovation and big thinking are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of process and compliance. This defies the very nature of change which should encourage innovation – where possible.

Digital disruption means that people need to adapt to changes faster than ever before. A classic example is the race between companies like Apple and Samsung to come up with newer, smarter, and more accessible smartphones, watches and tablets to retain market share. These innovation strategies are usually based on optimising current solutions and following existing models. The true breakthroughs are made when people self-organise in teams, attempt to overturn existing solutions and think of how they can implement the impossible. They avoid building on existing and seek to build from scratch.

Apple came up with the idea of the Genius bar* by ignoring existing service delivery models which were trending to a more digital customer service model (and aiming to have less people on the ground) and approaching it from a blend of technology and human empathy. Apple stores (and the genius bar) are now famous and include teams of people available to meet customers face to face.

Yet, does government really need to implement the impossible to embrace success? The answer is complex.

In an age of disruptive change, it can be difficult to keep pace but we need to remember that humans have been subjected to constant adaptation throughout tens of thousands of years and we always manage to find ways to evolve and adapt. The key is in flexibility – not introducing inflexible systems and models for behaviour. Change management models and methodologies give us the tools to shape change but they usually fail if we rigidly impose them. Humans thrive best and innovate when they self-organise, and are not limited by strict systems and regimes. When we are free to respond to disruptions, leverage systems around it and innovate then the change is more likely to be successful. This is where we need to seek to implement the impossible.

It can be difficult in government to do things differently or to think in super creative scenarios. Government usually has a traditional and hierarchical suite of management systems which are heavily governance based, auditable and are required to ensure consistent reporting back to taxpayers. Success lies in government attempting to implement the impossible and spending less time worrying about introducing and training people in complex change management models and spending more time increasing business flexibility and allowing people to self-organize to respond to change. Leaders in the public service must have enough foresight and creativity to be able to transcend reporting lines and rigid governance systems when appropriate. Change models that are introduced are effective when used as a guide and need to be flexible and adaptive, so that innovation and the ability to respond to the change to achieve success is not stifled as people attempt to stick to a step by step process. If neither technology nor people are flexible then the change process has no chance of success.

In sociology it is known that groups of human beings, left free to each regulate themselves, tend to produce spontaneous order, rather than the meaningless chaos often feared. The many roundabouts of Australia’s national capital, Canberra, is a good example. A traffic roundabout has cars moving in and out with such effective organization that they’ve replaced the more expensive option of traffic lights at many intersections and are getting better results. Whenever you have a multitude of individuals interacting with one another, there often comes a moment when disorder gives way to order and something new emerges: a pattern, a decision, a structure, or a change in direction (Miller 2010).

In order to be truly innovative you can only guide this by giving public servants the environment to thrive and to think differently about the change and what needs to occur to make it work. In the present age and as we enter the future, changes will occur faster and faster. It’s vital that public servants are given room to respond innovatively and are not stuck with an endorsed model or methodology in an ever-changing scenario that is no longer effective. People need to have the room to self-organise. Yes – it might seem unpredictable and risky but if we truly want government to respond successfully to the digital disruption then we need less focus on aligning with rigid models and systems and more on creating an innovative, flexible and dynamic approach for public servants to adapt and thrive.

Kylie is an Associate for the SAP Institute for Digital Government. You can contact her at

  *The Genius Bar offers hands on troubleshooting and diagnosis for Apple customers – and have become my lifeline!

Miller, Peter. 2010. The Smart Swarm: How understanding flocks, schools, and colonies can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done. New York: Avery.

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