Unleashing change in public services

Published on March 1, 2009 Reviewed on February 27, 2020   41 min

A selection of talks on Management, Leadership & Organisation

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My name is Steve Kelman. I'm a professor of public management at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The Kennedy School is our program for training people who will be working in public service. My talk for you today is on the topic of unleashing change in public services.
The theme of this talk is change. I think all of us who have worked in the public sector can agree that we need change in the public sector. I think it's fair to say that the performance of the public sector is probably better both in the UK and in the US than its reputation among the public. Both of our countries, the media do a fantastic job highlighting the problems and people seldom hear about the successes. Nonetheless, I think frankly, those of us who are either practitioners in the public sector or who study the public sector from academia can agree that the public sector should be performing better than it does. Whenever there is a gap between the performance that we hope for and expect, and believe in on the one hand, and the performance we actually observe in the public sector on the other hand, almost by definition, the only way to bridge that gap and to improve performance is through some change in how we do business in the public sector. Now that clearly does not mean that anytime any person comes up with some idea for, "Here's how we should change." Those changes are automatically justified. Many changes make no sense, some seem like good ideas when they're adopted and turn out to make no sense. So, I'm not saying that any change in the public sector is good. I'm only saying that if there's a gap between where we'd like to be in terms of performance and where we are, then some changes are necessary in the public sector; and we need to worry about change management in the public sector. The issue or the problem is that many say that achieving change, even justified change in the public sector is impossible and the mantra that is often presented is the idea that "people resist change." Perhaps the biggest message that I want to give in this talk is that the idea that change is difficult because "people resist change," is too simple.