Organisational restructuring can’t be the only answer

Catherine Needham

Talking to lots of people in local government as part of our 21st Century Public Servant project, there’s some frustration that organisations always reach for structural change as the answer to problems. When money is tight, when demand is growing, when wicked issues cross organisational boundaries, there is a tendency to hope that a new organogram holds the answer.

So when we analyse the data from our project interviews and observe that people say their organisations don’t support the sorts of relational, reflexive workers that they would like to be, we are reluctant to suggest that organisational restructuring holds the answer. We are on the lookout for examples and ideas for how to change organisational cultures and behaviours without reinventing the silos under different names.

I came across a couple of interesting ideas from the US Army, courtesy of Nick Booth from Podnosh. Armies seem to typify the kinds of bureaucratic features that are increasingly under challenge in public services, such as hierarchy and secrecy. In a Foreign Policy article (via Daz Wright’s blog) and a TED talk, General Stanley McChrystal set out how he changed some of the organisational paradigms whilst leading a special operation task force in Iraq. He challenged the norm that secrecy should be the default setting. He used network insights to create more inclusive ways of working that, in his words, ‘valued competency above all else – including rank.’

I’m not suggesting that local government in times of austerity feels like a war zone. McChrystal’s account is of course stripped of any anxieties about the drone strikes that his network was facilitating. But I am heartened to see examples of change that go beyond merged directorates and new titles for managers.

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