How resilient is your reform program to a change in leadership?


Transparent glass doors leading to an office where business meeting is taking place

Governments of all persuasions come to office with bold intentions to improve the lives of their citizens, but all too often there is little real impact to show at the end of their terms.

To be fair, that’s not always the fault of the politician or policymaker. Most reforms – to improve education or health outcomes, for example – take years to have an impact on citizens’ lives. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned initiatives fail to deliver the intended impact even then.

Several explanations for this policy failure spring to mind almost immediately. Poor policy design can be one cause. Another can be resistance from stakeholders or those who might be negatively impacted. And implementation is an area where it can all too easily go astray.

However, there is one issue that we at the Centre for Public Impact believe is not sufficiently taken into account, and that’s the impact of a change of leadership, something that happens more often than you might think.

For example, in the four years since the Coalition government came to power in Australia, there have been 42 changes of minister and 19 changes of secretary. No department has the same minister and secretary in place as when the government came to power. And under the previous Rudd/Gillard government there were 36 changes of minister and 22 changes of secretary.  Changes of leadership during a reform program are clearly something that should be anticipated, but frequently are not.

Hitting the brakes

And when changes are not confined to individuals or departments but instead extend across the whole administration, the impact on reforms is even more dramatic. In most democratic countries, a government’s term of office is somewhere between three and five years – less than the time required for many major reforms to really take hold. If reforms only get going halfway through a term, there can be a change in government within two years of the start of the reform program. This jeopardises the reform before it has had a chance to prove itself.

At a minimum, a change of government can lead to a loss of momentum as the new team focuses on their own priorities, rather than those of their predecessors. And in many cases, a change of government can result in the program being halted completely – just think of the steps taken by the Trump administration to halt and reverse many Obama-era rules and regulations.

But reform momentum can also be lost because of a change in leader. This could be a new secretary of a department a new head of agency or a new minister. Unless there was a very visible public commitment to a particular reform agenda by the government of the day (and many reforms are not that public), it can easily be almost inadvertently deprioritised by the new leader, who doesn’t have the same degree of ownership as his or her predecessor.

A downgrade in priority can be more demoralising for the team working on the reform than a complete halt in the program. When a team has to soldier on in a declining authorising environment, it is increasingly difficult to move the inevitable roadblocks or motivate other parties whose support is required. As a result, key people leave and eventually the program is shut down.

Resolving to be more resilient

So, is there anything that a program designer or director can do to make their initiative resilient to a change in leadership? Yes – plenty, in fact.

There should be several champions for the program beyond the main sponsor. These can be actively cultivated by identifying soft supporters and then converting them into champions. This will reduce the program’s reliance on one key sponsor, who may have less influence with the incoming leader. Steps can also be taken to ensure that explicit public commitments have been given to make it harder for a new leader to walk away.

The frontline also offers a rich seam of potential supporters. A new leader will often listen to what these employees tell them is important, so ensuring the presence of those who will champion the importance of the program can only serve to strengthen its ties, irrespective of a new hand on the tiller. And as in so many cases, momentum matters. Quick wins and early value proofs can demonstrate to a new leader the program’s potential value.

Even when there is a change of government, all is not lost. Bipartisan support for the program should be the first priority. This might seem unrealistic or naïve, but it does happen. Take Finland’s education system, for example. Widely seen as the top performer in Europe, it should come as no surprise that political parties at their most recent general election in 2015 were agreed a common approach to schools.

In parliamentary democracies, engaging the shadow spokesperson as a key stakeholder in the design of the program can, at a minimum, reduce the level of opposition to the program. This is because most people become less opposed – and can even switch sides to support a policy – if their views have been seriously considered. Indeed, if there are several options on how to move forward, choosing a second best option that has broader political support will have a higher probability of positive long-term impact than choosing a first best option that has a narrower support base.

If full bipartisan support is a step too far, then at least try to cultivate one key supporter on the other side of politics, who can make the case for the continuation of the program if the government changes. Similar steps can be taken outside of the party political sphere by building a coalition of respected third party champions.

This means doing more than just consulting third parties about the development of a program or reform, but ensuring that key third parties are sufficiently engaged in the development of the program to become real champions. Identifying those people who a future administration will listen to, getting their support and seeking their commitment to continue to champion the program if the government changes can all help to strengthen its longevity.

Staying the course

In any democracy or organisation, change is inevitable from time to time. That’s to be welcomed – no party stays in power forever and, these days at least, very few people stay in one job for their entire career. But changes in government should not automatically lead to a programme being abandoned just because it’s seen as the agenda of another person or party.

Although reversing course and starting anew may please the most ideologically fervent, such an approach risks throwing out much investment and capability that has been built. It can delay the prospect of better outcomes ahead, further betraying the citizens who have endured oft-repeated policy announcements. All the more reason, then, for reform programs to be given the chance to take firmer root and remain in place when a new leadership team rolls into place.

And sponsors of reforms should ask themselves: is there potential for a change of organisational leadership or change of government before the reforms have fully taken hold, and if so, are we doing all we can to ensure the resilience of the reform to a change in leadership?

Larry Kamener is the Chair of the Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation, and also a senior partner in the Melbourne office of The Boston Consulting Group

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