Culture change is one of those phrases used so often that its meaning is often obscured or forgotten. It becomes just another item on a checklist and manifests itself in every undertaking that results in new ways of thinking.
But the reality of culture change is sweeping and profound. The process of getting employees to change their ways — whether forming new habits or letting go of decades-old grudges — can take years.
The term is used in many settings. When agencies modernize systems, when they introduce new forms of procurement, when contractors merge or in dozens of other contexts, leaders will fret about culture change.
But although the backdrops of each example may differ, many of the strategies and techniques that smooth out the change are in play in every case.
The common threads include leadership at the top, champions in the middle and "buy-in" at all levels. Effective communications can ease the effort by building enthusiasm and squelching rumors. And simple enforcement of new rules and processes for those who won't come along willingly is also needed, according to veteran federal managers.
"Culture change means that an organization, not just the leadership or line-level people, is able to adopt a new way of thinking about what they do, why they do it and then how they do it," said consultant Robert Guerra of Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates Inc. "In our community, we are so used to thinking and reacting tactically that we never bother to focus on the philosophical reasons to change and develop a strategy to inculcate that change into everything we do."
Guerra's work often focuses on performance-based contracting, a relatively new concept for federal acquisition managers, in which contracts specify the agency's goals and leave it to contractors to figure out the technologies and practices needed to accomplish them. Many government managers are uncomfortable if they're spelling out the details of every step, he said.
"People resist change because it is a scary thing," he said. "It means that what they have done for years that has worked just fine may not be right anymore."
In information technology projects, one recurring challenge is building trust among agency employees and contractors, said Kathy Conrad, senior vice president of Jefferson Consulting Group LLC.
In working on various projects, she said the cultural problems that arose had nothing to do with changing technology or business processes. "It was people who were resistant to change, [who were] unclear about evolving roles," Conrad said.
Managers can prevent some problems early on by identifying the expected results of a transformation project and getting support from everyone who will be affected. That aligns everyone from top to bottom around a common set of goals, she said.
If some people resist, "you help them understand how the achievement of that goal benefits the organization as a whole and how their role will be enhanced by the achievement of those advances," Conrad said.
Navy: Clemins and the chain
Retired Adm. Archie Clemins, former commander of the Pacific Fleet, said pulling rank now and then can be useful. He pioneered the networking effort to connect the ships of the Pacific Fleet with one another and with land-based stations. The project, which came to be called IT-21, changed how personnel communicated.
The program had the high-level support it needed from the upper ranks, he said. Getting everyone to use the new tools such as e-mail and instant messaging was more difficult.
"If you're a four-star admiral, it really helps" get people to listen, Clemins said, referring to his rank at the time.
There was little resistance among the personnel aboard ships, he said. They were staying in touch with loved ones back home and were glad for any new technology to make communications faster and more frequent. Those on shore, however, who were not as keenly aware of the distance between ships and home, were less willing to dedicate funding or time to the effort.
At the time — in the late 1990s — "the vast majority of admirals couldn't find the on/off switch on a computer if their lives depended on it," said retired Rear Adm. John Gauss, now a senior vice president at Science Applications International Corp. He headed up procurement for IT-21 and said Clemins "was viewed as something of a radical."
Resistance is less likely among members of a group if the leader uses the technology, Clemins said. When he became commander of the fleet in 1996, he was convinced that the Navy needed the networks and the communications capabilities that the then-novel technology could provide.
Then he had to convince everyone else. Referring to his long-held belief that "if the boss doesn't use it, don't buy it," he set out to make sure the fleet's bosses would use it.
"In the first meeting I had with the 40-something flag officers, I asked how many of them had e-mail addresses," he said. "Less than half of them did. I said, 'I do most of my work by e-mail. I want you to have your own e-mail addresses and read your own e-mail.' That was on a Friday, and by Monday they had all e-mail
Among the lower ranks, Clemins advocates learning firsthand what people need, so that the purchasing decisions made farther up the chain will prove useful.
"The more time you spend with them, the more you learn," he said. "You don't learn much sitting in your office."
IT-21 demonstrated the value of firm leadership, Gauss said. He and Clemins both were willing to motivate with a stick rather than a carrot when needed, while using persuasion when possible.
OFPP: Styles and the open door
Angela Styles may have had an impossible task. As administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, she oversaw the revision of Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, which guides agencies as they open work performed by their employees to private-sector competition.
Styles' job was more than pushing A-76, but that often overshadowed most everything else, she said. She left the government late last year to return to the Washington, D.C., law firm of Miller and Chevalier, where she specializes in government contracts.
As the public face of an item on the President's Management Agenda that federal employees say puts their jobs at risk, Styles said she knew from the beginning that her work would not be easy. Building acceptance of A-76 would take culture change on an almost impossible scale.
"It's tough on the workforce," she said. "It's hard, it's demoralizing, it's hard to implement. [Agency managers] knew all that. The status quo is a lot more comfortable."
Through it all, though, Styles said she tried to keep the doors open between her office and the federal employee unions, one of the main conduits of information to the federal workforce. Despite fierce opposition from the unions, Styles made sure to keep their leaders informed.
"I think we were always at cross-
purposes," she said. "However, that doesn't mean you don't have an open-door policy, that you don't give them information before it gets into the press. You gain a lot from having an open-door policy even if you agree to disagree. They would always object to [A-76], but they couldn't say they didn't have access."
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, confirmed that Styles kept information flowing, which helped ensure that federal employees could better sort fact from fiction in what continues to be a contentious issue.
"It helps both sides to know what the other side sees as fact," she said. "If we're not talking, then we're all speculating on what each other is thinking."
Because of the emotional nature of the issue, though, it was not easy to get accurate information to the workforce, she added. "In some respects, I was naive about how difficult it is to force, or to bring about, change in an agency," she said. "It's not just acceptance of it, it's basic awareness of it. Even just coordinating a message to the federal workforce is extremely difficult."
Styles also was hampered by many agency officials' negative attitudes toward older policies.
During the Clinton administration, agencies were required to make arbitrary staff cuts. And when A-76 was used to open jobs to competition — something the Defense Department was almost alone in doing at the time — the anticipated savings were cut from agency budgets before the competitions even took place, she said.
The Bush administration's plan was different, but agency leaders "assume you're doing the same thing," she said.
Despite the difficulty of getting accurate information out, Styles said some agencies moved quickly to implement
the revised A-76 guidelines and hold
"Some were on board pretty quickly," such as the Interior Department, she said. "Some, like the Army Corps of Engineers, took a very long time. I think there are still some agencies that are just playing the paper game."
Styles relied on members of the Senior Executive Service to understand what the President's Management Agenda called for and to filter the information down through their agencies, she said. She also broke big goals into smaller, more attainable ones.
One key piece of authority came when OMB officials made the budget side of the agency responsible for boosting scores on agenda score cards, she said.
"The budget examiners have a lot more respect because they can do almost anything they want to the agency's budget," Styles said. "They were our most aggressive supporters. That plays well into the calculus of managing the executive agencies. Your only tool at OMB is public embarrassment or budgets. You don't have any direct line authority."
By the end of her tenure, Styles believes now, she had made significant strides toward building acceptance of the A-76 process, but there is still much work for others to carry on.
"I think we made more progress than I expected, but that doesn't mean it's long-term, lasting progress," she said. "I was surprised at the end by the number of career people who told me, 'This is really hard, but it is the right thing to do.'"
GSA: Coleman and the payoff
You need a "long runway" of time to effect significant cultural change, said Casey Coleman, deputy associate administrator of citizen services at the General Services Administration.
She should know. She is already preparing GSA's three major business units to share information through a new customer relationship management (CRM) system that won't be fully implemented until next year.
It also helps that the Federal Supply Service and Federal Technology Service are already using the system. But once the third unit, the Public Buildings Service, is tied in, everyone will have to change, Coleman said.
"Everyone had been focused on fulfilling their own mission," she said. "One of the things we're asking people to do is to start cooperating and start collaborating. That requires an openness and willingness to share information."
The effort is part of the ongoing One GSA initiative that provides a single view of the customer, Coleman said. If one system holds the information that each of GSA's arms needs, services will run more smoothly if they share.
But it will require GSA officials to think in terms of information sharing and that hasn't been necessary before, she said. One way she plans to encourage that is to set performance standards that measure employees on their willingness and effectiveness in sharing information, not just on factors that are limited to their jobs.
Coleman has not yet defined those standards, she said, but she expects that employees will measure up.
"For the most part, they want to do the right thing," she said. "You have to give people a vision of not only why it's important for the agency and for customers, but how it's going to affect them, and get their buy-in."