Kelman: Change management

Harvard Business Review, meet government; government, meet Harvard Business Review

“Change Management in Government”

While I worked in government and since I left it, I have been impressed by how often I have seen copies of Harvard Business Review, or HBR as it’s known around Cambridge, on the waiting area tables of senior government officials — or even on their desks.

Steve Kelman HBR has a mixed reputation among business school academics, who regard many of its articles as excessively guruish and insufficiently grounded in research evidence. Nonetheless, I have always been pleased to see HBR around government offices because interest in the magazine is a sign of a desire for organizational improvement, one of the publication’s major topics. Federal managers also seem to appreciate HBR’s praiseworthy rejection of a not-invented-here syndrome that hinders the government’s ability to learn lessons from elsewhere.

So government has discovered HBR. Now, it seems, HBR has discovered government. The May/June issue of the magazine features an article by Frank Ostroff called “Change Management in Government.” To my knowledge, it is the magazine’s first article focusing specifically on management in a government context.

Ostroff, a mid-1980s graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, went on to a rocketlike career at McKinsey and Co., a management consulting firm. He abandoned private-sector work for his first love — helping the government — and now runs a boutique consulting firm for federal customers.

The article discusses change management at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Government Accountability Office and the military’s Special Operations Forces. Ostroff provided consulting services to OSHA during its change effort.

Ostroff’s article does a nice job of presenting government as a place in which change is possible.

Contrary to the mantra that “people resist change,” Ostroff presents a rule that corresponds with the evidence about frontline attitudes when procurement reform began in the 1990s. That rule is that one-quarter of frontline people in government will initially support change efforts — often out of frustration with how things have been handled in the past. One-quarter will oppose changes, and half of the people will be on the fence. The job of change advocates is to mobilize supporters and convince fence-sitters.

The article features a fascinating discussion about how OSHA introduced its change initiatives. The agency first developed, with frontline help, a list of initiatives that could improve the agency’s performance. The approach was then to encourage local units to try those from the list they found most appealing. Changes were tested at two of the most enthusiastic offices and expanded from there. At each stage of the implementation, the five offices that would be in the next wave observed those coming before them to get a better feel for what they were doing.

Tom Stewart, HBR’s editor, is interested in expanding the magazine’s coverage of the public sector. He is looking for a good article about what public managers can teach the private sector — for example, skills necessary for obtaining agreement among diverse stakeholders.


Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at [email protected].


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