Is The Public Sector Change-Able?

No, it’s not a misplaced hyphen. The title of this blog is intended to stimulate critical thinking about whether the public sector has the ability to change. Is the ability or competence ? for change built into the DNA of the public sector as the ability to metamorphose is encoded in caterpillars Or is the public sector by its very nature hardwired to preserve the status quo at all costs.

I started thinking about this after reading a newspaper headline, quoting comments made by the Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados. Commenting on his country’s economic performance, Governor Delisle described the public sector as a drag on our economic performance. In fact, this is definitely not the first public pronouncement of this nature by the Governor. Further, Barbados is not unique in having attracted such stinging criticism.

Refreshing the public sector in order to make it meaningful and efficient must be the priority of the new Administration that will be elected on February 25.

So said Professor Basil Wilson[1] during a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer.And so, my reflections continued with the public sectors in two of the CARICOM countries which were among the first to attain independence having been assessed and found wanting, is there something inherent in the structural and/or operational designs of our public sectors that serve to hinder their ability to change.

In order to answer that question, it is useful to examine the definition of change competency. According to the book Change Management: the People Side of Change, change competency is the presence of a culture that expects change and reacts with the understanding, perspectives, tools and techniques to make change seamless and effortless. Change-able or change competent organizations have an attitude and an approach which indicate that they are ready and able to embrace change. Managers in such organizations consider it their responsibility to support employees through change. For their part, employees see the navigation of change as one of the key components of their job descriptions.

It is important to make a distinction between change management and change-ability/change competence. The former is the process, tools and techniques utilized to deal with change both from the perspective of an organization and the individual. It includes such elements as communication, coaching, sponsorship, training etc. In contrast, the latter is not a specific activity but rather is the organization-wide ability to anticipate the need for, respond to, and effectively manage change over and over again.

Further, while the change management processes, tools and techniques can be taught and replicated, change-ability must be ingrained into the organization’s DNA (i.e. its culture and values). The caterpillar provides a useful albeit not perfect metaphor to bring this point home. One cannot teach any old worm the steps required to become a butterfly and then stand by and wait for the transformation to take place.

Finally, change-ability must permeate every level of the organization. It is not sufficient for the leadership to possess the competency. So, even the most dedicated and change-ready Minister and Permanent Secretary cannot on their own make a department change-able. The competence must resonate in and through all staff from the most senior to the most junior and especially in those who are on the front line.

So, having clarified the meaning of change-able, I ask again Is the public sector change-able? If not, do we have the desire, knowledgeand ability to make it so? And, once successful, what do we need to do to reinforce the change and ensure that we do not revert to business as usual?

[1] The Jamaican-born Wilson is the Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and currently services as the Executive Director of King Research Institute at Munroe College in New York.

(First published on

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