The More Things Change…

I stumbled across an article from a 1950 issue of The American Political Science Review titled “Administrative Stability and Change”. I laughed out loud as I read it and then I sent it to Debbie right away because I was astounded at how relevant and applicable the article still was! One of my favorite passages in the article says: “…institutions tend to become sluggish, to lose their sensitivity, flexibility and capacity for ready adjustment.” I couldn’t have said it any better than that even though it’s now 2021 – 71 years after the article was published!

One of the themes Debbie and I frequently return to is about how many organizations, particularly governmental organizations, or those that are closely dependent on government organizations, seem to prize stability and compliance over outcomes. But in today’s world, achieving desired outcomes requires a more nimble and responsive approach – one that government entities struggle to develop. The article outlined some of the reasons for why this may be – and why it’s been that way for a long time.  

The article discusses the dynamic that occurs between “permanent” career staff and the appointed leaders who come and go with political administration changes. It reminded me of a person I worked with who once described state career staff as what she called “wee-bees” as in “we be here when you came, we be here when you go”. That may be apt for a certain subset of career government staff but the majority are well-meaning public servants who truly believe that they are doing work that is in the best interest of the public they are serving; but….

That cultural inertia that prizes stability above all prevents a lot of career staff from being able to see beyond compliance – and that may even prevent them from seeing the larger picture or buying into a transformative agenda because that threatens their stability and continuity. While this is understandable, that inertia has the potential to pull appointed officials – even the ones who come in with big agendas – into that mindset. Remember – culture eats strategy for lunch, and this is a culture with its own gravitational force.  

I have observed a number of state administration transitions by now and there are some patterns. Sometimes the incoming officials get sucked into that gravitational force and fall victim to the low risk, compliance-focused organizational culture. Some come in with a mindset that the career employees are a force to be vanquished and overcome in their quest to achieve their policy objectives. The best ones come in and are able to gain buy-in to new goals, to motivate career folks in new directions, and to sort out the ones who are not able or not willing to get on board with a new direction. (Again, nothing really changes as the 1950 article basically outlines the same three scenarios!)

A successful organization in today’s world, even a government organization, needs to be nimble and responsive to change, to even be an agent of a change at times. Successful managers must be able to recognize and address these cultural issues. We have said, frequently and publicly, that when you are trying to accomplish real transformation in your organization, the single most important thing you need are some key people who have strong people management skills – not just vague “leadership” attributes, but actual concrete skills in developing people, delegating, coaching, and keeping people accountable. Without those skills, “leadership” can just be wishful thinking. Unfortunately, managers don’t always get the training and support they need to develop these critical skills, particularly in government organizations or those dependent on public funds.

As our author said in 1950, “…an essential value in government is continuity”. I don’t necessarily think that means that the same problems that were discussed in 1950 are supposed to be completely relevant in 2021 but it’s true what they say – the more things change, the more they stay the same!  

This isn’t destiny though. While these cultural issues are a big reason for why publicly funded LTSS programs are so fractured, there are organizational changes that can be made to help agencies be nimbler. They can become more adept at responding to change and supporting the culture change that is part of developing more person-centered systems of administration and service delivery. In coming blog entries, Debbie and I will share strategies for helping your government (or government-adjacent) organization be better equipped to tackle a transformative agenda or to at least be able to respond in a more agile fashion when opportunities present themselves. We don’t have another 70 years to meet the human service needs of the next couple of decades.  

Excerpts from:  Esman, Milton J. “Administrative Stability and Change.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 44, no. 4, 1950, pp. 942–950. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Jan. 2021.

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