Reacting to Political Change

Mon 22 Apr 2019

Reacting to Political Change

The principles of managing change, reacting to change, planning for change and all its other facets are long established. But governments, and civil servants, have to react to a type of change which has more of an immediate impact on them than almost anyone else: political change. In a matter of weeks the UK will have (another) new Prime Minister. That will mean a new Cabinet of Ministers, which means most government departments will suddenly have a new leader. Imagine the top 10 companies in your industry bringing in new CEOs all at the same time. Add to that (likely) none of them have worked in your industry before – or, possibly, know anything about it.

In democracies this is par for the course after an election. Different governments have different systems in place. Some new administrations re-appoint all the senior level officials (political appointees) when they come into power - like in the USA. This can prove an enormous challenge when there has been an established set of objectives and priorities which people development is helping to achieve. Conversely the UK civil service remains untouched and impartial before during and after an election - which allows for some continuity. Regardless of the system, however, there are new leaders at the top. And new leaders, particularly ones with a time limit, like to make an impression - they have a legacy to secure, after all. 

But democracies can also offer other twists and turns. We had been working on a project with the Government of Guyana in 2018 until there was a vote of no confidence in the ruling administration and the Parliament (and our project) was suspended. Limbo ensued (for several months). In Guyana the stakes are high. A recent, enormous, oil discovery is about to make the country very rich, so being in power has suddenly become even more alluring. That sort of power struggle dynamic makes skills development, supporting a wider transformation initiative, quite difficult. How do you plan for developing your people in amongst such extreme change?

In the UK we saw our own seismic change following the 2016 referendum. You would be forgiven for thinking that nothing other than Brexit has been discussed over the past 3 years, because that is largely true. A topic which was almost irrelevant to most people suddenly became the top priority, almost overnight. And that change has mapped onto the civil service. If governments around the world are consistently facing these regular (electoral) and irregular (other political shockwaves) enormous changes, how does anything get done? And how can you ever actually plan out a learning strategy?

It is near impossible to plan for every change, so resilience has always been a crucial strength for officials to nurture. In learning this has often been achieved through two circles of skills: core and reactive. The former being skills required in all political circumstances, the latter adjusting to changing requirements. But increasingly there is more agility in reactivity to political change. Best practice sharing between departments and networks of suppliers allows continuity regardless of political masters and also ensures an ability to react to new priorities and required outcomes. The challenge remains - no government has totally cracked this. But there is a lesson for us all in considering how resilient our strategies could be to a sudden big change.

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