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The environmental, demographic, regional, security, economic and social policy challenges facing all governments are complex and pressing. Similarly, governments are interacting with increasingly diverse communities that are more demanding in terms of the expectations they have of service delivery.1 For the public sector, the balance has been steadily shifting from managing process and outputs to sophisticated analysis and policy creativity to identify and resolve the most complex issues facing communities.

The need for change is often unpredictable. It can emerge quickly forcing Australian Public Service (APS) leaders to be reactive and tactical but it can also be a process of continuous incremental adaptation. For many, the scale of change required is transformational rather than incremental. Some believe governments need ‘to re-imagine the way they design and deliver public services’.2 For example, Capability Reviews identified the most significant driver of change in the Department of Human Services was the shifting expectations of the customer base regarding how they access services and a growing belief that government, as a whole, should be offering a comprehensive suite of services to individuals, irrespective of the product or agency responsible for delivering a particular service. There is a view that the current model for government service delivery is not in line with expectations around convenience of access, quality or reflective of advances in technology.

Regardless of how change might be defined or described, the primary task for APS leaders and managers is to coherently manage organisational change. Change is an ever-present feature of organisational life, and the ability to manage change is a core skill.

From 2011 to 2013, however, State of the Service reports have reported a decline in employee perceptions of how well change is managed in the APS. Similarly, a review of the Capability Reviews published at the time of writing this chapter demonstrates that while a small number of agencies had good change management practices in place, the remaining larger proportion need to develop this area.

The 2013 State of the Service Agency Survey (agency survey) reported on a capability maturity model approach to assessing key organisational capabilities across the APS, including change management. Less than one-quarter of APS agencies reported their change management capability was at the desired level. Indeed, of the eight capabilities assessed, change management was rated the second lowest. Change management was also one of two capabilities assessed using this method in both 2011 and 2013, where agencies reported that little or no improvement had been made.

Lack of capability in managing change is not a problem unique to the APS. In the nineties, the influential practitioner magazine, the Harvard Business Review, published two articles: ‘Why change programs don't produce change’3 and ‘Leading change: why transformation efforts fail’.4 These articles set the tone for over 20 years of debate on why organisational change fails in the business sector. An article by the same lead author 10 years later asserted that, ‘the brutal fact is that about 70 per cent of all change initiatives fail’.5 This statement has subsequently been routinely re-stated as fact. More recent work, however, has found there ‘is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative’.6

In establishing change management practices for the APS there is a need to take into account the unique nature of change and operations management in the public context. There is persistent evidence in the broader literature that leadership styles and behaviours influence the success or failure of organisational change initiatives. Similarly, the type of change undertaken (process, cultural, technological and structural) has an impact on its success or failure, as does the type of change approach (directive or collaborative, whole-of organisation or team-based).

This chapter reports on change management in the APS, focusing on the organisational practice and employee experience of change. Understanding and adopting change management best practices that suit the APS context may offer a route towards improved performance and productivity in the APS.

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1 Albrow, M 2001, ‘Society as Social Diversity: The Challenge for Governance in the Global Age’, in Governance in the 21st Century, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, pp. 158–162.

2 Garner, C & Mann, D 2014, Now Hiring Public Entrepreneurs: Four Steps Australian Public Sector Leaders Need to Take, Accenture, p. 3, viewed 23 October 2014, http://www.accenture.com/au-en/Pages/insight-now-hiring-public-entrepreneurs.aspx.

3 Beer, M, Eisenstat, RA & Spencer, B 1990, ‘Why change programs don't produce change’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 68, no. 6, pp. 158–166.

4 Kotter, JP 1995, ‘Leading change: why transformation efforts fail’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 73, no. 2, pp. 59–67.

5 Beer, M & Nohria, N 2000, ‘Cracking the code of change’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 133–141.

6 Hughes, M 2011, ‘Do 70 Per Cent of All Organizational Change Initiatives Really Fail?’, Journal of Change Management, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 451–464.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018