Nothing left but the culture: Organisational Development in the public sector


24 Jun 2019

Nothing left but the culture: Organisational Development in the public sector

There’s an important part of organisational design often ignored in favour of more obviously bottom-line impacting options – the culture of public sector organisations.  

Ahead of our Public Sector HR Leaders Dinner on the 27thof June we sat down with Kate Wallett – Strategic OD Consultant at Surrey County Council, Associate Corporate Development and HRM Lecturer at de Montford University and our keynote speaker – to discuss the merits of culture change done properly. 

Think about your organisation. It’s likely you can quantify your turnover, the number of staff you have and the structure of your employee hierarchy. This is all information HR professionals have at their fingertips. 

What is more difficult is quantifying the behaviours and culture of your organisation. According to Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends survey ‘Only 28 percent of survey respondents believe they understand their culture well’ [1]. Yet, according to Kate, knowing the true nature of your organisation’s culture is vital to its success.

Why change?

In her work, Kate has to address ‘the hard side of culture, because it’s not a bit of fluff. There’s a perception that culture is nice, it’s not’. 

Time and again, culture has been proven to have a real impact on bottom line – with staff retention, absenteeism and engagement all factors directly impacted by culture. A Harvard Business Review study found ‘companies with highly engaged people outperform firms with the most disengaged folks – by 54% in employee retention, by 89% in customer satisfaction, and by fourfold in revenue growth’ [2].

Achieving these kinds of advantages is important in the public sector, which has been grappling with the need to make significant budget savings while providing services for an expanded customer pool.

Such challenges have required local authorities to adapt their operating models and structures to cope. Kate observes that ‘At the moment, because of the pressures around finance, many councils have had change forced upon them’. Yet for Kate, it’s especially important that the sector gives time and attention to culture, despite change proving difficult to come by;

‘The public sector is no longer about delivering services in the same way it was 10 years ago. Organisations now need to be agile and risk taking. The problem is, everything is set up to stop this happening’.

In Penna’s recent Chief Executive survey, it was reported that ‘negative attitudes and paralysis from extraordinary pressures’ have slowed vital culture change in the public sector. These ‘extraordinary pressures’ have created further blockers, in that the time and attention true change requires has proved difficult to acquire.

Yet investing time and resource into public sector culture change is worth it, and there are things which HR Professionals can do to ensure its effectiveness. 

What next?  

Kate has some top tips for initiating culture change. One of these is ensuring buy-in and ownership of any change programme by leadership rather than ‘delegating change to the HR department… culture is a leadership thing, not just a HR issue’. 

‘A lot of culture change happens because you feel you are on ever-shifting ground’. For many HR professionals and leaders in the public sector ‘their head is full of bottom lines, members expectations and budget reviews… to initiate change, getting away from this is needed. Emotional headspace and personal investment are necessities’ when planning any culture change. However, Kate advises caution in initiating change only for the sake of change. Leadership teams and HR professionals must ask themselves; 

‘Why now? What are your compelling reasons for initiating culture change? Clarity in terms of why you are doing it is important’.

Interrogating your reasons for change helps to define your vision of what you want your organisation to become, and allows clear communication of this plan to stakeholders. 

Kate is keen to stress that the definition of culture goes beyond what is usually ascribed to it. She sees a difference between ‘culture’ and ‘climate’. Too much attention is given to the ‘seductive feel of climate, rather than culture’. True culture change is not achieved only by putting up posters and changing tack on internal communications. Employee’s perceptions of ‘what is implicitly expected of them’ also informs culture. Thus any change programme must address patterns and expectations of employees behaviour.

So, a successful culture change requires leadership buy-in, a holistic and honest look at the organisation and the behaviours of its employees and a clear approach to the aims and objectives of any proposed changes.  

Join the Debate

On the 27th of June, Kate will share her experience leading change programmes and observations on culture change at our Public Sector HR Leaders Dinner.

If you’re a leading HRD in the public sector – we’d love to have you for dinner. To register your interest for this or future Penna’s HR Leaders events, email