How do we turn things around so that the vast majority of public sector employees in developing countries commit to public service excellence? How do we change the pervasive mindset, the predominant paradigm, from one of entitlement to commitment? It’s a tall order, and we cannot afford to underestimate the task before us.

Today, in many public sector institutions, there are real gains to be made in transforming a common mindset of indifferent public service, of abject complacency, in many ministries, to one of invigorated service and pride. The first image that comes to mind is that of an iceberg. Nine-tenths of the problem is hidden beneath the surface of things like the vast submerged base of an iceberg. In discussing this subject with colleagues, Michael Ellis of the Ottawa-based MTE Group captured the essence of the situation when he said to me, “I am growing more and more convinced that the core problem is deeply attitudinal. That’s where we have to focus our institutional strengthening efforts.”

The difficulty, of course, is that in seeking to transform a mindset we are in a very slippery domain. Where do we start? How do we know we’re making progress in changing deeply engrained attitudes, particularly in different cultural contexts? How can we evaluate what we’ve done? Difficult questions, but essential to our purpose. We need to generate a bank of questions, and then use them as probes to guide and shape our capacity development interventions.

Institutional strengthening, if it is to be sustained, is intimately bound to a comprehensive transformation process. This process involves discrete stages that are continuously impacting on each other. Each of these stages is grounded on a number of instruments that are used to probe and collect information vital to that stage. There is a saying that great wheels turn on small pivots. The institutional strengthening process turns and moves on these instruments, these pivots. The stages involve the following: diagnostics, planning, implementation, and follow-up. Across all of these stages, the importance of purpose, leadership, structure, rewards, unifying mechanisms, and relationships will also be discussed. If we are to change the collective mindset of an institution, all of these factors must be examined.

First things first. We have to begin with diagnostics. What do we need to change exactly? How can we define the problem and break it down into manageable size? We need to begin with feedback from our clients, from the public. We need to know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. By taking the time, the necessary time, to create simple customer service query instruments, we can begin our transformation efforts.

Employees need to know what the public thinks of their service. A query form or short questionnaire or a list of questions that can be asked verbally, can serve to do just that. The important thing is to gather information that can guide change and transformation initiatives. The results of such a survey may be very tough to face. Some public responses may indicate a thorough and well-worn dissatisfaction with service levels. Some may point to employee service problems of inattention, indifference, rudeness, tardiness, or arrogance. But what’s at stake is far too important to shrug off and move comfortably back into complacent, self-serving ways. The feedback is vital to planning and structuring new behavior patterns and modes of interaction with the public.

Despite the difficulties, I’m convinced that the vast majority of public sector employees will welcome transformation efforts. But, and a new world turns on this pivotal change, the crucial transformation must occur in the hearts and minds of employees. The prevailing mindset, whether one of entitlement, or one of an apathy born of feeling underpaid and undervalued- that is what must undergo a radical shift. When you consider the decades-old inertia of many public sector bureaucracies, you come to realize the sheer icy magnitude of the problem. However, if you reframe the problem as an opportunity, you can readily see the vast returns and advantages that can be won.

The lifeblood of a successful institutional strengthening effort is communication. There must be a common understanding of what’s at stake, and what needs to be done in order to get things off the ground. Communication strategies or unifying mechanisms must include both formal and informal interventions- from newsletters, working meetings, and workshops, to social events that single out and celebrate successful change. Successful implementation of institutional strengthening is dependent on successful communication.

Each autumn, in Canada, I look up into the skies to see flocks of geese flying south for the winter, flying in distinctive V- formations. It’s quite remarkable how an entire flock will suddenly wheel and turn and move as one, in perfect natural unison. I’ve often wondered about it, and about how it relates to institutional strengthening. Modern scientific research has learned a great deal about why the geese fly in these V- formations. As each of the geese flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately behind it. It’s been discovered that by flying in a V- formation in a common direction, the entire flock adds a minimum of 70% greater flying range than if each goose flew on its own. The remarkable thing is that their whole journey is made a lot easier, and smoother, and faster, because they are moving on the thrust of one another.

Interestingly, when it happens that an individual goose drops formation, it suddenly feels the immense drag and resistance of trying to go it alone, and it quickly resumes formation to take immediate advantage of the lifting power of the bird just ahead of it. It is a natural fact that has immense implications for institutional strengthening, for all public sector employees staying in strategic alignment with each other and with organizational direction and purpose.

It also happens that when the lead goose tires, it rotates back in the wing and another bird takes up the position and flies point. The transition is flawless and based on real needs, real difficulties. In addition, most of the geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed, to motivate them. Again, the implications for institutional strengthening, for creating a common, proactive mindset amongst public sector employees is profound.

The metaphor doesn’t have to be stretched very far to recognize the pivotal role of leadership in flying point. Without committed leadership leading the way, the necessary transformation in public sector thinking, in mindset, will not happen. The transformation of the Singapore Public Sector from heavy, inept bureaucracies riddled with nepotism and cronyism to a shining example of modern public sector effectiveness could not have happened without the enlightened leadership of a Lee Kuan Yew.

Most public sector leaders at the Permanent Secretary and Minister levels are under immense pressure to perform. Usually, they’re measured on short-term results against quantifiable benchmarks. The problem, however, is that political realities and donor demands often compromise the long-term strategies of excellent leaders. Nevertheless, the commitment of institutional leaders to a new way of doing things is fundamental to institutional strengthening and changing the mindsets of their subordinates. Without leadership, nothing significant can happen.

The whole question of rewards usually stops people in their tracks. “How can we afford to raise salaries when the nation itself is struggling to keep afloat?” In most cases salary increments will have to be pegged to the national economy and these increments deferred until meaningful and measurable progress has been made against quantifiable performance results.

But, rewards and the attendant motivational strategies behind them, do not have to be strictly monetary. There are a plethora of ways to encourage motivation that public sector employees will readily embrace in the expectation that as public service improves, so too will the conditions that support greater financial remuneration. Awards and special recognition events can mark and celebrate achievements on the flight path to revitalized public sector institutions. Special focus groups made up of representatives from across public sector ministries can articulate and define the myriad ways to enhance employee behavior and develop the robust and proactive mindset essential to strengthened institutional functioning.

Changing the mindset of employees requires far more than rhetoric. Inspiring speeches, regardless of how Churchillian in tenor, won’t turn the tide. What is required is a carefully planned and calibrated communications strategy blended with capacity development initiatives that focus on the rationale for change and the demonstrable behavior that supports implementation efforts. In addition to rigorously following the stages suggested here, the international best practices of successful institutional strengthening models such as that of Singapore, Jamaica, and New Zealand need to be studied in order to determine the applicability and implementation of those practices in the host institution. It must be remembered that one size does not fit all, particularly in the realm of public sector institutions with vastly different organizational cultures. As in the Canadian geese metaphor, there are many variables that need to be considered. However, once the strategic direction is determined and fixed, the opportunities to be gained are substantial.

It cannot be forgotten that in many public service organizations around the world, the establishment of posts, often completed in a distant and remote colonial past, has often been viewed as sacrosanct, and not amenable to change. This has contributed to a rigid mindset sanctioned by historical precedent and outworn tradition. Many public service organizations then, undergoing reform and transformation initiatives must, as a matter of course, question the past establishment of posts and the numbers accompanying these posts with a critical and discerning eye. These ancient posts and the organizational structure that they are embedded in bear about as much relevance to contemporary public sector functioning as buggy whips do to automobile acceleration on superhighways.

Regardless of any modifications to organizational structure, the real achievements will be made by teams of committed individuals working in tandem with other institutional teams in pursuit of organizational purposes and goals. The quality of the relationships between individuals and between teams is vital. Leadership positions identified in the organizational structure will be used to guide, leverage, and follow-up team efforts across departments and ministries. The best teams will be self-regulating and will work to weed out pockets of resistance and counter productivity from within that can and should be expected in massive transformation initiatives.

In this article, we’ve looked at the key stages necessary in institutional strengthening and changing employee mindsets: namely, diagnostics, planning, implementation, and follow-up. Throughout these stages, the importance of purpose, leadership, structure, rewards, relationships, and unifying mechanisms have also been examined. This approach can lead to invigorated institutional strengthening efforts and the vital transformation of employee mindset that can make or break such efforts.