Changing the organisational culture of our government

Toposa Children
Toposa Children

President Kiir proposed a process of national dialogue. There’s much scepticism about the timing and credibility of this process. He could do something about that.

I’ve worked all my life in the private sector. This was not by design, but by happy chance and circumstance. There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the unforgiving world of private enterprise. Not least, about the nature of organisations, and how they can function effectively or fail spectacularly.

New boss, new rules

I remember, once, sitting in at a head office briefing. A new Chief Executive had been appointed and he wanted to meet the staff. So we gathered to hear his vision. It was all rather mundane fare. Much was made of the need to increase sales, cut costs and improve on last year’s bottom line. In short, the shareholders expected us to achieve better results with reduced resources.

Here we go again, I remember thinking at the time. After all, this was my third Chief Exec at this firm. I’d developed an impression of the shareholders as a clutch of hungry chicks in a nest, mouths agape, loudly and incessantly demanding to be fed ever higher profits at an ever faster rate.

Although he was keen now, sooner or later, this Chief Exec would be worn out by the supreme effort of trying to satisfy their insatiable needs.

There was to be a period of consultation where the Chief Exec would listen to our ideas for achieving what we were required to achieve. His door would be open, should anyone ever want to talk with him directly.

Middle management woes

We all knew that wasn’t going to be easy. Between the executives and the rank and file sat middle management. And they’d proved, time and again, an effective barrier to change. They jealously guarded their access to the previous Chief Exec. He only heard what they wanted him to hear. And he acted, on the whole, according to what he heard.

Now that there was a new Chief Exec at the helm, the middle management needed to demonstrate their value to the firm. That meant controlling the “narrative” which reached the new boss more tightly than ever before. True to form, my own manager pulled her team in for a talk afterwards. We were to run things by her first if we ever wanted to speak with the new Chief Exec. She expected me to manage my own subordinates accordingly.

But this was a new Chief Exec. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. And as promised, he set about disrupting the organisational culture that had become entrenched under the stewardship of the previous Chief Exec. As expected of most incoming new bosses, he replaced nearly all the senior executives. But he also identified and pushed out intransigent and uncompromising middle managers. He created new mechanisms for engaging with staff. He worked on improving transparency and the flow of information. He brought in new trainers to change the way we thought about our work, in the hope that we would develop a new organisational culture that would make us a more productive and, coincidently, a well-adjusted and satisfied workforce.

The grim challenge of organisational change

If you’ve stuck it this long, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to thread South Sudan into this blog post. You’ll need to wait just a little while longer.

Organisational change is one of the most difficult undertakings that a leader can embark on. The culture of an organisation is defined by the people within the organisation, their goals, their values, their ways of communicating with each other, and their attitudes to the organisation and to the environment in which it operates.

Organisational culture is a collectively held set of beliefs and assumptions about how the organisation actually works, and not how it could or should work.

Leaders, don’t always realise their own role in creating and re-enforcing this culture. As in all organisations, Chief Execs exist in a goldfish bowl. Their values, attitude and behaviour is carefully watched by staff. They take their cues from this behaviour. They justify their actions by pointing to the example set by the boss.

This is why it’s far harder to change an existing organisation’s culture than it is to create a new culture in a brand new organisation or by bringing in an entirely new team.

Great idea, bad timing

In his speech to parliament on 15th December, President Salva Kiir unveiled plans for a process of national dialogue.

His speech was packed with lofty ideals like re-establishing the social contract, re-invigorating nationalism and resolving all grassroots grievances through open dialogue and popular consultation.

Having heard the speech, it’s hard to believe that it was given by the president of a country that is still in a state of civil war. Where the reconstituted transitional government is considered by many to be a sham and the peace process is widely believed to have collapsed.

But, let’s set aside the very real concerns that many, myself included, have over the feasibility and credibility of this proposed process given its timing … if only for a moment.

I wholeheartedly believe that we need a process of national dialogue. It is long overdue. At its heart must be a substantial change to the organisational culture of South Sudan’s government and, by extension, its relationship with the people of South Sudan.

The organisational culture of South Sudan’s government has been a long time in the making. Some would argue that its genesis began with the internecine killings in the early days of the SPLM, which forced commanders to employ relatives as bodyguards to ensure their safety. Others, through the wartime economies that developed over time, whereby commanders turned their zones into de facto personal fiefdoms, reinforced through patronage networks, political marriages and familial ties.

It is now deeply entrenched. Under the watch of President Kiir, the organisational culture that permeates the government of South Sudan has developed into something altogether more egregious. Corruption is widespread. Nepotism and parochialism are endemic. Citizen engagement is perfunctory. Repression and coercion are common practice. Freedom of speech and expression are curtailed. A militarised political elite has developed that is disconnected from the citizenry and is seemingly unsympathetic to their daily struggles. The over-reliance on oil exacerbates the crisis at the heart of our polity.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Is President Kiir the right person to initiate and oversee this process? Some would say he is the President of the Republic and as such, has the right to do so.

I believe those people are missing the point. We all believe that South Sudan desperately needs a process of national dialogue. We all want the process to succeed. In so doing, we might finally be able to set our country down the path to sustainable peace.

But we know that the likelihood of success is low. It’s far harder to change an existing organisation’s culture than it is to create a new culture in a new organisation or by bringing in an entirely new team. Saying the national dialogue process will be at arm’s length from the government is simply not enough. A substantial gesture is needed to get all our people (loyalists and opposition alike) to believe and buy into this process.

President Kiir could demonstrate a profound commitment to this process, by declaring a unilateral ceasefire and transferring patronage of the national dialogue process, along with full and unrestricted authority to implement its recommendations, to the transitional national legislature. Taking the first step in providing the secure environment needed to conduct dialogue demonstrates genuine intent. While ceding control to the legislature underlines, in no uncertain terms, the primacy of this process. Under the constitution, the legislature represents the will of the people of South Sudan. Let them elect a First Minister, without interference or intimidation, to sponsor the process. Let them identify and appoint the eminent personalities who will lead the dialogue, through a transparent process that is accessible to all citizens.

This is an imperfect solution, because a large proportion of parliamentarians are appointed and not elected.  Nevertheless, it may just gain acceptance from those who see this process as a cynical exercise aimed at restoring a failed status quo through obfuscation and misdirection.

Reversal and retrenchment

A final consideration, of vital importance, is giving the process adequate time and the political space to succeed. I shall return to the case study with which I began this blog post to issue a warning.

For a while the Chief Execs reforms seemed to work. The firm was reenergised. There was a growing belief that we could do better. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. The Chief Exec managed to reduce overheads. He renegotiated with suppliers and reduced their prices. He tightened procedures and reduced wasteful spending. He pulled out the butcher’s knife and cut staff levels down to the bone.

But while he was able to cut costs, he failed to increase sales. The shareholders’ over-ambitious profit targets were missed. Under pressure not to miss those all-important targets again, the focus changed.

The emphasis shifted from positive and sustained organisational change to an unhealthy short-termism that revolved around the bottom line. Old habits gradually returned. It seemed the organisation’s culture hadn’t changed after all. It had just gone into hiding. Now that the Chief Execs attentions had turned elsewhere, it could re-emerge, blinking once more into the light.


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