Change Management for Effective Institutions

Evie Browne
Learning Network on Capacity Development
Year of publication: 

The importance of strengthening institutional capacity to deliver sustainable results is widely recognised, especially in today’s climate of shrinking resources where achieving and demonstrating results, ensuring value for money, and improving efficiency are top priorities for development organisations. Institutions considered underperforming must evolve to meet these challenges, but institutional change is a difficult problem, and the best way for capacity development practitioners to support change may not always be clear.

Successful change management depends on good political economy (PE) analysis of the institutions involved. The literature highlights the need for external change management practitioners to develop as detailed a contextual analysis as possible.  Success factors include buoyant macroeconomic context, strong political leadership, compensating or sidelining vocal opponents, business interests of the political elite, early quick wins to create public support, coalitions, strengthening public accountability, and external support (Utomi et al 2007).

Particular challenges for change management include the difficulties of working in a specific context and the difficulty of creating change in the behavioural and cultural spheres of organisations. The most successful change may be that which is iterative and incremental, but this is rarely how donors or consultants work, and it may be impossible for external actors to affect behaviours or to reach into the core of an organisation to create change from the inside out. Resistance to external influence, whether foreign or national, suggests that change management consultants have a limited capacity to effect change, and are more likely to affect superficial processes than deep behavioural ones. Change strategy also suffers implementation problems, with most enthusiasm and drive occurring at high levels and the early stage of the process. Developing country governments often have good capacity to draft plans and strategies for change, but lack the ability to take the process through to completion. This can be due to the lack of resources and capacity for implementation, but is also due to leaders’ focus on strategy rather than nuts and bolts, and fading political will over time. Corruption and patrimonialism can also be a challenge in some countries. Even where clientelism does not exist, change requires shifts in power, which elites may resist.

Lessons and results in the literature indicate that organisational culture and leadership are important to success. Internal buy-in and ownership of change processes is important, and contextual readiness within an organisation is also key to ensuring that changes are likely to ‘stick’. Several authors recommend a gradual, incremental approach to change, which enables the growth of local ownership and associated small shifts in behaviour over time without creating resentment over large-scale, externally imposed reform. An ‘interim institutions’ approach may provide an alternative way of thinking about change: instead of aiming for reform towards a previously-decided framework for an institution, building an institution which fosters a process of change might allow an organic, local development of appropriate institutions. Against this, strong leadership is identified as useful to change, especially for maintaining momentum in the implementation phase. Success stories show a combination of factors including a supportive political context and leadership; organisational readiness; staff motivation, compensation, commitment and appreciation.