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Challenges to Organizational Change

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Challenges to Organizational Change: Facilitating and Inhibiting Information-Based Redesign of Public Organizations Jane E. Fountain National Center for Digital Government Kennedy School of Government / Harvard University This paper is one of a series of works in progress sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA), its Governance Initiative in the Middle East, and the Dubai School of Government. All papers in the series are available on the BCSIA web site, www.belfercenter.org, and the Dubai School of Government's web site, www.dsg.ae.1 Challenges to Organizational Change: Facilitating and Inhibiting Information-Based Redesign of Public Organizations Jane E. Fountain1 National Center for Digital Government Kennedy School of Government Harvard University Introduction The Internet, World Wide Web, and a host of related technologies have revolutionized the potential to conceptualize and use information and to design organizations, institutions, and governance arrangements in wholly new ways. Yet with this new potential, change agents encounter governments “as they are,” that is, governments in political economies with distinct structures; in cultures with rich histories and traditions; in sets of organizations characterized by complex, interlocking processes; and in institutional environments composed of sedimentary layers of legislation, practices, and politics. In all of these structures, change agents encounter individuals, most of whom remain motivated, at least in part, by what they perceive to be their interests, constrained by their network of social and professional relationships, and guided by long-standing habits, beliefs, attitudes, and experience. Why is organizational change difficult? The question is: why has anyone thought that organizational change in government would not be difficult? A research team at the National Center for Digital Government, led by the author, has been studying facilitators and barriers to organizational change in governments striving to use information in novel and strategic ways. We examine several categories of change and focus on seven. These are (1) project characteristics, (2) individual motivation for participation in organizational change, (3) the role of material resources, (4) organizational attributes, (5) network attributes, (6) institutional attributes, and (7) technological attributes. Organizational change is a multi-faceted topic; researchers approach it from a dizzying array of angles. The categorization scheme developed here seems to fit particularly well in the governmental context. We have developed research instruments to explore empirically the role played by each category. To date, we have surveyed and interviewed nearly 300 civil servants engaged in organizational change projects in the United States and Canada. Researchers in other countries, including Mexico and Japan, are in the process of adopting this framework in the hope of improving E-Government in their own countries. The predominant thrust of business re-design in information-based government pushes against traditional bureaucratic boundaries in order to develop inter-organizational networks. These networks are at times internal inter-agency arrangements, at other times public-private partnerships, and at still other times more complex arrays of public, private, and non-profit organizations. Thus, the development and sustainability of such networked forms is a key challenge for organizational change. Inter-organizational arrangements, or cross-agency projects (as they are called in the U.S. federal government), are the focus of the discussion of organizational change in this chapter. Beginning in about 1990, interest in collaboration in government increased as partnerships and cross-agency arrangements held promise to improve governance. In a classic article on inter-organizational collaboration, Oliver (1990) pointed out that while a burgeoning literature on inter-organizational relationships had been generated, it remained highly fragmented. A decade later, although some progress had been made and interest in collaboration and networks had grown substantially, the 1 The author acknowledges the research assistance of Amanda Coe, Robin McKinnon, Ines Mergel, and Eun-Yun Park. Amanda Coe contributed to the literature review that forms a part of this chapter.2 Organizational Structures and Processes Inter- Individuals Projects author observed (Fountain 2001) that, “although researchers continue to search for the holy grail of productive cooperation and coordination across organizational boundaries, they have not reached consensus on the conditions that promote or discourage network formation and effectiveness.” Similarly, public administration researchers Milward and Provan (2000) wrote that “there is little evidence that governments or academics know much about how to govern or manage networks.” Joining other observers and researchers, we decried the high failure rate of inter-organizational networks and, more generally, failures in business redesign projects that underlie nearly all efforts at partnership across organizations. This chapter sets out some of the elements of organizational change that challenge efforts to build E-Government. We need a way of thinking about organizations and institutions that retains their complexity yet that offers levers and openings for those interested in public service and the possibilities of improvement. First, we will examine critical elements that influence organizational change in government. Organizational change of any substance and scale is likely to involve multiple levels of analysis. Individuals, projects, organizations, and institutions differ in their attributes and functions; the framework advanced here sketches some of their multiple dynamics. Second, we will examine competing logics of organizational change. Decision-makers in organizations make complex trade-offs daily. The standard management fare that counsels leaders to develop compelling


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