What is Organisational Culture in the Public Sector?

A popular definition from Schein is that organisational culture is the ‘shared learning experiences that lead, in turn, to shared, taken for granted basic assumptions held by the members of the group or organisation’.

What this implies is that an organisational culture embodies shared, collaborative values and assumptions that make up the ideologies and goals of an organisation. It’s both the way an organisation works and the way it thinks and feels as a community. It’s influenced by change driven by key agents. In the face of current and future challenges for the public sector, embracing radical change and collaborative organisation becomes ever more important. 

So how can we further define organisational culture and what are the challenges for the public sector?

Defining Organisational Culture for the Public Sector

Organisational culture resists specific definition as there are countless interpretations across both the public and private sector. There are three main perspectives when it comes to an organisational culture:

  • Integration: Where there is one organisation-wide consensus on culture, of which everyone embodies the same beliefs and attitudes.
  • Differentiation: Where a culture is made up of subcultures that are either harmonious, conflicting or indifferent. 
  • Fragmentation: Common ideas, beliefs and attitudes do not exist within one organisation-wide culture or within subcultures. Changes are influenced by events or issues and both consensus and conflict exist between individuals and groups.

Due to the nature of communities and values being incredibly complex, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that all three of these types can exist within one organisation. 

Each of these need to be considered when implementing cultural or digital transformation. When it comes to the latter, incorporating new technology company-wide or specific departments can upset various subcultures. This means research needs to be done into their unique paint points.

An organisational culture of any type is dynamic. Because of changes to an organisation, both internally and externally, a culture is always subject to change. Trying to develop a culture in line with a goal is a little like hitting a moving target with an arrow from horseback - it’s not impossible but it’s certainly difficult. 

Culture change can be managed incrementally, through a continuous process, which highlights that you should never view it as a ‘destination’. It’s a journey towards a shifting endpoint. 

Without this holistic and nuanced view of organisational culture, any organisation is immediately on the back foot by trying to develop something that’s rigid and inflexible.

What Types of Cultural Change Are There?

Furthermore, there are three types of change that can occur within public sector organisations:

  • Developmental: Incremental changes which improve a certain process or skill over time, like a new data management system or company-wide training program.
  • Transitional: Changes that are episodic. For example, when one specific strategy is thrown out and exchanged for another.
  • Transformational: This is the type of change that challenges certain underlying assumptions or processes. It’s the most ongoing and adaptive of the three.

For example, in 2017 Cornwall Council began to implement the ‘Digital Cornwall Programme’. Over two years, the issues of outdated IT structures were met by creating new digital foundations - such as incorporating meeting technology, public WiFi and virtual communications (such as Skype) into their services.  

Since, then over 80% of their workforce have been actively using the new technologies. They have also secured over 200 digital ‘champions’ to maximise uptake across the organisation. This is an example of developmental change.

Digital inclusion is about creating a dynamic framework that everyone can benefit from. It champions universal digital literacy, accessibility and affordability, helping to promote growth for an area, such as Cornwall’s, economy. 

Overall, organisational culture change is a transformational change. It involves challenging the organisational structure that’s set up and working to change it. It’s about the journey from where an organisation is to where it chooses to be.

What Are the Challenges to Organisational Change?

There are some very obvious challenges when it comes to implementing organisational culture change. For example, an organisation may suffer from any of the following...

Poor Operational Leadership Skills

One of the key issues when implementing organisational culture change within the public sector is that most public sector organisations employ a bureaucratic management model. This means that it’s difficult for something as radical and adaptive as cultural transformation to take place. 

Without a strong leadership that can act independently and with authority, management may revert back to traditional thinking and working styles - which don’t necessarily mesh well with culture change initiatives.

Inadequate Budgets

Recently, public sector organisations have had to deal with budget cuts. Organisational change can take anywhere from three to five years to fully implement. This means that, without a strong enough persuasive case, adequate budgets may not be allocated. 

Inadequate budgets tend to lead to short-term changes and these changes don’t last. Similarly, due to the short-termism of politics, those in power usually prefer to support quick-wins over longer-term change initiatives. 

Hierarchical Organisational Culture

Public sector organisations are hierarchical, which is a structure that focuses on internal stability. However stable this structure may be, it doesn’t help to create the right environment for wide-reaching, innovative change. Alongside this, public sector organisations are up against a lot of external pressure, so are less likely to take risks.

As many public sector organisations deal with the quality of life of both individuals and communities, they have a lot at stake. This is one of the reasons why widespread organisational culture change is more prevalent in private sector organisations. 

However, these challenges are not unbeatable and the benefits greatly outweigh them. With the right teams and collaboration, each roadblock can be effectively dealt with. To discover the first steps in implementing organisational culture change, you’ll need the right roadmap.

Explore the Organisational Culture Roadmap

Best practices, benefits and the importance of organisational culture - this is a small amount of what our guide delves into. You’ll also discover why cultural transformation is an important part of digital transformation and the relationship between the two. Furthermore, we’ve included direct insight from industry experts that you can use to further your transformation knowledge and ideals.

Click on the link below to download the guide today.

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If you’d like to learn more about issues like the above and the wider role of technology within the public sector then please do join us at DigiGov Expo, the UK’s leading public sector tech event, in London on the 8-9th May.

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