When new policy collides with entrenched practice, resistance is often inevitable. A skilled champion, however, can overcome early setbacks and guide policy to successful implementation; without a multifaceted leader to steer change, the result is frequently failure.
Take, for example, policymakers at a true (but disguised) provincial health ministry who planned to introduce a common, computerized form to assess people for long-term health care services. It seemed relatively straightforward. For an assessment instrument (AI), they chose a software program that did not allow for customization, but few problems were expected. A ministry committee overseeing the initiative gave case managers in all provincial community care centres (CCCs) one year to adopt the new tool.
However, resistance was swift and stubborn within the CCCs. The AI was supposed to allow case managers to conduct interviews in clients’ homes using laptops and to enter information directly into computerized forms. But case managers, with an average age of 45 and minimal computer skills, were daunted by the new technology and the complexity of the forms.
They didn’t have the required computer skills and became anxious about job security. Their concerns were not being addressed and, although they had no input in the change, many believed they would be blamed if things didn’t work out. Within a couple of months, the inevitable collision took place between the plans of the policymakers and the concerns of the CCCs. The ministry was forced to stop and consider whether to proceed, and if so, what was the best approach to save the project.
Why did the project run into trouble? The committee’s approach was both too directive and too impersonal. Their project planning was weak and their communications abysmal.
Implementing successful change requires a skilled champion. This is one of the most consistent findings of the change research literature. Too often, however, public sector change proceeds in the manor described above. A skilled champion to lead the project would have vastly improved its success.
For over ten years, I have been conducting survey research on implementing change and have collected data on more than 350 change initiatives. Statistical analysis has revealed a high correlation between change success and a skilled champion in all public and private sector projects, but the correlation (.62) rises to the stratosphere in public sector change. This fact should not come as a surprise to experienced managers, but the devil is in the details and it is to those details that we now turn our attention.
What exactly does the change champion or leader do? Let me introduce you to Mayor George Farkouh, who led the quest to save the City of Elliot Lake from becoming another mining ghost town.
When Denison Mines and Rio Algom announced they would be closing the uranium mines in 1990 because uranium ore of a higher grade and cheaper to extract was discovered in Saskatchewan and Australia, Elliot Lake began a rapid decline. Workers who had been promised jobs for the rest of their lives were faced with massive layoffs. Between 1986 and 1991, the city saw the most rapid decline in population of any small municipality in Canada.
From the beginning of Elliot Lake’s crisis, George Farkouh made the city’s survival and prosperity his own personal mission. “Our five children were born here and it was home.” And so he chose to “stay and fight for the survival of Elliot Lake rather than cut and run.”
Beyond his deep commitment to the city, he also had a vision of its future. “I saw a vision of Elliot Lake balanced and diversified, independent of mining – a jewel in the wilderness…We needed to avoid the boom and bust, to take it in a new direction and keep it stable and healthy, economically and physically, a good place to raise a family and to retire.”
But one person, no matter how passionate and committed, cannot achieve a feat like the turnaround of Elliot Lake alone. Farkouh knew he needed community leaders and citizens to share in the vision. “I provided them with a roadmap for the process. I credit the process to the people themselves. Initially it was difficult to get through to people in crisis – they wanted an instant solution. But we followed a process. We recruited thousands of volunteers who contributed their ideas. We worked them into our vision.”
Despite working 70 hours per week, Farkouh needed more than passion – he needed a plan. He already possessed unique credentials for the task – among them an MBA from a prominent Canadian business school, a stint in the corporate finance department of a major bank and an entrepreneurial career running a successful car dealership.
“We had to create a plan of action with three pillars: financial, social and hope for the future. I could write a book on each, but the social part was the most important.”
The focus of the financial action plan was on ensuring that the corporation could continue to pay its bills and provide services to its citizens. With the population falling, Elliot Lake was having increasing difficulties covering its costs. So the city embarked on a cost-cutting initiative and simultaneously started growing a reserve fund. The city tapped four sources of financing for this reserve fund – cost savings, government assistance, Ontario Hydro and the mining companies. By 1992-93, the city became debt free.
As for social stabilization, the goal was to maintain the social infrastructure and services. The miners of Elliot Lake lost more than income. They lost a sense of identity, pride, colleagues, and confidence in their ability to provide for a family. Many battled substance abuse and this stress also had a major impact on families. There was increased conflict, relationship crises and problems with children. Local service providers became stretched beyond their limit.
“The social pillar was the most important. We got the province to assist. For example, we placed a social worker in each school to help intercede if a family was in crisis, and opened a teen drop-in center,” said Farkouh. There was an active steering group whose mandate was to decide how to spread the resources obtained from various sources.
The third pillar was creating hope for the future. If people feel there is hope they are more likely to become involved in activities for change. “Community leaders have to project confidence that there is life after mining.” To do this the municipality shared with its citizens the various projects and the number of success stories that were happening throughout the adjustment period. “We created a tabloid every two months to tell the good news stories.” And as time went by, there were more and more good stories to tell.
In January of 1990, Farkouh formed the Mayor’s Action Committee consisting of mine managers, labour representatives, educators, business leaders and councillors. “Rallying the community through the committee was the first step in making sure everyone, including the provincial government and the citizenry, knew that Elliot Lake was not about to turn out the lights.” Farkouh explained that at no time did the committee ask the government to solve their problems: “We always took the position that we have a problem, we have some ideas and we would like you to be partners with us.” Representatives from every se