How a Community's Culture Can Make or Break Government Reform

The story of Italy's effort to decentralize its governmental functions offers lessons for innovators everywhere.
by | May 14, 2014

Robert J. O'Neill Jr.'s recent column in this space, "Why the Cult of Personality is the Wrong Leadership Model for Government," sent me to my bookshelf to re-read a 1993 book that I thought was a remarkable essay on organizational culture in the literature of public administration. It proved well worth a fresh look in this time when persistent resource scarcity seems to have slowed public innovation.

O'Neill's column offered a caution and a prescription for organizations that rely on a single leader to effect permanent change in public institutions. In O'Neill's view, progress toward responsive and innovative government often dissipates when change-driven leaders leave the scene. Only institutions that develop "leadership at all levels" committed to change are likely to overcome the disruptions caused by cycles of leadership change and economic and political seasons. Absent that sustaining momentum, public institutions revert to type -- historic, habituated behavior -- when the pressure is off.

But what underlies the culture of public institutions, the "type?" How does one recognize the influencing characteristics, and what increases the prospects for durable change?

Robert D. Putnam's Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy won the Brownlow Book Award from the National Academy of Public Administration. It was eclipsed by his best-seller Bowling Alone (published in 2000), and by title might seem not particularly relevant to American public officials. Nonetheless, Making Democracy Work is a fascinating account of a ground-breaking shift in public governance and administration that speaks volumes (in less than 200 pages) about political cultures and how they shape public institutions.

In 1970, the Italian government initiated a radical decentralization of governmental functions, establishing 15 regional councils with similar forms, responsibilities, governance and resources. Putnam and two Italian colleagues conducted comprehensive longitudinal surveys of citizens and public officials at the beginning of the process and for 20 years on. What their research revealed was that the underlying social culture within each region can ultimately shape and even overwhelm structure or design.

Regions with a tradition of cooperative spirit, strong civic engagement and a shared sense of common interest produced in two decades governments that were more efficient in their internal operations and more creative and effective in execution, and they were so recognized by citizens and community leaders. Regions characterized by relatively low levels of civic engagement, distrust among social institutions and histories of political corruption produced government that was measurably less efficient, distrusted by citizens and legislatively ineffective.

As one reviewer of Making Democracy Works observed with a parenthetical sigh, "If the socio-political culture is that durable and pervasive, should government reformers even try?" The answer, certainly, is "of course." But understanding underlying dynamics and choosing leaders and strategies tailored to channel inherent cultural biases would seem to be critical to success.

Thriving communities infect their workforces with a sense of opportunities, an aspirational view of what can be accomplished. Economically depressed regions develop strong attachment to public-sector jobs as "owned" by the employees, who reflexively resist attempts at productivity improvement (which may reduce the number of jobs) or changes in work rules (which may reduce overall income). As Putnam aptly observed, "Particularly in impoverished [areas], efficient administration is less productive in electoral terms than old-fashioned patronage."

A leader transplanted from an organizational culture built on professionalism and pride in innovation may be unsuccessful in an organization steeped in archaic work rules and protectionist attitudes about jobs. Appeals to customer service may initially produce eye-rolling among employees who believe the agitated customer is just an annoyance to be pushed off onto the next department. The successful change agent may need to look like and speak in terms that initially reflect the existing culture of the workforce so that he or she can shift the orientation toward innovation and improved service delivery without appearing to directly threaten the status quo.

Ultimately, O'Neill is correct. A durable climate of innovation is achieved only when the appetite for change penetrates an organization. But a starting point for leading change is understanding cultural context.

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