Why Professionals can be an Implementation Barrier to Change in Public Organisations

Professionals are often seen as an implementation barrier to change in public organisations. Although their commitment is judged to be crucial, they often behave rather reservedly and may even oppose change. The power models and micropolitical theories of change both conceptualise this resistance as a defence of their professional interests, their benefits and their power status. Acknowledging that political strategies, tactics and games played have a crucial role in the implement of change in public organisations, this paper expands this perspective by dealing with issues related to professional identity. Identity-related conflicts often go beyond the issues of protecting and enhancing benefits and power. Therefore, this paper focuses on the central characteristics of identity and examines the identity-related aspects of the political perspective of change management.


  1. New Public Management draw heavily on privatesector practices
  2. Implementing public-sector change often appears to be less effective than expected.
  3. Reasons to fail: Scepticism, resistance and politics

First light:

  • Political dynamics of change and provide insights into the political process of change-coalition formation
  • Intertwinement of structures of gaming and structures of domination

Second light:

  • Focus on actors (professional): questions of professional identity and its influence on change processes
  • This context, the purposeful use of political management tools is important but its limited frame of reference is the ‘regulation of identity’

Third light:

  • Examining the political perspective of change management with reference to its identity-related implications, including its corresponding limitations
  • Formation of ‘coalitions of change’.

A coalition perspective on the New Public Management implementation barrier


  • Scepticism and resistance;
  • Various managerial techniques and general managerial ideology;
  • Winner–loser problem with respect to both middle managers’ and professionals’ selfinterests in connection with decentralisation;
  • Coherent political implementation perspective and appropriate strategies seem to be underdeveloped.

Learning from private-sector:

  • Change politics and exploring change-coalition perspectives and strategies as a promising means of implementing contested change initiatives;
  • Essential to mobilise the co-operation of actors with heterogeneous, partly conflicting interests across traditional departmental boundaries;


  • Organisation theory: Coalitions are usually conceived as temporary political alignments;
  • Formed to support change initiators and change initiatives in power struggles and in the face of conflicting interests;
  • Coalitions are ‘power tools’;
  • How do change coalitions come into being?: compensation of interests, frames of reference, communication processes.

Being is related to three basic problems:

  1. Whether to act alone or with others;
  2. How to mobilise others and their resources;
  3. How to co-ordinate group actions with the actions of others in the political arena of the organisation.
  • Coalition formation processes tend to resemble a bubble expanding outward from a founding centre.
  • Four stages, eventually leading to change coalitions:
    • Coalition founders’ signalling of dependence;
    • Stabilising the inner circle of the change coalition by creating a shared feeling of legitimacy;
    • Opening up the inner circle in order to include change opponents and rivals into innercircle change discourses and to claim legitimacy for change ideas;
    • Fostering co-operation with powerful rivals in the political arena in order to smooth devastating conflicts.
  • However, successful expansion processes do not appear to be strictly linear.
  • Three process drivers – managerial activities – are relevant:
    • Network building, communicating and trust building;
    • Management of meaning;
    • Negotiating and compromising.

Identity, identity-building process and arenas of recognition
Identity perspective includes some central characteristics:

  • Self-reflection and social interaction;
  • The coherence and continuity of experiences.

Synthesis of experiences made in different social contexts (coherence) and over a whole lifetime (continuity)

  • Experiences about oneself are synthesised and incorporated into the self and constitute individual identity.
  • A person experiences how the prevailing social group responds to him or her.
  • This process induces the development of the two identity components ‘I’ and ‘Me’:
    • Me: is progressively constituted out of the experiences gained through the socialisation process;
    • I: unpredictable and dynamic, stands for creativity and spontaneity of behaviour and actions, ideas, wishes and feelings.
  • A positive reference to self depends on the positive social response from at least one significant area of interaction, implies the necessity of accepting, or adapting to, the norms and values of an interaction group in order to be recognised by this group so as to develop ‘self-respect’.
  • “When a familiar feeling tone, associated with the sensation of “being myself”, becomes unsettled, feelings of tensions, anxiety, shame or guilt arise. Occasionally a sense of contradiction, disruption and confusion may become pervasive and sustained. Intensive remedial “identity work” is then called for, perhaps even of a therapeutic kind.”

Professionals and changing arenas of recognition

  • Attribution approach, the main characteristics of professionals and their work include:
    • Complex working tasks with a high taskrelated uncertainty;
    • Practice based on scientific grounded knowledge;
    • Norms espousing a service orientation, reflecting;
    • A ‘professional ethic’ in dealing with clients;
    • A high degree of autonomy in performing these occupational activities.
  • The current changes taking place in public organisations seem to unlock this dichotomy between managers and professionals as distinctive characteristics of professionals and their work is subject to central modifications, cursorily adapting it to a more managerial type.
  • New Public Management covered the shift from the public service administration to managed provision, accompanied by the decentralisation of public organisations into smaller, quasi-autonomous agencies with more managerial and budgetary responsibilities.
  • Individual working level, professionals are faced with efforts of managerial strategies to routinise their work, external control by new performance indicators and resource consumption limits.

Change politics, coalition formation and identity

  • identity regulation: “… encompasses the more or less intentional effects of social practices upon processes of identity construction and reconstruction. Notably, induction, training and promotion procedures are developed in ways that have implications for the shaping and direction of identity.”
  • identity regulation can focus on:
    • Employee: is directly defined or implied by reference to the other;
    • Action orientations: field of activity is constructed, with reference to appropriate work orientations;
    • Social relations: belongingness and differentiation;
    • Scene: kind of identity that fits the larger social, organisational and economic terrain in which the subject operates.
    • In general: the process of identity work, as an interpretive activity that reproduces and transforms a person’s identity.
  • Purposeful and sensitive use of the driving factors of change-coalition formation is necessary to implement the desired change contents in a politically stabilised field:
    • Network building, communication and trust building: coalition formation is a matter of exclusion and inclusion respectively of distinctiveness and belongingness and requires regulation of access of particular actors to the discourses of change and decision arenas and the fostering of group membership. In the case of public-sector change, the inclusion of professionals into change coalitions is often crucial to implement change.
    • Management of meaning: refers to the issue of sense-making and sense-giving by symbol construction and use of value. In the context of change-coalition formation it aims to create legitimacy and to delegitimise the demands and critics of change opponents.
    • Negotiating and compromising: exchanges and compensation of interests are necessary to resolve policy disputes, especially between major actors with equal power. Reference to identity-building processes, the compensation of interests is one possible form of recognition, supplementing communication and management of meaning.

Summary and conclusion
Implementing public-sector change is a complex process. Professionals employed in the public sector are often seen as an implementation barrier to such changes. Issues of professional identity, as well as politics of change, are helpful perspectives to understand and deal with conflicts and resistance of professionals. In this paper, we have suggested a mutual enrichment of the political and identityrelated notion of change and its management. The management of identity is a management strategy with limitations; the purposeful use of management tools can be an important factor influencing identityrelated barriers of change. Of particular importance are the insights into change politics delivered by studies on changecoalition formation, which offer structured suggestions about how to deal with questions of identity during change processes. In turn, this helpfully expands the traditional political notions about change, which focused mainly on benefits, negotiated exchange and power. Nevertheless, we want to point out that management has to carry out a complex balancing act between the demands of the desired change content, the necessities of a successful change-coalition formation among change agents and recipients and the conditions of dealing with professional identity.

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