Panel 7: Managing change in public sector organizations

multi-levels, multi-facets and multi-actors in changing public and private organizations

Chaired by: dr. Ben Kuipers (EUR), prof. dr. Walter Kickert (EUR) & prof. dr. Malcolm Higgs (University of Southamptom), &

In a world of rapid changes, transforming economies and financial markets, reforming governments and societies and increasing environmental strains, we are in need of a higher change capacity of public organizations to meet more complex demands. Whilst change is endemic within today’s organizations empirical studies indicate that a significantly high proportion of changes fail to achieve their goals (Kotter 1996; Higgs and Rowland 2005). Although the exact percentage of change failure recently has been challenged (Hughes 2011) there is clear criticism on the way organizational change is researched up till now as the issue of change is complex (Higgs and Rowland 2005), ambiguous (Hughes 2011) and highly context dependent (Pettigrew, Woodman and Cameron 2001). In line with these critiques several authors, also in the field of public management, addressed the changing content and context of organizations as a factor of importance to the consideration of change (e.g. By and Macleod, 2009). Nevertheless, when reviewing the broader change management literature it seems evident that change, more and more, is a multi-level and multi-faceted phenomenon, requiring both scholars and practitioners to rethink and reshape change management. Hence, perhaps it is time to focus on the leadership of change rather than the mere management. With leadership comes a different set of purpose and responsibility, and a focus on the individual and ethics.

We propose that submitted papers would be situated broadly in one or more of the following themes:

  • Studies rethinking organizational change by integrating the strengths of different theoretical perspectives. For example combining the institutional theory, as being highly context aware, with the generic change management literature (both in terms of planned and emergent change), with its detailed attention for process and behaviour may jointly help to gain a better understanding of the complex multi-layered phenomena of change in both the public and private sector. Naturally, other combinations of different streams of literature would be welcome, too.
  • In-depth empirical studies of the change process within differing public contexts. In particular such studies may provide details of change interventions and the roles and behaviours of those involved in the change process, such as change agents. This may include longitudinal studies (cf. Pettigrew, Woodman and Cameron 2001) as well as comparative studies of cases in different sectors and countries. A further area of interest would be studies that entail working with practitioners to explore the realities of change implementation in the variety of contexts to provide different insights and more specific illustrations of approaches to change (e.g. Higgs and Rowland 2005).
  • Researchers may reshape practical guidelines that are rigorously grounded when paying more attention in their studies to the outcomes and successes of change in organizations, i.e. to support practitioners in their search for lessons on what makes change successful.
  • Work that explicitly focuses on reframing leading change in public sector contexts. Leadership in different sub-sectors may involve different competencies and behaviours to make change happen and even may be approached as first and second order change (e.g. when it only concerns change leadership within one organization) versus third order change (e.g. when it concerns political leadership affecting an entire sector). Further, it requires different sets of purpose and responsibility for both leaders and followers.
  • Reshaping change management into leadership by focusing on the individual level: how do different actors (such as top managers, middle managers and others) cope with change (e.g. linking change management with psychology literature). We would particularly welcome studies that pay attention to the position and role of middle management as translators of change initiatives both from the top as well as from bottom-up.
  • Studies shedding new light on both discrepancies and interactions between mirco-level and sector level of change in general. In particular the public reform literature has a profound tradition of sector comparisons and even cross-national comparisons of sector changes. Unfortunately, such comparisons pay little or no attention to the management of change processes within the organizations subject to these sector changes.


By, R. T. and C. Macleod (eds). 2009. Managing Organizational Change in Public Services. International Issues, Challenges and Cases. London, New York: Routledge.

Higgs, M. and D. Rowland. 2005. ‘All Changes Great and Small: Exploring Approaches to Change and its Leadership’, Journal of Change Management, 5, 2, pp. 121-151.

Hughes, M. 2011. ‘Do 70 Per Cent of All Organizational Change Initiatives Really Fail?’, Journal of Change Management, 11, 4, pp. 451-464.

Kotter, J. P. 1996. Leading Change, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Pettigrew, A. M., R. W. Woodman and K. S. Cameron. 2001. ‘Studying organizational change and development: Challenges for future research’, Academy of Management Journal, 44, 4, pp. 697-713.