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Managing change successfully in public safety agencies

On May 26, 2022

In a recent study on change specifically focused on the public sector, it was found that “80 percent of public-sector transformation efforts fail to meet their objectives...and...people's practices are a decisive factor, often making the difference between success and disappointment. Indeed, the five key success factors for government transformations all have a strong people component” (McKinsey and Company).


Those that have worked in public safety and are familiar with the personality types it attracts will likely find the importance of the ‘people component’ unsurprising when it comes to transformations. This can most commonly include individuals who value procedures, preparedness, and understand the technical aspects of the job. Springing any type of change without consideration for these facts or the expertise they can contribute, especially to first responders, is rarely going to be the most effective approach. This is precisely where change management comes in. 


Simply put: Change management is the process of helping people within an organization adapt to changes.


Change in public safety environments

In public safety, and indeed most industries, change can often be handled privately, chaotically, and without looping in the correct people. This can include:

  • Changes in software or job resources
  • Changes in staffing
  • Changes in venue or location
  • Changes in procedure
  • Or any change that affects the organization and its employees


Workplaces rarely remain stagnant, and that can be a problem in and of itself as better, faster, cheaper methods of performing the same functions become more available – especially when driven by technology. So, it’s important that change is handled strategically to set the workers and the workplace up for success. 


Here are some methods specifically for public safety agency environments which can help support the process of change so that the value and benefit is maximized while resistance and obstacles are minimized:


Define your goals

At some point, someone has an idea that change could benefit the organization – that’s where it begins. This is likely based on a problem, which then warrants evaluation on why it’s a problem, which can ultimately help inform the best solutions. Approaching this methodically can help avoid the premature selection of a would-be solution that is ultimately lacking in delivering whatever your unique organization needs the most. 


From there, identify your specific wants and needs with this change. With that, you’ll want to be realistic about your needs vs. your wants. If you give too much weight to the wants, you may find yourself disappointed with all possible solutions, and fail to implement something which can be transformative to your organization. Involve everyone who can provide feedback, speak to the requirements, and may think of challenges or opportunities which would otherwise have been overlooked. 


Communicate early and comprehensively

Unfortunately one of the biggest mistakes organizations make are worrying about resistance from employees, and resolving those worries by keeping employees in the dark until it’s too late. Ultimately this does nothing to prevent resistance, and can instead postpone important dialogues until it’s too late to implement employee feedback. If your employees are going to resist, they’re going to resist either way. But by looping them in early, you’re giving them the time and space to buy in to the idea of change, as well as giving yourself the opportunity to hear their valuable feedback to arrive at the best possible conclusion. In the case of a software, communicate before the software is selected so the decision can be made with the support of those who will be affected by it. 


At SafeCities™, our implementation team members are all former first responders who understand the challenges that come in agency environments. When it comes to going on-site to implement Schedule Express at a new facility, we can all testify to the difference in quality of process when there is buy-in from all levels of management and the employees who will be the end users, versus the negative impact when only one or a select few stakeholders who make a decision without feedback and force the adoption of a program that we are introducing to them for the very first time.




A little effort goes a long way

Everyone has an opinion on how the standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be applied to the job, and changing them while balancing opinions can be very difficult. However when an effort is made to make sure those opinions are heard, it can pay off significantly by the end of the implementation – every challenge that is avoided through communication is time and money saved for your organization, employee dissatisfaction saved from your personnel, and headaches saved for your management.


By communicating early, and making an effort to hear employee thoughts and concerns, you’ll organically be able to identify “what if” scenarios that were not previously considered and would not have been discovered without the participation of everyone who makes your organization run. Involving personnel and working through those challenges helps eliminate potential pitfalls earlier in the process, and avoids compromising time, money, and morale when everyone has an “I could have told you so” reaction to problems that could have been avoided through their involvement. 


Additionally, remember that there was a system that preceded your changes that worked at the time, and don’t undervalue the fact that people in your department might have worked on it. Recognize them for how well it worked for the time it was needed, and that this is the next natural direction in the evolution of the agency. This can serve to improve morale on the current solution, while also reducing the possibility for defensiveness of perceived criticism to the old solutions. 


It’s common to only think about how a solution must fit you and your existing practices. It’s important to also consider where you are willing and able to change as an organization to make potential solutions an even better fit. Showing everyone you can be flexible, allows them to know it's okay to be flexible as well.


Involve key stakeholders

This will, of course, involve management and those with direct oversight of whatever the area of change may be – but don’t stop there.


Don’t be afraid to involve those who you feel confident will be negative or critical of the process. You can gain their support by making them feel involved in the decision, and they will be able to win the influence of others who would otherwise resist. Additionally consider why they may be critical of new methods, which can perhaps be because finding their current solution was already a challenge and they are hesitant to change. That’s not a reason to stop looking for better systems, but it can certainly save you time troubleshooting challenges that they have given far more thought to because it affects them regularly. 


Further, consider informal leaders. These may be people in positions that are not directly relevant to the task at hand, but rather it’s known that they are respected and listened to by those in the organization. If there are individuals your organization knows are valued by their coworkers, then don’t dismiss their involvement on position or job function alone. 


Proceed with the best solution

All of the previous tips can avoid trying to fit a square peg through a round hole, which can often be made worse when the organization has invested so much time or budget into the square peg that it becomes difficult to acknowledge it wasn’t the right solution.


Understand that there will rarely be a perfect solution, but the one that meets your wants and needs to the best degree of all the options which have been considered will likely be your winning selection. From there, the most important part will be ongoing communication to staff on what will be changing, when it will change, how it will change, and what that will look like for them in the long term. 


By proceeding thoughtfully and with proper respect given to the fact this change will impact someone’s job – and ultimately their life – it will enable space for dialogues which make their opinion considered and valued, even if it ultimately does not change the final decision. Ultimately, the successful management of change is highly reliant on the successful management of people.

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