Authors: Jan Wynen, Koen Verhoest, Jan Boon, Bjorn Kleizen, Dries Van Doninck, Danika Pieters & Stephanie Verlinden (University of Antwerp)
|The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to discussions on the performance and resilience of administrative systems around the world. When the storm subsides, evaluations of what went wrong and where improvements can be made will follow, and this could result in public sector reforms to be better prepared for future tragedies. However, during the past 30 years many governments have experienced intense and multiple series of reforms. Recent research has delved into the possible negative side-effects of repetitive reforms. While their intentions may be appropriate, policymakers seeking to rejuvenate and modernise administrative systems need to consider these insights to avoid doing more harm than good.|
Near-endless reform cycles
The public sector has adapted to meet ever-increasing demands as a result of economic, social, and political changes. Series of reform programmes have been implemented in the public sector in response to this environmental turbulence. In the past 30 years, these sequences of reforms have become more intense and have followed each other more closely – resulting in near-endless cycles of organisational reform (Pollitt, 2007; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2017).
The reasons for this growing reform appetite are manifold. Firstly, as public administrations are confronted with more complex and ‘wicked’ problems, policymakers are urged to design public organisations that are adaptive and innovative (Borins, 2001; Damanpour & Schneider, 2009). Secondly, economic pressures and surging public scrutiny have resulted in new paradigms promoting transformations in the public sector. Well-known examples are the new public management and whole-of-government. Thirdly, the symbolic value of reform also plays an important role. Intensifying media attention puts pressure on leaders to act immediately when problems and negative externalities produced by current policies attract public attention. Reforms are a popular instrument for public managers and politicians to show vigour and immediate responsiveness (Pollitt, 2007).
The uncertainty that can arrive with organisational reform may provoke threat-rigidity effects on employees and managers
However, this surge of reforms in public organisations does not always come without cost. The uncertainty that can arrive with organisational reform may provoke threat-rigidity effects (Staw et al., 1981) on employees and managers. Staw et al. (1981) found that in the event of perceived organisational threat, executives may centralise decision-making, as well as imposing formal rules and procedures to limit discretion for frontline workers in an attempt to reduce risk and gain more control over the outcome of an uncertain situation.
Moreover, uncertainty and anxiety can also make employees more risk-averse, resulting in an organisation that becomes rigid. Paradoxically, this rigidity may undermine the benefits envisioned by politicians or public managers when pursuing reform (Wynen et al., 2017).
These threat-rigidity effects and the consequent feelings of a loss of control provoke stress and anxiety among workers (De Vries, 2013; Seo & Hill, 2005). Threat-rigidity effects tend to settle down after the smoke of the organisational change clears and employees become used to their new working environment. However, when reforms follow each other in quick succession, organisations and their employees do not have the opportunity to recover before another reform is introduced (De Vries, 2013; Pollitt, 2007; Wynen et al., 2019).
Further, consecutive events of uncertainty and external stressors, like repetitive reforms, may cause increasing stress and anxiety among employees (e.g. Moore et al., 2004). Research on these, and other, negative side-effects of reform often focuses on organisational change as single discrete events.
When reforms follow each other in quick succession, organisations and their employees do not have the opportunity to recover before another reform is introduced
However, recent research has found that such effects can build on each other in an environment of continuous intense reforms. The accumulated negative externalities of intense reform cycles may cause the intended positive effects to be undermined by the accumulation of negative side-effects (Wynen et al., 2017).
Repetitive reform injury
In a recent article, Wynen et al. (2019) tested concept this among 34 public sector organisations in Flanders, Belgium, by looking into the relationship between the sequential reforms that organisations experience and their absenteeism rates between 2012 and 2016. Absenteeism is a good indicator for the injury that repetitive reforms cause within organisations as the primordial causes of absenteeism are similar to several negative externalities of change: stress; anxiety; and a perceived loss of control.
Further, absenteeism is an objective indicator, impartial to bias or prejudice (Wynen et al., 2019, p. 696). The results of the study indicate that absenteeism rates increase significantly when an organisation experiences successive and impactful reforms. Reform injury seems to increase when reforms are implemented in rapid succession, supporting the assumption that the negative side-effects of repetitive reforms can neutralise the intended positive outcomes. These findings indicate that the reform history of organisations have a significant impact on either the success or damage that new reforms produce (Rafferty & Griffin, 2006).
Absenteeism rates increase significantly when an organisation experiences successive and impactful reforms
Moreover, similar findings have been found with Australian and Norwegian data. This line of research has empirically supported detrimental effects of repetitive reforms on organisational culture (Wynen et al., 2017), defensive silence (Wynen, Kleizen, et al., 2020), managerial support for innovative work behaviour (Wynen, Boon, et al., 2020), and the perception of organisational autonomy (Kleizen et al., 2018).
All these results further support the claim that repetitive reforms can have substantial unintended side-effects for both the organisation as a whole and for the individuals inside. This reveals a Catch-22 for organisations. A turbulent environment puts pressure on organisations to modernise and reform, but accumulated repetitive reform injury can overshadow the intended outcomes of these reforms. Therefore, a greater insight about the negative effects of repetitive reforms is crucial for organisations to remain adaptable.
Avoiding repetitive reform injury
Every organisational transition requires employees to adapt to new processes, tasks, and habits, and also requires actions or time to reduce uncertainty. Organisations and their employees must often be able to settle down before a new reform comes along. If not, functioning and performance, as well as the well-being of employees, could be seriously endangered.
The argument is not that organisations should not reform. Going back to where we started, the Covid-19 pandemic has ruthlessly shown where the delivery of public services can be improved. However, our research provides empirical support for political leaders and public managers that a holistic view of the long-term processes in public organisations is appropriate when pondering improvements and reform (Pollitt, 2007).
Given the growing interest in, and need for, public sector reform, researchers and policy makers should explore other ways to mitigate the negative side-effects of repetitive reforms. Appropriate change management strategies, and investing in dynamic capabilities to re-configure internal and external competences and resources to respond to a changing environment, could be a starting point for making public organisations more responsive to external pressures – without jeopardising their effectiveness and sustainability (Teece et al., 1997).
About the authors:
- Jan Wynen is a research professor at the Department of Management at the University of Antwerp. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Koen Verhoest is a research professor and coordinator of the Politics and Public Governance research unit and the GOVTRUST Centre of Excellence at the University of Antwerp.
- Jan Boon is a postdoctoral researcher at the ‘Politics and Public Governance’ research unit at the University of Antwerp.
- Bjorn Kleizen is a postdoctoral researcher at the ‘Politics and Public Governance’ research unit at the University of Antwerp.
- Dries Van Doninck is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Management at the University of Antwerp.
- Danika Pieters is doctoral researcher at the ‘Politics and Public Governance’ research unit at the University of Antwerp.
- Stéphanie Verlinden is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Management of the University of Antwerp.
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- De Vries, M. S. (2013). Reform fatigue: The effects of reorganizations on public sector employees. NISPAcee Conference 2013, 15.
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- Wynen, J., Boon, J., Kleizen, B. & Verhoest, K. (2020). How multiple organisational changes shape managerial support for innovative work behaviour: Evidence from the Australian Public Service. Review of Public Personnel Administration.
- Wynen, J., Kleizen, B., Verhoest, K., Lægreid, P. & Rolland, V. (2020). Just keep silent… Defensive silence as a reaction to successive structural reforms. Public Management Review, 22(4), 498–526.
- Wynen, J., Verhoest, K. & Kleizen, B. (2017). More reforms, less innovation? The impact of structural reform histories on innovation-oriented cultures in public organisations. Public Management Review, 19(8), 1142–1164.
- Wynen, J., Verhoest, K. & Kleizen, B. (2019). Are public organisations suffering from repetitive change injury? A panel study of the damaging effect of intense reform sequences. Governance, 32(4), 695–713.
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