Trust, Service

& Accountability

Behaving Ethically

Changing Agency Culture

Agency culture arises when employees observe the actual behaviour of their leaders and their actual team and work processes, day-to-day interactions of their colleagues and of their managers, and ways that the agency and its employees treat customers, clients and stakeholders. 

This culture is seen in – and perpetuated through – each agency’s unique:

  • Language – the way people talk about their colleagues, managers, senior executives, customers and clients, suppliers, stakeholders and others
  • Decision-making criteria and procedures in the workplace and the agency as a whole
  • Symbols, stories and the official and unofficial history of the agency.  These  often indicate why things are done as they are, and why certain workplace activities are acceptable and others are considered to be “illegitimate”
  • Daily work practices, where what you do and who you involve is determined irrespective of what should be done according to official statements about correct procedure. 

New employees learn very quickly to follow these existing patterns of behaviour and to act in ways that are consistent with the values that they infer from what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. 

They then reproduce these work practices, behaviours and values by following actual operating procedures (which are not necessarily the same as official policies, procedures or practices), by doing what their colleagues are doing and by acting in ways that are consistent with the dominant values of the work place. These collectively learned beliefs and work practices reproduce the culture of the agency over time. 

Culture change is difficult and takes time because it requires employees to change long-standing, deeply-held and often unconscious workplace beliefs, values, understandings, practices and behaviours that were learned from their practical experience of working within the agency, often over many years. 

Changing corporate culture takes time and requires persistence – however the benefits are real, many, and measurable.

Changing agency culture also requires active employee participation if executives, management and staff are to change their old worldviews and practices and replace them with a new outlook and practices.  Culture change cannot be mandated or imposed. 

There are six interconnected pressure points in an agency where action can improve agency culture:

  • Leadership
    Leaders must “walk the talk” – they must model the objective, values and principles of the Ethical Framework at the highest level – so employees see the new values and behaviours being practiced.  Culture change must be led from the top of the organisation, as the willingness of the senior management to change their own practices is an important indicator of the seriousness of the need for culture change.  Leaders exist throughout agencies – and not just at the top – and these leaders should be supported by senior management because they are vital in reinforcing and giving legitimacy to the new values and work practices. 
  • Employee participation
    Encouraging employee participation in the implementation of the Ethical Framework is essential to develop a healthy culture and employee “buy in” for the new arrangements.  It is also important because culture change can lead to tensions between past and new practices; clashes between agency and individual interests; changes to official and unofficial control systems; changes to official and unofficial employee reward and recognition systems; and possible resistance where people feel the likely gains will not outweigh the losses.  Employee participation helps address these ethical dilemmas and changes in identity, power and practices.
  • A clear strategic vision
    A clear vision of how the Ethical Framework is being implemented through the agency’s strategy, mission, approach, shared values and behaviours needs to be formulated.  This vision provides the intention and direction for the culture change.  Revise the formal, official statements of the agency’s culture (such as mission and vision statements, codes of conduct, organisational structure charts, statements of standard operating procedures, key performance indicators etc) to ensure they are consistent with the Ethical Framework.  This is particularly important in organisations where a high level of cynicism has developed because, in the past, employees saw little or no correlation between the official agency values and procedures and the actual treatment of employees, customers and other groups.  All employees should be encouraged to contribute to develop new statements which reflect the Ethical Framework and which, at a minimum, identify the values and core business of the agency; how the agency will treat its employees, customers and stakeholders; and how employees are expected to treat each other. 
  • Systems and work practices
    Agencies need to assess their current systems, policies, work practices, procedures and employee behaviours to ensure they align with the objective, values and principles of the Ethical Framework. Where necessary this includes changing the agency’s accountability systems, compensation, benefits and reward structures, and recruitment and retention programs so (i) it sends a clear message to employees that the old system and culture are in the past and (ii) the new systems and work practices do, in fact, implement the Ethical Framework.
  • People practices
    The criteria and practices used to recruit, train, develop, promote and exit employees in the government sector need to be consistent with the Ethical Framework.  Training in particular should be provided to all employees – from frontline service providers to Secretaries or heads of agencies – so all understand the new expectations, systems, procedures and practices and how they express the Ethical Framework. 
  • Measurement
    Corporate culture and changes in culture can be measured. [1] It is important that agencies can track progress with the implementation of the Ethical Framework and recognise and celebrate success and act promptly to address delays.  Quantitative measures typically survey individual employee perceptions and opinions about their working environment. [2] Qualitative methods (such as participant observation, interviews and focus groups) can be used to identify the values, beliefs, understandings and interpretations of employees which guide employee behaviours and practices. [3] The Public Service Commission is assisting agencies to track progress by using employee feedback on agency values, procedures and practices every two years through the People Matter survey results.