4 May, 2020 16:39

Organizational change is a post-revolution imperative

It is often argued that the process of the post-revolution reforms in Armenia is slow and arduous if the mentality of the people employed in the government sector remains unchanged. It is also argued that the post-revolution administration is limited in its ability to implement reform because the bureaucracy is resistant to change. The term ‘bureaucracy’ is often falsely equated with staff that sometimes do not have the skills, the knowledge, the vision or the drive to do better. While the arguments highlighting the role of bureaucracy in slowing reforms are not without merit, it can also be argued that the expectation that low- and mid-level management as well as staff should have automatically been reincarnated because of the Velvet Revolution may be naïve, unrealistic or even, unprofessional.

Societal change and transformation never come easy even if they’re a necessary condition for survival and progress. Wholesale, fundamental and long-lasting societal change is often impossible in the absence of an organized institutional effort. The old ways may be destructive, but they can feel comfortable to those who’ve practiced them for long periods of time and have not known any better. Fundamental change and positive transformation in government institutions can only be successful if they are initiated, sponsored and organized by the leadership with strategic planning, methodical implementation and sound evaluation.

State-sponsored change, however, is not the only way to induce reforms. Social activists and professionals gathered around specific causes that often stem from their shared group experiences and sensibilities, can be vehicles for change and progress. Specific anti-mining and logging campaigns, the movement against child and spouse abuse, workers’ rights initiatives, the resistance to certain price hikes and the crusades against destruction of monuments with historical memory and value are examples of issue-based causes that have seen varying degrees of success in Armenia. But these movements should not be confused with fundamental reforms, institutional transformation and change in the organizational culture of government institutions. The Velvet Revolution itself, was a more expanded version of such movements and was the manifestation of popular will demanding change and drastic reforms. Revolutions often require a short-term, high intensity effort combined with a high degree of sacrifice, but they do not offer a complete roadmap to transformation of societies and organizational culture. A revolution is a ticket that is handed to the post-revolution leadership by the people to address popular grievances. In a sense, the real work begins after the revolution and without institutional transformation and change in organizational culture, all good-intentioned plans for change can remain just a theory. 

The idea that staff and management in governmental institutions should automatically embrace change because there has been a revolution in Armenia is naïve. People may resist change for a variety of reasons and not all those reasons are based in evil intent. The most popular version of the cause for this resistance is the belief that some people in charge are followers of the past regime, they have been denied the ability to take bribes or are now expected to work harder. This argument makes the post-revolution leadership take on the role of the victim and the ‘bureaucracy’ as the sole villain. While there is an undeniable truth to some of these claims, there is another and more basic reality that is being ignored. It is human nature to stick to what is familiar; change is often discomforting unless there are subjective and objective incentives. And without the alignment of the technical and social skills of government employees as well as the institutional culture with the mission and the vision of the post-revolution leadership, there can be no progress. 

Fundamental change and positive transformation in government institutions can only be successfully achieved if they are initiated, sponsored and organized by the leadership in change with strategic planning, sound management, methodical implementation and evaluation. Let’s take slight detour from theory to explore a scenario. Let’s assume that the post-revolution leadership has made it a goal to make repatriation a priority in the next five years and has set a target goal for the number of repatriates to Armenia. As such, it has identified the efficient processing of citizenship applications as an important cog in this rusty wheel, and the RA Department of Passports and Visas as a key institution to contribute to the success of this vision. I will not go into yet another detour on the larger picture of how to identify the target audience of repatriates, how to reach out to them and how to create the conditions to help the process of repatriation. I’d like to focus on the topic of organizational transformation and change of culture that aims to achieve efficiency, streamlined processes and the improvement of the experience of potential repatriates. To achieve organizational transformation and positive institutional change in this somewhat theoretical scenario, the following questions need to be addressed by the leadership before any blame can be placed on the institution and the employees for lack of performance and commitment. 

1. Does the department have a stated mission?

2. Is there a vision and has it been articulated?

3. What are the moral, cultural, social and economic rewards of repatriation for Armenia, its citizens and the repatriates?

4. Has the vision and benefits of repatriation, and role of the RA Department of Passports and Visas, been communicated to the department leadership and has their buy-in been secured? Has the leadership of the department communicated this to the staff? Have they, in turn, secured their buy in?

5. Are there other departments that are key in achieving this vision (Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc.)? Has this vision been communicated to them? Has their buy-in and cooperation been secured?

6. What are the short- and long-term goals and targets for repatriation and citizenship awards? Has the Department of Passports and Visas been involved in setting these targets and goals? Are they confident these are achievable targets and goals?

7. What are the potential internal and external obstacles for reaching these goals and targets? How can these obstacles be overcome?

8. Do the staff and management need to be retrained on their technical and social skills to achieve this vision, and reach targets and goals?

9. Is there a training and re-training program in place? What are the additional resources needed by the department?

10. Is there an evaluation process in place that considers the objective as well as subjective factors? Evaluation factors can be objective such as how many people approached the office to apply for citizenship, was their information captured if they didn’t end up applying, what are the follow-up step to help them complete their required document list, how many of the interested applied, how many received their citizenship in the targeted time? Or, the evaluation factor can be subjective such as what was the quality of the interaction of the potential applicant or applicant with staff, did the applicant feel welcome and did they feel all their questions were answered?

11. What are the objective and subjective rewards for the staff and management in realizing the institutional target and goals? While financial rewards are important, money does not guarantee a motivated and competent staff. Employees also need to know they are appreciated and are growing as professionals and individuals in their job. 

12. Lastly, how are the staff and management being evaluated and being held accountable for their responsibilities? Fear of dismissal and humiliation is archaic and reactionary. It cannot be a fundamental solution for improving performance. The evaluation process is first and foremost useful for improving performance. Employees need to know they are part of a bigger picture and their work serves a much more important purpose than paper processing.

Without the alignment of the technical and social skills of government employees as well as the institutional culture with the vision of the post-revolution leadership there can be no fundamental progress. And without sound strategic planning, the alignment of the mission, vision and organizational culture will never come to fruition. The implementation of the strategic plans for respective ministries and departments need to begin with a mission statement and a vision where the subjective and objective benefits to the state, the institution in question, the citizens, management and staff are well articulated. Without the identification and buy-in of key stakeholders, a sound evaluation plan, a reward, accountability and training program, most well-intentioned post-revolution reforms will end up as slogans and will inevitable disappoint the citizens of Armenia and concerned Armenians in the diaspora. 

Strategic planning that aims to transform institutions, and eventually the state apparatus, however, is a specialized field on its own. It is rare that politicians and ministers have the background and the specialized skills to implement this type of a transition on their own, but all they need is to realize is that the transformation of ministries and the state apparatus requires specialization in this specific field and for them to seek and acquire the expertise and knowledge they need. The road to this transformation will require leadership, and the experience will be arduous as well as painful for some more than others, some may inevitably fall off the wagon of change, but for those who can emerge accomplished at the end and help meet the goals and targets of their respective institutional strategic plans, the adventure should be more than rewarding and fulfilling. The citizens who participated in this process through their work will know that their efforts have not only benefited them as individuals in their respective careers but have helped transform an entire nation.