Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Reciprocal Dynamics of Organizing and Sense-Making in the Implementation of Major Public-Sector Reforms

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Reciprocal Dynamics of Organizing and Sense-Making in the Implementation of Major Public-Sector Reforms

Article excerpt

This article examines a key issue in contemporary public administration: the challenge of implementing large-scale reform in public delivery systems (Peters and Savoie 1998; Rocher 2008; Exworthy and Powell 2004; Denis 2008). The managerialist approach to public-sector reform has emphasized the need for accountability to increase the performance of public services. While this is an important issue, it is crucial to look beyond this and to examine the distinctive work of public agents and the roles they play in reform (Pollitt 1998; Peters 1998). It is well recognized now that central government agencies do not and cannot exert direct control over all aspects of reform (Rhodes 1997; Exworthy and Powell 2004) and that reforms in the public sector operate in a context of multilevel governance where policies are reformulated and adapted by people at various levels. This article examines the processes involved in the implementation of an ambitious reform in a public health-care system of one Canadian province, namely Quebec. It analyses the interaction between the structural imperatives of the reform and the dynamics of conceptualizing and implementing change from the viewpoint of those who are at the centre of this process--the senior management teams of the delivery organizations.

Organizational restructuring that radically re-defines organizational boundaries and missions is a topic that has attracted considerable attention in the study of private-sector organizations (Volberda and Lewin 2003; Pettigrew et al. 2003). Public organizations in various sectors such as health and education (Denis et al. 1999; Wallace and Pocklington 2002) face similar pressures for radical restructuring. Reforms that recreate new organizations out of older ones are particularly interesting because they engage managers simultaneously in intensive organizing and "sense-making" activities whose complexity have often been underestimated.

In this article, we define "organizing" activities as those associated with changes in organizational structures--that is, the redefinition of internal roles and responsibilities and the establishment of policies, routines and information flows. We define "sense-making" activities as those associated with attempts to understand and define organizational strategies--that is, the nature of the organization's mission and mandate, including which programs it should be implementing and how it should be changing the way it delivers services. Thus, while organizing activities are associated with concrete, immediate and visible structural change, sense-making activities are conceptual, abstract and interpretive, though often critical to determining future activity. Our article explores how, in the context of major reform, sense-making activities contribute to organizing and, inversely, how organizing constrains or enables sense-making. More specifically, we analyse how a mandated large-scale change--the implementation of local health networks in the Quebec health-care system--creates cognitive disorder (Balogun and Johnson 2004) among managers and professionals and stimulates various patterns of sense-making and organizing activities.

Conceptual background

Based on the work of Karl Weick and colleagues on sense-making in organizations (1979, 1995, 2005), we suggest that attempts to radically transform organizations generate disruptions in expectations and routines, producing situations of ambiguity among organization members. Situations of ambiguity can be seen as the engine that drives the emergence of new forms of organizing (Eisenberg 2006). The ambiguity associated with structural reforms will tend to be greater when change initiatives involve the bridging of various organizations or changes in organizational boundaries, as in a merger.

In a situation of organizational ambiguity, actors will develop various strategies to gain a better understanding of other actors and organizations, of the nature of their current and future relationships, and of the context of restructuring. …

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