Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Consulting in the Public Sector: Challenges and Opportunities

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Consulting in the Public Sector: Challenges and Opportunities

Article excerpt



Organization Development work is conducted in a variety of contexts, including both the private and public sector. Most of the discussions around OD practice are oriented toward the private sector clients, including the majority of journal articles, models, theories, case studies, training programs and workshops at conferences. Much of this work is applicable to the public sector, yet these clients also have unique needs and offer unique opportunities to innovate and expand the kind of work OD practitioners can do. These opportunities make public sector OD work both challenging and exciting. The key to understanding change management in the public sector is the use of rules and regulations as a defense mechanism against the arbitrary nature of the political arena. Common issues in working with public sector clients include strategic thinking, customer service, performance measurement, and leadership development.


I have been working as an internal consultant for a large Midwestern American city for a little over two years. Before that, I was an independent consultant specializing in strategic planning and program evaluation for small non-profit organizations. During the course of my professional career I have employed a wide range of OD skills and techniques, and I have seen first hand how such agencies respond in unique ways that require a creative approach to better meet their needs. I have also had the opportunity to reflect upon the similarities and the differences that exist between the two sectors, both in terms of how these systems operate in general, and how these similarities and differences affect my practice and an OD consultant.

There is little doubt that private sector concerns dominate the thinking about organizations, both within OD and also in the world at large. With some exceptions, a quick review of professional journals or books on OD or management will reveal few articles specifically on government or the public sector. The purpose of this article is not to review these types of works, but to share the results of my own personal experiences and reflection gained from working with public sector clients.

The Similarity: OD is Always Value Driven

If there is one constant element that should not change regardless of the type of client, it is the value driven nature of OD work. In the course of my own consulting, I have developed a set of personal values that I find to be very consistent with that of most other OD consultants. My most important values are the following:

* The Whole Organization is the Client

* The Client's Learning Drives the Process

* A Strong Emphasis on Individual Empowerment

* The Utilization of Participatory Methods

None of these values change when working with either private or public sector clients. The client for an OD practitioner is the whole organization. One begins perhaps with upper management or some contracting party, but to truly be "OD" the focus must quickly extend to all the major stakeholders within and outside the organization. The focus is on the organization taken as a whole system. As a consultant, I strive toward helping the client gain insights into their own problems and solutions, while I take a facilitating role, using participatory methods in my workshop to encourage the participants to empower each other in ways that will improve the performance of the whole organization. By doing the work themselves, they "own" both the problem and the solution, not fobbing it off on the consultants. This description of the values that I strive to practice in my work will hopefully sound very familiar to consultants in the private sector.

The Difference: The Public Sector is Service Driven

Yet there are some unique features to the value driven nature of OD work within public sector organizations. The first and most important is that public service, not profit making, is the central purpose of the organization. …

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