Outcomes of Planned Organizational Change in the Public Sector: A Meta-Analytic Comparison to the Private Sector

By Robertson, Peter J.; Seneviratne, Sonal J. | Public Administration Review, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Outcomes of Planned Organizational Change in the Public Sector: A Meta-Analytic Comparison to the Private Sector


Robertson, Peter J., Seneviratne, Sonal J., Public Administration Review


There is a growing recognition of the need for fundamental changes in the way public organizations are structured and managed (Barzelay, 1992; Johnston, 1993; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). With the environment becoming more turbulent, organizational boundaries changing or even collapsing, and the number of constituents in the political arena increasing, many public organizations will require implementation of a broad range of proactive changes designed to improve organizational functioning. In particular, it is frequently argued that organizations need to reduce their managerial structure, allow greater discretion and responsibility among their front-line employees, and operate more flexibly and innovatively if they are to perform sufficiently well to ensure their survival (Cleveland, 1985; Drucker, 1988; Peters, 1988). The field of planned organizational change, based largely on the knowledge and techniques derived from the organizational development (OD) movement, provides a potentially useful set of approaches for implementing requisite changes along these lines.

Although the potential benefits of planned organizational change for public organizations seem apparent, previous literature pertinent to this issue is more equivocal. On the one hand, literature discussing differences between public and private organizations suggests that organizational development may not be as viable in the public sector. In contrast, prior empirical investigations of OD outcomes in the two sectors provide some evidence that OD can be as effective in public organizations. Therefore, further assessment of its utility to public organizations would be a timely and useful venture. In this article, we explore this issue through a meta-analysis of prior evaluations of organizational change projects. Specifically, we compare the outcomes of planned change in the public sector to those generated in private sector organizations. Because expectations regarding differences that might be found between the two sectors are not straightforward, we first discuss in greater depth the potential efficacy of OD in public organizations. Then we turn to a more complete description of the focus and methods of our own analysis.

The Potential Efficacy of Organizational Development in Public Organizations

Ambiguity regarding the efficacy of planned organizational change in public organizations is based in part on the question of whether or not they differ from private organizations in ways that would limit the effectiveness of organizational development efforts. The traditional perspective has been that key differences between the two sectors have important implications for the likelihood of successfully implementing a program of planned change. Features of public organizations noted most often include the absence of market incentives; the existence of multiple, conflicting goals; and a political context with a broader range of constituent groups, higher levels of accountability, and more rules, regulations, and constraints (Meyer, 1982; Perry and Rainey, 1988). These features may cause problems for the implementation of OD that reflect not just an inappropriate application of theory but the possibility that the theory itself does not fit the reality of public administration (Forbes, 1978).

Because private sector organizations are driven primarily by market or consumer preferences, organizational effectiveness is more readily measured in terms of efficiency and profitability. As a result, change activity can be implemented and assessed using these narrow criteria as the primary basis for evaluating their success, possibly making it easier for these change efforts to be successful. In contrast, there are different and more varied criteria by which to assess organizational effectiveness in the public sector. Hence, public organizations may find it more difficult to use planned change interventions effectively, because the primary goal of these efforts will not be as straightforward or as consensually supported. …

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