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New 'Super' Department: Why the change will fail before it even starts

A report completed two years into the merger of Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection reveals it never had a chance of success. And now, with the new Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Government is planning to do it all again...just bigger.

It's no secret that the success rate of organisational change within the public-sector is low. Only 37% of Australian public service agencies say change is well managed and in the last 12 months, we’ve seen some high-profile change failures emerge. The failed Census, delays with the National Broadband Network, issues with implementing the National Disability Insurance Scheme and so the list goes on. None of them, however, compare with the looming change disaster announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 17 July.

First, a bit of context.

Politics is not something that particularly interests me. However, when I awoke to headlines confirming the creation of a 'super' Government Department (the new Home Affairs Office, combining the Department of Immigration, Australian Federal Police and our intelligence service, ASIO and others) I felt it important to share my perspective. In particular, insights from a recent report into the current merger being undertaken by one of these departments.

I spend a lot of time with Government agencies and Departments, helping them reduce the change-friction in their organisations. While no organisational change is easy, as a change specialist I can confidently say, change in the public-sector is amongst the most difficult. It's complex, decisions are often politically motivated and change is rarely initiated with a full appreciation of the consequences.

In 2014, the Australian Government announced the planned merger of the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. It was described as “a once-in-a-generation change”. In October 2016, the Australian media reported problems with the systems merger. At the time, the finger of blame was aimed directly at the external systems partner - IBM. However, knowing that change failure rarely comes from a single source, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to do my own investigation.

What I discovered was depressing, to say the least. Even more so, in the light of the Governments most recent announcement. You can access the full report here.

Summary of findings

The study analysed publicly available data and assessed it against 30 change-attributes, across two dimensions - Complexity and Capability.

The analysis revealed that the merger which created the current Department of Immigration and Border Protection was destined to fail from the beginning.

The Complexity Dimension examined 13 attributes associated with the merger. They covered two main perspectives. The first included attributes associated with the change itself such as why it was initiated, its complexity and some of the opportunities and constraints associated with it. The second perspective examined the environment within which the change occurred. This looked at both the external environment (outside the Government Departments) and the internal environment (within the Departments themselves).

Of the 13 attributes, only one was working in favour of the merger’s success. The remainder were working against it.

The Capability Dimension analysed 17 attributes of the newly created Department and its capability and readiness to execute the change. 16 of 17 attributes associated with the merger were assessed as decreasing the likelihood the change would succeed. The evidence showed an organisation that was ill-equipped for the change it was expected to undertake.

The merger process ‘ticked’ some of the change management boxes but they were unable to compensate for the overall lack of change capability and inadequate focus on people.

Finally, as can be seen in Figure 1, when these two dimensions were examined together, they showed that chances of the merger succeeding were 'very low'. This has played out in reality with recent employee morale figures from the Department showing it's in considerable disarray with no short- or long-term sign of improvement.

Figure 1: “What is the overall likelihood this change will succeed”?

So, why do I say that the proposed creation of a national security super department is Australia’s biggest, public-sector change disasters in the making?

It’s not just because one of the three Government Departments for the planned super-department is still reeling from a very similar (ie. poorly conceived and poorly managed) Departmental merger that began 2 1/2 years ago. It’s the fact that the other two Government Departments (ASIO and Australian Federal Police) each present very similar change profiles to that of the pre-merger Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It is, therefore, possible to predict the outcome before the first contract has even been written.

I’d like to think it’s not too late and that somehow the planned merger will just evaporate or be buried in a drawer as a political flash-in-the-pan. After all, it’s one thing not to be able to get online and enter your Census details. It’s quite another, to have all the agencies who are tasked with national security, fighting each other, instead of those who would want to do us harm.

Thanks for reading and I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please remember to share this article with others who would value its insights.


Kate Christiansen has spent over two decades adapting complex organisations to strategic change and she is the author of the award-winning book "The Thrive Cycle: Unlock the Adaptive Organisation Within". Kate is a mentor, facilitator, director and advisor who helps leaders tackle the change-related challenges that stand between them and strategic success. Kate's "Leading at the Speed of Change" Executive Mastery program increases an Executive Team's ability to individually, and collaboratively, lead change and successfully deliver its strategy.


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