In late October 2005, the West Australian government decided to establish a new agency to administer the State's ongoing water needs.
Adding to the already significant challenge of establishing a new organisation was the imposition of an extremely tight timeline- less than two months.
When the department of water opened for business on January 2,2006, more than 100 staff had already been transferred - growing to the full complement of more than 600 by July. Staff were drawn from the Department of Environment and the Water and Rivers Commission, the two pre-existing agencies most affected by the decisison to establish a new department.
Staff morale in these departments was extremely low. There was both active resistance to the formation of the new agency , and lines of division between the two existing departments.
Recognising these challenges, the communication strategy focused squarely on internal communications, and real-time communication with all employees.
Less than 12 months later, a comprehensive employee engagement survey has shown that its staff are among the most engaged and committed to their jobs in the country.
The decision to establish a new Department of Water recognised that water has become a priority policy area for government. The formation of the new Department was also significant in that it was the first new government agency established in five years.
The environment was far from easy. The tight deadline meant there was no opportunity for ongoing consultation or lengthy strategies, and required a communication plan which could achieve clear outcomes within a very short timeframe.
The communications plan also had to address poor morale. Staff in the Department of Environment and the Water and Rivers commission had been subjected to a series of restructures over the preceding five years-in fact, the last restructure within the Department of Environment had not even been fully implemented when the decision was made to establish the new department.
There was a feeling that another long, drawn-out restructure process was simply a waste of time, money and energy, and some staff were actively opposed to the concept.
The opportunity and scope for research was expedited by the deadline.
Research was restricted to an alysis of existing Department of Environment and Waters and Rivers Commission research, and anecdotal evidence gathered during informal discussions with employees from both Departments.
This included face to face interviews with executives and employees, and staff meetings which acted as focus group discussions.
A desktop research study was also undertaken to analyse existing research such as previous Department of Environment and Water and Rivers Commission staff surveys.
To build on this benchmark data, interviews with human resources personnel also provided information on staff resignations, age and demographic profiles of staff and employment status.
From this research, the conclusions were abundantly clear- the overwhelming evidence was that staff were tired of change, felt disempowered and did not believe that another restructuring would meet government needs. There was unequivical support for the new department.
The communications strategy was primarily aimed at the Department of Water's staff, acknowledging the existence of 'change fatigue' and seeking to overcome resistance to the formation of the new agency.
It sought to speak directly to this audience by offering regular updates on achievements and progress, keeping all staff informed of decisions in real time and highlighting tangible achievements as they occurred.
A secondary target audience was stakeholders and media to influence staff and build support for the new department both internally and externally.
The Department of Water worked quickly to establish a plan which would guide communications with all stakeholders, and ensure efficiency and best practice in forming the new agency.
The plan aimed at achieving tangible outcomes within a very short timeframe, with a focus on roles, functions and expectations of stakeholders.
The plan sought to:
- clearly identify project outcomes
- clarify the Department of Water's roles and responsibilities
- develop and implement service delivery models for the Department of Water by building corporate structure, policies and systems
- oversee and guide the staff migration process from the Department of Environment ot the Department of Water
Its core premise was to avoid, at all costs, long-winded and poorly-defined statements of corporate values. It deliberately set out to give staff clear direction, to set concrete goals , and to deliver on time, every time.
Above all, the Plan aimed to encourage staff to feel positive about the new Department, ensuring the felt part of the agency and creating a sense of excitement and positivity about its future.
The Communications Plan set out to engage the "hearts and minds" of staff, to use those staff who were positive about the formation of the new department to influence and inspire those fatigued by constant change.
To achieve this, staff who were positive about the change process were used as "brokers" to assist in building the new organisation.
A key component of the Communications Plan was to ensure were kept informed about every decision that was made during the process of establishing the new agency.
It acknowledged that those staff members who were reluctant to move to the new Department would not be influenced by specifically targeted strategies, and relied on the enthusiasm of the positive staff members to "turn them around".
As work progressed , the key communications strategy of keeping all staff informed of every decision as it happened proved an invaluable tool in igniting interest from the more negative staff members.
Staff email bulletins, regular personalised letters and news sheets were provided to every employee, outling decisions that had been made and the reasons.
As staff members increased, face-to face presentations were made to small groups of staff to keep them abreast of new developments. These were given in real time, and changed daily to ensure staff information was immediate.
The communications activities with staff were concise and to the point. From the start, the decision was to use absolutely clear language rather than bureaurocracy-babble. The tight timeframe meant events were moving quickly, so the communications activities were tangible- the team was able to report on concrete achievements.
Staff generally received email bulletins at least once a week, with face-to-face meetings. All discussion and information given to staff was about actions already taken and under consideration.
Care was also taken to ensure staff were given a voice in the process of establishing the Department of Water. Staff feedback was welcomed, and listened to, and led to modifications to the directions.However, it was made clear that staff meetings were not a forum for debate about what actions should be considered, ensuring the process remained timely and efficient.
In this way, the momentum of the new department kept building. The strategy of highly visible results sparked staff interest and enthusiasm.
Also important to the Communications Plan was a high degree of honesty and transparency- if the answer to a question from a staff member wasn't known, the team acknowledged this and followed up with the appropriate information.
Other tools used to communicate the change (to both internal and external stakeholders) included:
- Corporate identity and development of a Style Guide and "brand" to distinguish the new Department from the Department of Environment and the Waters and Rivers Commission:
- Stakeholder relations program to harness support from peak industry groups, staff groups and unions;
- Brochures and leaflets about the mew Department;
- Newsletters about developments (for staff and stakeholders);
- Issues management plan (particularly about more public money being spent on another government bureaucracy;
- Media relations;
- Direct mail;
- Media monitoring;
- Development and launch of new internet and intranet sites;
- New signage, stationary, email addresses, phone numbers, etc;
- Unfirmation events and presentations; and
- Speader program to other government departments and employer groups.
The Department of Water opened for business as planned on January 2, and was fully operational, with all staff in place, by June 30 2006. The orderly transition of staff, projects and commitments from the Department of Environment to the Department of Water took place between January and June 2006.
The Department of Water responded well to the challenges presented by building a new organisation, and handled the additional pressures imposed by the tight timeframe.
The Communications Plan insured it was able to overcome the significant cultural challenges presented by bringing a group of staff-many unwillingly- into a new organisation , while at the same time balancing operational issues and managing ongoing business.
According to external consultants Measured Insights, who helped in the change process, the Department performed outstandingly in four key areas;
- Clarifying the direction of the new organisation (including the new 'brand');
- Implementing structural changes and reporting lines that were clear and made sense to employees;
- Implementing the changes quickly but not hastily;and
- Communicating regularly and openly with staff, and in doing so responding effectively to the emotional communication needs of staff in the early stages of the change process.
The Department of Water had succeeded in building a positive space , engaged and motivated workforce, overcoming the resistance to change exhibited by staff when first informed of the move.
Just how effective the Communications Plan and its management of the change process had been was made clear in a Staff Engagement survey undertaken in September 2006, less than a year after the new department openmed its doors.
The results of the survey (see Appendix B) showed the Department of Water's staff are among the most engaged and committed to their jobs in the country- placing the Department in the top 25 per cent of organisations across Australia.
Coming off an effectively nil base for all measurable objectives, the Department of Water achieved a minimum of more than 75 per cent - and as much as 90 per cent-improvement in all areas, representing a clear success and setting a new national benchmark.
Encourage staff to develop a personal commitment to the success of the new agency
When work began on forming the new department, staff attitudes ranged from cynicism to outright resistance. Less than 12 months later, the survey showed that 90.4 per cent of employees said they were personally committed to contributing to the success of the new agency, and more than three quarters (76.1 per cent) said they were proud to work for the Department of Water.
Build a unified, positive and motivated workforce.
From a disaffected and disparate group of employees drawn from different agencies, the Department of Water has built a strong workforce with a shared vision for the future. The survey showed 82.2 per cent said they felt motivated in their current jobs , while 79.6 per cent said their work gave them a sense of satisfaction .More than 80 per cent (84.3 per cent) of staff said their colleagues worked well as a team.
Shift perceptions of the government as an employee, ensuring staff view it as an employer of choice
Staff transferred to the new department had already been subjected to a series of restructures within government agencies, and disenchanted with the prospect of further change. However, the survey showed more than three quarters (78.1 per cent) said they would willingly recommend the Department of Water as an employer, and 82.6 per cent said they were able to balance their work and home life demands.
Establish clear and open lines of communication betweem staff and management throughout the organisation
For staff who had felt disempowered by constant change, providing effective communication channels between staff and their superiors was vital. The survey showed 85.5 per cent said they believed their immediate manager listened and responded appropriately to them. Almost 90 per cent (89.3 per cent) felt they were treated equitably and fairly by their immediate manager- establishing a new Australian benchmark for this performance area, according to Measured Insights.