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Jessica Marin-Ulloa


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Submission to the Independent Review of

the Australian Public Service

By Jessica Marin-Ulloa

Research Student, Doctor of Business Administration, Charles Darwin University

Research Topic: The Role of Middle Managers in Strategic Change Implementation in the Northern

Territory Public Sector

Former APS and NTPS employee

This statement serves as my submission to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service
(APS). I am making a submission of the basis on the research that I have conducted as part of a Doctor

of Business Administration Course with Charles Darwin University. My research, as the title indicates,
is based on exploring the role of middle managers in strategic change implementation in the Northern

Territory Public Sector (NTPS). Through this research, I had the opportunity to study two different

case studies of public sector reform and change implementation. Findings from my research are

comparable to findings from Buick et al. (2018) and as such, give an indication of potential broader

applicability across all Australian Public Sectors.
Strategic change in the public sector in Australia over the last decades, has been mainly driven by the

New Public Management (NPM) paradigm (Barry et al. 2006; De Vries & Nemec 2013; Johnston 2000),
as well as political priorities (Aucoin 2012). NPM is based on adopting private-sector like models and

management in public administration (Butterfield et al. 2005; Fattore et al. 2012; Kellis & Ran 2015).
The pressures around achieving efficiencies to reduce public sector costs have increased (Barry et al.
2006; De Vries & Nemec 2013; Fattore et al. 2012; Osborne 2006). Countries with comparable

systems, such as Britain, Canada and New Zealand have also experienced a similar approach to public

sector reforms with a focus on achieving smaller and less costly public sectors (Wheelan 2011).
It has been well documented that change in the public sector has a high rate of failure (Brunetto &
Farr-Wharton 2005; Stummer & Zuchi 2010). Although poorly implemented, change often has long-
lasting consequences. This is more often seen through policy failures, inability to implement

recommendations from reviews and investigations, and feedback from employee surveys.

This study used a case study methodology with data gathered through documentary evidence, semi-
structured interviews of middle managers and employee surveys. Data analysis was undertaken

utilising ATLAS.ti and SPSS. However, of the quantitative data, the employee surveys, only descriptive

statistics were used to justify research conclusions due to the number of participants not being

sufficient for a reliable quantitative analysis.
Research Outcomes

To bring my research to its most simple assessment, literature review and my findings indicate that

the roles middle managers play in organisations are often undervalued and underestimated. Their

potential is not fully realised in the public sector. This is particularly the case, and accentuated when

implementing change. Middle managers are often removed from planning and decision making, yet

play important roles around communication, engagement and negotiation in the change

implementation process. In my research, I was fortunate to have two different case studies that

presented contrasting evidence on middle management participation. In one case study, middle

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managers were given the responsibility and ownership for implementing change and in the other, they

were mostly sidelined. As expected, and in support of theoretical evidence, in the change experience

where middle managers were active planners and participants of the change implementation process,
the change was effectively executed (Basheer & Sulphey 2012; Bryant & Stensaker 2011; Burke et al.
1991; Kuipers et al. 2014; Van Der Voet et al. 2015a; Van Der Voet et al. 2015b). Evidence from this

case study, also suggested that effective change implementation has an ongoing positive effect on

long-term change success and on future change. In contrast, in the change experience where middle

managers were mostly sidelined, the change implementation was fragmented, created conflict and

left several gaps in operations. An over emphasis on a top-down approach was seen as inflexible

where opportunities from tailoring approaches and operational feedback were often missed.
Although there are many complexities and variables that impact the success or failure of change

implementation, my research confirmed the critical role middle managers play in this process, which

can be largely overlooked by senior management. The most consistent evidence produced through

my research was the striking differences between the two agencies and senior management support

of middle manager in the implementation of change. In the agency where middle managers were

given the ownership of the process, middle managers felt empowered. They displayed initiative, took

a proactive approach to problem resolution and demonstrated gradual and increased commitment to

work towards a common goal. Middle managers in this agency created a culture of ‘we are all in this

together’ through communication and engagement. They expressed that while some managers were

suspicious of the change, mainly due to past change experiences, they were able to openly discussed

issues and concerns which were addressed as a group. More importantly, the culture middle

managers created amongst them to implement change, was translated to employees under their

supervision and external stakeholders.
In contrast, the experience by the second agency studied, middle managers were not involved in the

planning of the change and had little control over the implementation process. They saw themselves

as recipients of the change rather than active participants in the implementation process. This was

evident through their responses in the semi-structured interviews. Responses to the employee survey

confirmed that employees saw the limitations their managers were facing throughout the process. A

significant gap and a separation between senior and middle managers were evident, with the senior

management being responsible for the change implementation process. These conditions hindered

middle managers’ commitment and capacity to display the transformational leadership traits that

support effective change implementation (Abrell-Vogel & Rowold 2014; Hawkins & Dulewicz 2009;
Kellis & Ran 2015; Liukinevičienė & Norkutė 2011; Van Der Voet et al. 2015b). Regardless of these

circumstances, throughout the process middle managers attempted to contribute. It was

encouraging to see their efforts albeit the limitations they faced. Where possible they assisted with

information sharing, interpretation, and the framing of what was occurring. Employees surveys results

showed an appreciation for what their managers were able to do in very challenging circumstances.
However, their efforts were limited by the level of information available to them. In some instances,
this presented a risk to their own credibility as their control only went so far, so while they were able

to carry out some change implementation activities, these were disconnected from broader

approaches and often lacked the necessary feedback loops needed in consultation. For example,
some employees felt that they provided information and feedback to managers, but this information

was not considered any further, and as such felt as if the consultation process was not genuine and

decisions had been already made.
Under these circumstances, the change implementation process was fractured, lacked coordination

and had little governance arrangement to monitor progress implementation. Unfortunately, the lack

of participation of middle managers in the process was not replaced by any other effective

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arrangement. On the contrary, other systems put in place to aid the change implementation process,
demonstrated the opposite further confusing the purpose of the change and of the systems for

implementation. Coincidentally, middle management also had little involvement with the established

systems. As such, this agency presented an alignment with a number of critical failure factors for

change studied by Decker et al. (2012). Deficiencies in project management methodology, little end-
user involvement in decision-making, lack of transparency, turn-over in change leadership and a poor

implementation strategy were all characteristics presented in the agency where middle managers had

little involvement.
It is important to note that the NPM based reforms may not necessarily present the best conditions

for change management (Omari & Paull 2015). If the principles of NPM alone are adopted, it is likely

that change management, although potentially efficient, will be fractured, individualistic, and produce

negative consequences to change adoption and implementation. NPM principles appear to have

cemented conditions for poor change management administration and have impacted broader

management arrangements in the public sector.
NPM has made middle management roles more challenging. The conditions in which middle

managers operate, impact the ability of managers to manage and perform their required leadership

roles. In change management, middle managers are generally limited in their capacity to contribute

to and implement change in the public sector. There is a persistent separation of middle managers

from critical planning and decision points (Brunetto & Farr-Wharton 2005; Conway & Monks 2011;
Floyd, Steven W. & Wooldridge 1994). They often don’t have sufficient information, lack time to plan

and implement and feel ill-equipped to appropriately support their team through the change process
(Buick et al. 2018). The role of middle managers for effective administration in areas such as change

implementation, can only be realise if they are empowered to take on those roles (Conway & Monks

2011; Floyd, Steven W. & Wooldridge 1994; Raelin & Cataldo 2011). Middle managers need autonomy

and to have the flexibility to make decisions in order to provide a positive contribution (Barton &
Ambrosini 2013; Floyd, S. W. & Wooldridge 1997; Mantere 2005). Without ownership of the process,
middle managers are limited on their capacity to display required leadership competencies. Without

control, middle managers are unlikely to display the commitment energy and determination required

to support strategy implementation. These conditions hinder their ability to maintain and drive a

mission, empower and engage employees, freely manage resources and take risks (Hawkins &
Dulewicz 2009; Van Wart 2013). It creates a conflict between what they are expected to do and what

they are actually able to do (Barton & Ambrosini 2013).
Although my research had the benefit of investigating two different case studies in the

implementation of strategic change, the case of agency that involved middle managers, is rare rather

than the norm in the public sector. Persistent failures in change implementation and policy, as well

as consistent negative employee survey results on leadership, demonstrates that a cohesive,
integrated and collegial leadership group is uncommon in the public service.
The current nature of public sector administration, means that the top-down approach of

management serves a political purpose. Diefenbach (2007) argues that it is based on power and

control, dominance and supremacy, and strengthening individual positions and influence, even

though these types of practice have persistently shown to be largely ineffective.
Through my study, I have come to the conclusion that the Public Service would benefit from identifying

and establishing conditions that support and promote middle managers’ leadership traits. Benefits

would be further realised if middle managers are allowed to have more control and ownership of their

responsibilities, and be active participants and contributors in strategy development, planning and


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