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.
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
Page 1 of 5
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
Page 2 of 5
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
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
Page 3 of 5
Abrell-Vogel, C & Rowold, J 2014, 'Leaders’ commitment to change and their effectiveness in change
– a multilevel investigation', Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 900-
Aucoin, P 2012, 'New Political Governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration
and Management Performance at Risk', Governance, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 177-199.
Barry, J, Berg, E & Chandler, J 2006, 'Movement and change in the public sector: Bringing social
movements into the analysis', Public Management Review, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 433-448.
Barton, LC & Ambrosini, V 2013, 'The moderating effect of organizational change cynicism on middle
manager strategy commitment', International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 24, no.
4, pp. 721-746.
Basheer, A-H & Sulphey, MM 2012, 'Leadership effectiveness in implementing change and driving
innovation: A study among public sector employees', Asia Pacific Journal of Research in Business
Management, vol. 3, no. 9, pp. 1-1.
Brunetto, Y & Farr-Wharton, R 2005, 'The role of management post-NPM in the implementation of
new policies affecting police officers' practices', Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies
& Management, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 221-241.
Bryant, M & Stensaker, I 2011, 'The Competing Roles of Middle Management: Negotiated Order In
the Context of Change', Journal of Change Management, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 353-373.
Buick, F, Blackman, D & Johnson, S 2018, 'Enabling Middle Managers as Change Agents: Why
Organisational Support Needs to Change', Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 77, no. 2,
Burke, WW, Spencer, JL, Clark, LP & Coruzzi, C 1991, 'Managers Get a 'C' in Managing Change',
Training & Development, vol. 45, no. 5, p. 87.
Butterfield, R, Edwards, C & Woodall, J 2005, 'The New Public Management and Managerial Roles:
the Case of the Police Sergeant', British Journal of Management, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 329-341.
Conway, E & Monks, K 2011, 'Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating
paradoxical change', Human Resource Management Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 190-203.
De Vries, M & Nemec, J 2013, 'Public sector reform: an overview of recent literature and research on
NPM and alternative paths', International Journal of Public Sector Management, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 4-
Decker, P, Durand, R, Mayfield, CO, McCormack, C, Skinner, D & Perdue, G 2012, 'Predicting
implementation failure in organization change', Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications
and Conflict, vol. 16, p. 39+.
Diefenbach, T 2007, 'The managerialistic ideology of organisational change management', Journal of
Organizational Change Management, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 126-144.
Fattore, G, Dubois, HFW & Lapenta, A 2012, 'Measuring New Public Management and Governance in
Political Debate', Public Administration Review, vol. 72, no. 2, pp. 218-227.
Floyd, SW & Wooldridge, B 1994, 'Dinosaurs or dynamos? Recognizing middle management's
strategic role', Academy of Management Executive, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 47-57.
Page 4 of 5
Floyd, SW & Wooldridge, B 1997, 'Middle management's strategic influence and organizational
performance', Journal of Management Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 464-485.
Hawkins, J & Dulewicz, V 2009, 'Relationships between Leadership Style, the Degree of Change
Experienced, Performance and Follower Commitment in Policing', Journal of Change Management,
vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 251-270.
Johnston, J 2000, 'THE NEW PUBLIC MANAGEMENT IN AUSTRALIA', Administrative Theory & Praxis
(Administrative Theory & Praxis), vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 345-368.
Kellis, DS & Ran, B 2015, 'Effective leadership in managing NPM-based change in the public sector',
Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 614-626.
Kuipers, BS, Higgs, MJ, Kickert, WJM, Tummers, LG, Grandia, J & Van der Voet, J 2014, 'The
management of change in public organisations: A literature review', Public Administration, vol. 92,
no. 1, pp. 1-20.
Liukinevičienė, L & Norkutė, L 2011, 'Manifestation of Transactional and Transformational
Leadership in Siauliai City Municipality', Transakcinės ir transformacinės lyderystės raiška Šiaulių
miesto savivaldybėje., vol. 2011, no. 1, pp. 34-50.
Mantere, S 2005, 'Strategic practices as enablers and disablers of championing activity', Strategic
Organization, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 157-184.
Omari, M & Paull, M 2015, 'Public sector work intensification and negative behaviors', Journal of
Organizational Change Management, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 603-613.
Osborne, SP 2006, 'The New Public Governance? 1', Public Management Review, vol. 8, no. 3, pp.
Raelin, JD & Cataldo, CG 2011, 'Whither Middle Management? Empowering Interface and the Failure
of Organizational Change', Journal of Change Management, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 481-507.
Stummer, M & Zuchi, D 2010, 'Developing roles in change processes – A case study from a public
sector organisation', International Journal of Project Management, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 384-394.
Van Der Voet, J, Kuipers, B & Groeneveld, S 2015a, 'Held back and pushed forward: leading change in
a complex public sector environment', Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 28, no. 2,
Van Der Voet, J, Kuipers, BS & Groeneveld, S 2015b, 'Implementing change in public organizations:
The relationship between leadership and affective commitment to change in a public sector context',
Public Management Review, vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 1-24.
Van Wart, M 2013, 'Lessons from Leadership Theory and the Contemporary Challenges of Leaders',
Public Administration Review, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 553-565.
Wheelan, J 2011, The State of the Australian Public Service: An Alternative Report,
Page 5 of 5