Government agency.

Case study

Embedding Customer Focus into Government Agency

The challenge

For years this organisation has successfully provided some of the fundamental infrastructure services required by the community to go about its daily life. Because the organisation services the whole community, it continually has to juggle the potentially competing needs of different interest groups, as well as meet the political agenda demanded by the government ministers, and important issues of safety and long term planning which are often not immediately visible to users and the government.

The organisation has always prided itself on its technical excellence, project management, engineering and resource planning skills. Over the years a strong process orientation became a tendency to bureaucracy and to become hemmed in by process, using them as a reason for why things cannot change. The culture became one where people would do their job in the best way they could, but without stepping outside their own world to see things from the perspective of the customer and their colleagues. Over time, the hidden risk posed by this behaviour of complacency and bureaucracy grew.

The severity of this risk was finally realised when a major incident occurred in which the response of a number of agencies brought considerable discomfort to a lot of customers. After considerable negative media coverage, a government inquiry concluded that the lack of customer focus in the culture was a root cause of the problems and needed to be addressed.

The organisation knew that its cultural issues needed to be addressed. With strong backing from the Executive Team, the organisation decided to attempt to actively manage their culture. The organisation asked for submissions of interest from outside providers to partner with them to jointly develop and manage this considerable task.

After considerable negative media coverage, a government inquiry concluded that the lack of customer focus in the culture was a root cause of the problems.

The approach

The approach was two-fold. By conducting a customer survey the organisation spoke with 6000 customers, and this data was combined with data from an internal culture survey and deep dive focus groups. TURN AROUND, Walking the Talk’s culture management system proposal, was seen as by far the most rigorous and comprehensive approach to the internal challenge, and was selected ahead of global consulting firms and survey diagnostic organisations.

The program has been strongly supported by the Executive Team through a heavy investment in their own development to lead a customercentric culture. Most of the team had been in the organisation for some time and recognised that they themselves would need to change in order to encourage change in others. Initially the Executive Team committed to a team development process, individual assessment process and coaching.

Walking the Talk’s Discover diagnostic process provided key insights… into the behaviours, symbols and systems sustaining the current culture allowed the executive team to pinpoint how they needed to change… and identify the initiatives that would have the most impact.

Walking the Talk’s Methodology helped produce a plan which gave longevity. The organisation’s project management strength put them in a strong position to set the Customer Focus Program up in a manner that would increase its momentum. A program team was established from the start and a comprehensive program plan developed.

A group of people was selected whose mind-sets reflected the desired future state and were the link deep into the business. They have been advocates for change, facilitators of engagement sessions and leaders of the culture planning process. This group went through several Walking the Talk culture leadership programs, as did the top 60 leaders who were also closely involved from the start.

The Customer Focus Program encompassed a combination of development and engagement initiatives for all staff with selected flagship projects. For example, the development of an external customer facing charter, various technology initiatives plus an agency wide skills program which focused on key behaviours.

The Program was fully costed and incorporated into the business planning cycle, and included a rigid governance and communication structure, which established it as a fully functioning culture management program.

A change in government triggered a change in Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive. The new Chief Executive, immediately saw the practical, systematic and results-oriented focus of the culture planning process, the commitment of the people, and the transfer of internal capability; he knew that continuing the Customer Focus program was critical to the organisation’s future. Year 1 of the Customer Focus Program is now in the latter stages of implementation. Priorities chosen were ‘putting the customer at the centre of everything we do’ and work to address customer perceptions.

The Customer Focus Program was managed by a full time team, focussed both on DO-ing, a selected number of practical changes, and BEing, work to change the mind-sets in the organisation.

Key Initiatives

  1. Key Behaviours program is being rolled out to the whole organisation, focusing on four key behaviours defined in the culture assessment as critical to change, and a definition of the customer that has helped focus everyone appropriately.

  2. A customer charter, launched by the Minister and considered by him to a very good model for other government agencies, is now in place, and every part of the organisation has a plan to align their operations to the promises within the charter.

  3. An escalation process is enabling customer complaints to be resolved more quickly by cutting through normal organisational barriers.

  4. The executive team and their many direct reports continue with their own development, improving their ability to lead a customer-focused organisation, including 1-on-1 coaching and leadership assessment.

  5. The Chief Executive has led a carefully structured communication process. Intensive work with the executive team on their individual behaviour and their ability to think and operate as a team has been undertaken. This included leadership assessments, coaching and team development sessions.

  6. A number of technology initiatives were included in the program and have resulted in more customer oriented information being available and key technology strategies being developed and implemented.

  7. A global search has produced two new executives who were selected with a focus on customer centric competencies, and restructures continue to lift the bar. 8. The Minister and other government agencies have been involved and are supporting the changes, and the success of the program has been commented on by other government agencies including the ombudsman.

Government agency key initiatives


The Chief Executive describes how the Customer Focus Program has enabled subsequent internally driven initiatives, as well as providing him with a platform to lead the agency ahead of others in the eyes of a government who is focused on improving services to the community. Stories are now collected on improved customer service.

When the Chief Executive describes the benefits of culture management within the organisation he highlights that his organisation:

  • Has a customer focus program underway.
  • Has customer focus outputs specifically included in the publicly available ‘corporate delivery plan’.
  • Has a powerful and effective customer charter.
  • Has been able to put diagnostic findings into action.
  • Has a full governance infrastructure to manage culture via the customer focus program.
  • Is engaging employees through a behavioural skills program across 2500 employees in the first year of the program.

The agency was recently awarded a major infrastructure project in favour of an external contract, a sign of increased trust by government. Recent government requirements for efficiency measures have been implemented with a continued focus on the customer, which would have been much more difficult without the structure and mindset changes achieved through the Customer Focus Program.

And importantly for employees, elected government officials and customers themselves, the media have quietened their criticism of the agency.

Government agency - pulse survey

Government agency - business imperativesGovernment agency - pulse results

Results Summary

Clarity of Vision and Direction:

  • Most people see agency becoming a much smaller, more focussed organisation with essentially a contract management role – Less in-house technical skills - Delivery provided by the private sector /contractors.
  • Many see agency as being privatised in the future.
  • Future seen as generally positive, but with still many uncertainties - Morale is affected in some areas.
  • People with a more technical role were sometimes extremely negative, fearing in particular the loss of their job. Understanding of Management’s direction & business imperatives
  • Reduce costs – Increase efficiencies provide value for money – Streamline operations – Save money (60% of respondents).
  • Increase customer focus (50% of respondents).
  • Bed down the restructure.

“Extremely important – Number one priority – At the heart of everything we do – 100% - There is nothing else – It’s what we do – Bottom line – It’s all about the customer – Vital…” (100%).

When the Chief Executive describes the benefits… he highlights that his organisation has a plan and is actively managing a customer focused culture.


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