Change Management




Historically, the field of public child welfare has been more reactive than proactive in regard to 

change management. From the highest level of an organization developing a budget down to direct 

service workers responding to allegations of abuse, being ahead of the curve on trends versus 

reacting to immediate needs has been difficult for public child welfare staff to master. Effective 

change management requires all levels of an organization to be forward thinking and willing to work 

towards goals and desired outcomes in a manner that connects all the way through an organization 

from the identified leader to their management team, supervisors, strategic support staff, and 

direct service workers.


“Macro” Change Management


There is a “macro” aspect of change that is best led and managed through high-level change planning 

in alignment with the agency’s strategic priorities and practice model. Broad, multi-year and 

cross-functional change planning efforts should follow directly from and be fully integrated with 

preceding or concurrent strategic planning efforts. While the primary purpose of strategy work is 

to determine what the agency seeks to do and why, the primary purpose of “macro” change management 

is to determine how to get from here to there. Strategy and change management work are not separate 

and distinct as much as they are a spectrum of work, where the greater emphasis is initially on 

strategic considerations and later on the change management ones. Indeed, a change planning effort 

can force greater strategic clarity and purpose to be defined, in turn leading to more effective 

strategic planning and practice model development over time.


“Mezzo” Change Management


A Change Plan also establishes priorities for continuous improvement: within and among particular 

agency functions, at the local office, program-specific or regional level, and with community 

partners. Continuous improvement encompasses both remedial efforts to “fix” something in the 

agency, as well as innovations and breakthroughs that make use of the agency’s strengths and 

capacity to reach exemplary levels of performance. Continuous improvement also encompasses both 

new, additional agency activities as well as activities for the agency to automate, outsource or 

eliminate altogether. This “mezzo” aspect of change is best accomplished through project-driven 

initiatives that are led and managed by continuous improvement teams that align to clear direction 

and guidance from the overall sponsors of the improvement priorities. Such project-oriented 

improvement priorities might include redesigning staff selection and development programs to be 

more in line with the desired practice model, or developing a system of care approach to service 

delivery that is well-integrated with other agency programs and functions. These continuous 

improvement (CI) efforts must become a “way of doing business” for an agency to succeed in the long 

run with making complex and comprehensive programmatic change happen.


“Micro ” Change Management


As they become internalized and intuitive for staff throughout the agency, these CI methods and 

techniques become the basis for reflection, critical thinking, improvement making, innovation and 

creativity that occurs in an ongoing, organic way. These methods also serve as the foundation for 

the agency’s quality assurance processes and practices. Not all improvement and innovation efforts 

have to be programmatic and centrally managed to be important. In fact, it’s at this “micro” level 

of self-correction and change that many of the best ideas for improvement and innovation begin to 

have influence on strategic thinking and agency-wide improvement and innovation. And as this aspect 

of change is fully hin the agency, it naturally reinforces the principles and practices that are more formally 

advanced by the agency’s practice model. The process for supporting CI is provided in the Key Process section of 

this guidance.




Improving the Agency Culture


An agency’s culture both defines and is defined by how it does its work and by how leadership 

treats its staff. Agency leadership defines the culture of the organization by shaping the way 

staff think, perceive, understand, feel and act. Culture includes the norms and values of agency 

staff, as well as the fundamental underlying beliefs and assumptions that leadership and staff use 

in their daily work and interactions. Cultures can be relatively authoritative or they can be 

relatively laissez-faire, and neither of these options serves public child welfare agencies well. 

Child welfare work requires a strengths-based, solutions-focused culture that is based on 

empowerment: enabling staff to exercise discretion and collaborate to provide service and solve 

problems within well- defined boundaries such as the agency’s vision and mission. It also requires 

a culture that is focused on who it serves, versus one focused primarily on program or staff-driven 

needs and interests. The macro, mezzo and micro aspects of change outlined above, if practiced by 

the agency and reinforced by its leadership, will result in the most effective culture for public 

child welfare work.


Change Management and Frontline Practice: Parallel Processes


Within an agency, effective change management and effective frontline practice are parallel and 

mutually reinforcing processes that lead to positive outcomes. Imagine a direct service worker 

learning and applying the skills of effective change management: identifying problems; completing 

thorough assessments based on data and observations; developing, implementing, and monitoring real, 

strategic change plans; working collaboratively with children, youth and families on these steps 

and techniques. When effective, frontline practice unfolds in a parallel way to what an agency does 

to develop change plans, continuous improvement initiatives and ongoing performance and quality 

improvement efforts for the organization as a whole. By creating a culture of change management, 

leaders in public child welfare can provide workers with both organizational resources needed to 

perform job functions and the model for how positive change is possible for the children and 

families the agency serves.


Change Planning


A Change Plan lays out in a clear, orderly flow the answers to a range of questions about how an 

agency will “make its strategic priorities happen” and thereby achieve outcomes for and with 

children, youth and families. It spells out the work to be done to execute agency strategy in a way 

that is comprehensive and concrete, yet still flexible to the unfolding realities of any complex 

change effort. This results in stronger partnerships, more secure funding and other forms of 

long-term support, better implementation of specific initiatives, clearer roles and expectations 

throughout the organization and within each program and functional area, and an enhanced perception 

of the agency and its work.

As you read the following, please link to the Road Map for Change, a basic planning template that 

includes all the sections and questions that an agency should address. These areas include:



Strategic Direction Set by the Agency Strategic Plan


The leading section of a change plan must establish the path for improved outcomes to which the 

change efforts are aligned. This path must include an understanding of the agency’s vision, mission 

and values, its core principles including reducing disproportionality and disparity, its 

environmental challenges and opportunities, the needs of who it serves, and especially the child 

and family practices that are most likely to help them improve their lives. The change plan must 

identify any formally established strategic goals, objectives and initiatives, stakeholder mandates 

and non-negotiable expectations, financial or other identified resource limits. It also identifies 

projects already launched and other work commitments already made, established means to measure and 

monitor progress, and any established oversight and governance for strategic plans and initiatives.


Organizational Strengths and Gaps Related to the Strategic Direction


While the most effective strategic plans consider the agency’s workforce capacity to actually make 

changes happen, many do not do so. One of the primary benefits of change planning is that the 

agency becomes more purposeful in making changes that result in improved outcomes for the children, 

youth and families it serves. It also becomes more self-aware and engaged in using its strengths 

confidently and making improvements to its capacity to continuously improve and innovate, something 

we will refer to as “readiness.” Complex changes are more likely to succeed when a thorough 

assessment is made of the organization’s readiness for making such changes. For example:

  • Does the agency have the structure, culture and leadership platform in place to drive successfull improvement and innovation?
  • Does staff have the skills, the time, the passion and the commitment to implement strategic initiatives?
  • Does staff understand process simplification and streamlining of their daily efforts in order to open up capacity for new initiatives and innovations?
  • Are we adding things to the roles and responsibilities of staff without understanding with equal focus what needs to be reduced or eliminated from them?
  • What is the level of trust that staff and stakeholders have in the agency’s executive team? Why is this?

A general continuum of readiness within which agencies should plot themselves includes: a) an 

awareness of the need for changes, b) buy-in and commitment to make the required changes, c) 

developing confidence and competence for actually making the changes, and d) self-sufficiency in 

doing so. If the agency is confronting a crisis or a major opportunity (e.g., a significant 

increase in resources), the change plan considers how this might be used as a springboard for 

change through awareness- building that creates a sense of energy, urgency and resolve. Agencies 

who commit to change but have limited experiences from which to draw will include partners and 

outside resources in their plans to help them through the initial stages. And while any change 

effort will encounter obstacles along the way, these can often be anticipated and planned for 

proactively, often by taking advantage of one of the agency’s strengths in making change happe . If 

the agency’s readiness and capacity for change are stronger than these obstacles, change efforts will generally succeed.



Resources and General Tactics for Change and Innovation


Once the agency’s strengths and gaps for making change happen have been identified, it should 

identify how it will make use of those strengths and shore up those gaps in general, in turn 

improving the likelihood of successful change or of changes being made with less time and energy 

required. Here are the primary “readiness factors,” or areas for an agency to either make good use 

of its strengths or address its gaps in order to make complex changes happen:

  • Establishing a well-understood and practiced set of leadership beliefs and norms.
  • Employing communication plans and tactics for building the “public will” inside and outside the agency through shared purpose and meaning.
  • Enlisting stakeholders and people it serves into the agency’s change efforts, employing constructive political tactics along the way.
  • Building trust with the majority of staff through efforts that demonstrate top management’s caring, integrity, openness, reliability and competence.
  • Promoting supervisory effectiveness in coaching, mentoring and communicating with staff. Including staff in decision-making wherever their expertise and buy-in are needed.
  • Empowering staff to make decisions and take action within clear boundaries.
  • Shifting ownership and responsibility for continuous improvement and innovation from top management to program leads and local office management teams.
  • Identifying and using “champions of change”- staff with passion and commitment to build up their teams and achieve the agency mission.
  • Employing tactics for understanding the root causes of resistance, enfranchising the constructive resistance, and then minimizing entrenched resisters to change and innovation.
  • Employing methods for gauging staff capacity and skills for doing more and for doing new and different things. 
  • Maximizing staff development resources through a combination of classroom training (for primarily technical or routine tasks) and mentoring or facilitation efforts (for more relational or dynamic areas of their work).
  • Establishing the needed programs and systems for change and innovation through support functions like HR and Training, IT, Finance, Communication, Quality Assurance, Policy, Planning and Facilities.
  • Scanning and taking ideas from best practice and case study resources, both within the child welfare field and from other fields with analogous challenges.

Specific Plans and Commitments; Major Project or Work Priorities


The agency’s strategic planning activities should include a set of high-level strategic objectives 

and initiatives for improving outcomes, and these should be enhanced by the above-mentioned 

readiness assessment and related planning. Once a comprehensive set of improvement and innovation 

activities and projects has been identified, the agency can more thoughtfully sequence and phase 

these activities over time.


In a complex change effort, it is usually best to plan over a multi-year timeframe, organizing the 

agency’s efforts into quick wins, mid-term and long-term changes. Quick wins can be accomplished 

within thirty (30) days and within current capacity limits, with reasonably good staff and 

stakeholder buy-in. They often set the stage for more challenging change initiatives. Phases of 

change tend to move sequentially from efforts to generate input and buy-in, to those that build and 

support required workforce capacity (including eliminating legacy tasks and activities that add 

little value), and finally to the most complex program innovations and general projects.


Timeframes, Milestones, and Governance


At this level of change planning, specific milestone dates and detailed action plans can be 

developed. The key is to put form over substance, as there are many task planning and project 

management methods that can be overly complex and confusing. The priority is for public commitments 

to be made by all those with a role in a change effort, and converted to written accountabilities 

that connect to the performance management system. This serves to both clarify roles and strengthen 

follow through, in turn building trust and credibility.


Sponsor groups, continuous improvement teams and working committees must be established for the 

most complex initiatives within a change plan, and continuous improvement processes must be 

well-engrained in these efforts. Milestones such as the shift from one phase of the change plan to 

the next should be identified to provide an ongoing sense of progress and set the stage for 

periodic recognition and celebration. Effective governance establishes who is responsible for 

oversight of the change effort as a whole and for making any modifications to the change plan as 

reality unfolds.


Data, Measures and Related Methods


In developing a change plan or a continuous improvement project, agencies must have information and 

insights about their environment, their readiness to change, and the root causes for significant 

readiness gaps that their data and measures should provide. Once a complex change plan or 

continuous improvement effort has been launched, it is vital to capture progress, impact and 

lessons learned. Effective monitoring relies on having data that measures what the agency is trying 

to change and that encompasses data about agency capacity, service effectiveness and the impact of 

programs and services on child and family outcomes. Methods that agencies use to collect the needed data include surveys of people it serves, stakeholders and staff, quality control data from crucial points within operational processes, and statistical data related to ongoing experience such as staff turnover and recidivism.




The change plan should be portable, adaptable and user-friendly so that it is accessed on an 

ongoing basis and refined as continuous improvement teams and work committees “learn by doing” 

things more strategically and feed back to the planners. Like all effective plans, change plans are 

never perfect. Rather, they serve as a touchstone for organizing resources and activities, adapting 

and adjusting to an unfolding reality and set of insights.


Linkage to Other Change Plans


In many agencies, the public child welfare change plan is developed in accord with a broader agency 

or community change plan, while in others it may set the pace for such efforts, especially with 

private providers working under contract for the agency. Each agency’s environment presents 

different change management-related opportunities and challenges. The important thing is not to 

develop a change plan in a vacuum.


Addressing Disparity and Disproportionality


Reducing disparity by identifying and addressing its root causes is a critical priority within an 

agency’s strategic and change plan efforts. Effective change plans address the goal of reducing 

disparity on two levels. First, an agency that is identifying and addressing readiness factors for 

change will, by definition, be identifying any gaps related to trust, leadership, management and 

supervision that would in turn link to most root causes of disparity. For example, an agency whose 

leadership team does not value including minority or marginalized perspectives into its 

decision-making process will experience difficulties with generating staff commitment for change, 

and the agency will likely also be experiencing a higher degree of disparity.

Second, the methods used for driving continuous improvement, similar to effective child and family 

practice, are highly participative, transparent, include diverse perspectives and test multiple and 

sometimes unorthodox alternatives. Participants are “seen” not as types but as unique individuals 

with unique talents, norms and perspectives. Paradoxically, this way of “seeing” others and being 

“seen” typically enables commonalities and common ground to be discovered. This modeling of 

effective practice within the agency’s continuous improvement efforts should both reduce 

disproportionality and disparity within the organization and demonstrate to caseworkers how to do the same with the children, youth and families they serve.




Change & Innovation Agency
FEi Systems
PCG Human Services
Governing Magazine
Conference Edge