Is the public sector more advanced than private, in its openness to Organisation Development?

Is the public sector more advanced than private, in its openness to Organisation Development?

Since leaving the Civil Service two years ago, it seems to me that the public sector is far more open to using organisation development (OD) than the private sector. In working upon organisational challenges and change, I’ve seen a gradual growth in OD capability in central government since 2009; the Civil Service’s most senior leader’s use OD experts to approach their biggest challenges, particularly on how EU exit is affecting their organisation. After all, it’s perfect for working on anything ambiguous and uncertain with ever shifting sands.

In 2011 I was part of a small team that set up an internal OD consultancy to work across government departments on OD and strategic change. That service has since grown in its reputation and a small expert group of internal consultants have built OD capability across government departments whilst servicing senior leaders with OD consultancy.

In other large public sector organisations, the NHS have long been using OD as their approach to managing change in possibly Britain’s most complex organisation. The NHS supports those leading change and developing organisations through the “DO OD” Project, using local OD networks, events, and even an OD App. Many Trusts often call upon the OD expertise of The Kings Fund to partner them, supporting financial, performance and system challenges that are complex, multi-layered and demand change.

Recognising that neither sector are homogenous, can we see enough of a pattern to draw a generalisation that the public sector make more use of OD? Despite OD now approaching its 70th year, our world being more complex and ever changing, and our country facing the uncertain challenges EU exit brings, why are more private sector industry leads not tuned in to this help? Given the notion of brand being so much more important in the private sector, the connection with culture and behaviours transfusing in to all elements of a commercial entity, wouldn’t a framework of understanding for more values led behaviour hold credibility?

I live very close to Cambridge, a city with a booming digital economy and a growing science and technology sector. The skillsets of leaders in these private sector industries are more likely to be left brain thinkers, strong in maths and logic but less insight in to EI, behaviour, engagement and its correlation with productivity. Interdependence between organisation levers isn’t always considered, the connection with people coming together and working well within a system can be missing, hard skills prioritised over soft. How much faster would Cambridge’s growth be if industry there used OD? But the openness to and understanding of OD is lacking outside of the big pharmaceuticals.

Do public sector organisations have more complex problems than private? They have had so little in terms of wage and reward growth for the last eight years that they have been forced to think about more systemic forms of leadership development. The scale of the change for public sector is large and complex; mergers of teams and cultures, politics changing strategic focus, reorganisation of suppliers and departments, repeated top down changes, several organisations needing to work together for delivery. OD services provide thought partnering, challenge perceptions and assumptions, provide a safe environment to build relationships, and work with ambiguity and emergence.

Of course, there are many private sector Executives adopting the approach in their thinking about change, and companies with internal OD skills, from aviation to petrochemicals, retail to banking. We know from applied behavioural science and human systems theory that my experience is likely to be due to the network that’s grown around me. A little provocation is no bad thing…do you understand and use OD?


Garrow, V. (Dec 2013) Facing in to Change: The Organisation Development & Design Expert Service, Institute for Employment Studies.

NHS Leadership Academy (2018), Organisation Development,

The Kings Fund (2018), Organisational development: helping your organisation be fit for purpose, fit for the future,


We’re very grateful to Clare Joghee for writing this blog for us. See her profile here and her two workshops on the subject, here and here.

Recomended Posts