"The Common Purpose" - Leading a Cultural Transition in the Public Sector The Region of Peel​

Background: The Region of Peel was created by the Ontario government in 1974 and now serves 1.3 million residents and approximately 88,000 businesses in the cities of Brampton and Mississauga, and the town of Caledon.  The regional government is responsible for services and infrastructure related to water delivery and wastewater treatment, waste collection and disposal, regional roads, public health, long-term care centres, Peel Regional Police, Peel Regional Paramedic Services, public housing, para-transit, and social services.

Beliefs at the Starting State: When taking on the role of CAO, David Szwarc sensed that, while there was much collaboration in the public interest, there was also an element of competitiveness and mistrust within the culture of the Region.  While of the belief that there would be value in building on the more collaborative aspects of the culture, David observed that the competitive spirit of the Region had bred many good outcomes. The Region had moved ahead with initiatives that others seemed to shy away from, and the Region’s efforts in many business areas were recognized through accreditation and other award processes.

David credits his predecessor with making considerable progress toward building the organization.  He notes that the former CAO had worked diligently to address many aspects of the organizational culture and to make changes to more fully engage staff.  The previous CAO had led the development of Regional Values that were still very much a part of the organizational psyche.  He developed a CAO advisory group of front line employees and started a formal quality accreditation process.  He undertook initiatives to encourage members of the Executive Management Team to work together more closely as well as to encourage greater teamwork throughout their business areas.

Yet David sensed that skeptical beliefs persisted and still in many ways defined the organizational culture.  He observed that one of the biggest challenges the Region faced during the quality accreditation process was to convince staff that the changes that senior management were making were genuinely intended to improve operations, and not simply to secure another award for the CAO and Executive Management Team.

Beliefs about the Target State: David set out with a goal of building on the achievements of those who had come before him with a vision to make the Region exemplary in every way possible.  He envisioned the target state as one in which employees believed that everyone is equal even though they possess differing capacities and fulfill different roles in contributing to the organization’s common goals.  The target state would be one in which divergence of thought is believed to be good and encouraged as long as ideas are presented in ways that move the organization forward toward the fulfillment of mutual goals.

The target state would also be characterized by a belief that most people will work toward a defined common goal as long as they believe that they have been included in shaping that goal and that their contributions toward achieving it will be recognized.  The belief would be that people will work to the expectations of them provided that they feel involved, respected, and rewarded for their efforts.

Further, the target state would include a belief that not everyone can adopt the beliefs or fit into the culture that David envisioned, but that those who could not fit in would be able to work somewhere else with acceptance, dignity, and effectiveness.  It would be understood that there is not something ‘lesser’ about them, but that their beliefs fit other cultures better than the culture envisioned for the Region.

In the target state, external stakeholders such as the members of the public would believe that the quality of the Region’s policies and services affect the quality of their lives, that the Regional government is a competent organization, and that it provides relevant services sensitively, efficiently, and effectively.  Council Members who represent the public would believe that the organization is well-managed, provides high-quality services to citizens, is trusted by the citizens, has interests that are aligned with theirs, and is important to their political success.  Partnering organizations would believe the Region is a true partner that collaborates with and supports all other organizations to best serve the community.

From the perspective of internal stakeholders, employees would believe that the Region is a great place to work, that they can influence the direction that the organization takes, and that management has their best interests in mind while needing to balance the interests of all the stakeholders. Employees would also believe that they are responsible for the quality of the services delivered by the Region, that their actions reflect the reputation of the organization, and that their services are valued.  Front line and mid-level managers would believe that their role is that of a crucial support to all staff in providing the best services by leading, coordinating and managing activities in a respectful, professional, and collaborative manner under the Common Purpose. The Executive Management Team would believe that they have shared accountability for leading the organization in a manner that justifies these beliefs on the part of all stakeholders.

Beliefs about the Change Process: David was of the view that the approach to bringing about change had to be different from the past.  He asked his staff to investigate and identify an optimal change management process and then trained a core group of staff in that methodology.  The change management process that the Region adopted had five steps – building awareness (what was being attempted and why?), building desire for change (what is in it for me?), instilling the knowledge of how to change (what do I have to do?), developing the ability to change (how do I do it and what changes in the organization are required to enable employees to change?) and reinforcement (continued emphasis on the current state and rewards for successful change).

David understood that a number of prevailing beliefs within the existing culture had to be overcome.  He knew that there would be a need to work at instilling the belief that the Common Purpose initiative and the change management discipline were being put in place for the long term.  In order to accomplish this, David provided a series of one-day orientation meetings formatted as small working group sessions to all management staff. This included about 400 people from Supervisors to Department Heads.  David began almost all of these sessions with a talk on the importance of changing the Region’s method of managing change and used the sessions as an opportunity to speak to the emerging Common Purpose.

David notes that it was a challenge to convince employees that there needed to be a change in the way they approached their work, not just a change to the way they described their work.  He was aware that too often employees align themselves with the latest trend and use the right words, but do not actually change how they perform their work so as to produce different outcomes.  So David specifically set out to describe and enhance understanding of the new behaviours that had to occur in order to achieve those outcomes.

David held a strong belief in the importance of measurement to an effective change process and he used data collected from comprehensive customer satisfaction and engagement surveys to reinforce the change process in his front line ‘chats’ with staff.  David wanted to be able to measure the “reach” into the organization, or how deeply the change was being felt, as well as to measure the level of success in achieving the specific change deliverables or outcomes that were targeted.  For example: how much improvement, if any, had occurred in Regional employee engagement levels, customer satisfaction levels, and citizen confidence levels.

David noted that, at the time, the Region operated on the belief that the measurement of activity was sufficient.  It operated as if the belief were that “busy-ness” implied productivity.  David wanted to instill the beliefs that outcomes have to be measured in order to determine effectiveness, that evidence-based decision-making is important, and that it is desirable to involve stakeholders in matters of service delivery, design, and evaluation.

Beliefs Emerging during the Change Process: A positive belief emerged among many front line staff during the change process that the Common Purpose was, in effect, recognition of the work they were already doing each day in their efforts to provide good customer service to the public.  Within this context, David points out that people already believed in many of the ideas he was promoting but that these ideas had previously not been clearly articulated.  Recognizing this, David built the idea directly into his communications that his vision was, in many ways, recognition of what employees were already doing.

The middle management group tended to be more skeptical and more difficult to engage.  David found it to be a challenge to motivate middle managers to focus on leadership and the Common Purpose rather than concentrating on operational oversight of their employee’s activities and business processes.  While some middle managers endorsed the change more readily than others, for the most part, managers were not quick to embrace the belief that a key part of their role was to lead change and be able to consistently measure its outcomes in order to bring the Common Purpose to fruition.  The challenge David faced was that middle managers typically believed and were quick to state that their teams were already demonstrating the Common Purpose.  Because of those beliefs, they were not quick to change their behaviour, or to adopt a new approach.

A number of beliefs in the form of unintended and unanticipated consequences emerged during the change process.  As an example, the Region had historically offered high-quality child care but had also done so at a high cost relative to other suppliers.  The emergence of publically funded full day kindergarten in the province created an opportunity to address this issue by offering new alternatives for families and their children.  At the same time, Council members wanted to find money to meet related early child development demands, so the timing was right to move out of the direct provision of child care.

However, employees challenged this from the perspective that deciding not to continue to directly provide high-quality child care services would run counter to the Region’s emphasis on offering and promoting quality services under the Common Purpose initiative.  The belief on the part of many employees was that the programme was “best in class” and that the employees delivering it were intensely engaged in their work.  They believed that the Region would be terminating a leading edge programme that was a model for the community and an excellent reflection of the Common Purpose, as well as terminating the employment of highly engaged staff.  In David’s words, “This issue caused tension around how I could continue to talk about the principles of focusing on employee engagement, customer service, and trust and confidence, and proceed to hive off one of our highly effective employee groups.”

At the same time, there were varying beliefs about what was in the best public interest on the part of different stakeholders including external partners and politicians.  These beliefs ranged from the view that the Region was “offering an elite service to the few” as opposed to “a good service to the many”, which was perceived as not being aligned to the Common Purpose, to the view that the Region was providing a model of how services should be offered, which was in complete alignment with the Common Purpose.  Within this context, David began to further refine his own beliefs about the implications of the values contained in the Common Purpose, at least in relation to this business issue.  He then had to defend those beliefs in quite intense public Council meetings and to go on to influence the beliefs of employees and other stakeholders within the context of considerable disagreement.

This issue played out against the backdrop of a global economic recession that had created large job losses in the private sector and prolonged public sector wage and hiring freezes.   There was also a heightened concern among members of the public as well as elected officials about levels of public spending and taxation increases.  Within this context, David needed to convince both staff and Council that changing from direct delivery of child care to a lower cost purchase of service model was not just a reaction to appease current public opinion about government delivery of services.  He had to bring people to believe that the change would result in an overall increase in the volume and availability of service, and he had to do this at the same time as almost 1,000 unionized employees were engaged in a 13 day strike over proposed changes to compensation levels.

In the end, David concluded that the most fundamental issue was not really the provision of quality service but, rather, it was whether the Region should be in the business of directly delivering child care services.  While the belief held by many affected employees was that the leaders were destroying a high-quality service delivery programme that was in the public interest, David came to the belief that the larger issue was whether the Region was best serving the public by offering a government-delivered child care programme.

David notes that this issue caused and enabled him to think more clearly and to refine his beliefs about what his job really was.  He concluded that his role was “to make decisions that often led to recommendations to Council about the best choices for service to the public, meeting the needs of the community and keeping employees engaged”.  He also concluded that “one has to apply the principles inherent in the Common Purpose, or any change initiative for that matter, within the constraints of the business one is in and that bringing everyone to this understanding is not an easy task”.

Beliefs in the Current State: As David led the process his belief that the Common Purpose initiative took the Region in the right direction became increasingly strong.  He became even more certain that a balanced emphasis on employee engagement, customer service, and building trust and confidence could be achieved to enable the Region to best serve the public.  To quote David, “It is government as it should be: Sound public policy effectively managed and delivered by engaged employees through exemplary service.”

The Region engaged a third party to measure employee engagement on an annual basis, and customer satisfaction and public trust and confidence every other year.  During the period from 2008 to 2011, scores out of 10 for employee engagement remained relatively stable at 7.3 in 2008 and 7.2 in 2011.  Customer service scores during the same period increased from 7.5 to 8.0, while the score for overall trust and confidence in government slightly declined from 7.1 to 6.8.

While David believes that the process was not perfect, he also believes that his emphasis on the discipline of change management contributed significantly to the success that was achieved.  Looking back, he notes that one of the biggest challenges was how to consistently invest the effort he needed to in order to drive the message forward when other issues were pulling his attention away.


David also notes that he had to work at managing his own natural tendencies.  In his words, “I was evolving the culture and I knew it needed ongoing care and feeding but I also wanted to move on to new ideas.  I believe I could have continued my overt efforts to reinforce the concepts for a longer time.  I could have found more ways to continue to talk about the Common Purpose in a manner that did not seem canned.  Upon reflection, I think that I was too eager to believe that it had taken hold.  And I clearly learned that you can’t delegate your leadership beliefs to someone else... you always have to be leading beliefs.”

David’s philosophy of leadership was reinforced through the process of implementing the Common Purpose.  He notes that there is a delicate balance between leading through example, encouragement, and conviction, and leading through the wielding of the authority inherent in a leader’s position.  His belief was that, while the former is more difficult, it held the potential for creating longer-lasting change in beliefs.

The Common Purpose initiative also had the effect of strengthening David’s belief that visible leadership by those who are accurately believed to be interested in achieving results for the right reasons is critical for the success of a new vision.  Bringing the management team to full engagement with the Common Purpose initiative was difficult given that they faced, as had David, a host of daily political, financial, operational, and human resource challenges.  Bringing the management team to the point where they saw the Common Purpose as the framework to guide the resolution of those day-to-day challenges required continuous reinforcement.  David believes that, “In the end, the effort will be worth it because the changes that occur in people’s behaviours will be based on beliefs … they will not be superficial.  They will reflect a deeper commitment to what we are achieving … a deeper commitment to our Common Purpose.”

David Szwarc
Chief Administrative 

Region of Peel

Dr. Robert Alan Morton
Psychologist, Leadership Coach