Receptivity to change in the public sector: Two federal case studies

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Patricia Ingraham


Organizational change, Work motivation, Internal Revenue Service, Patent and Trademark Office, Receptivity to change, Public sector

Subject Categories

Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Change, at times minor while at other times epic in proportion, is a constant in the life of any organization. Public sector organizations are no exception. Governmental reform, in many forms and with many names, has become a constant and major force for federal agencies. This constancy and impact on public agencies makes change a prime candidate and necessary focus for research and attention.

This multiple case study research uses a mix of inductive and deductive methods to better understand how and why motivation, as well as other individual and organizational factors, impact employees' response to organizational change. This research contributes to the academic studies that examine the process underlying people's reactions to change.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the agencies examined in this research, both experienced legislatively-mandated change within a short time of each other. The Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 (RRA 98) was a massive organizational change for the IRS, and at about the same time, the USPTO became a Performance-Based Organization (PBO). Semi-structured open-ended interviews conducted with upper-level managers at the IRS and the USPTO were the primary data source for this study, exploring respondents' experiences, opinions, reactions, and involvement in the organization and in the organizational change. Employees, from their own perspective and with all their complexity and detail, revealed how and why they think about and respond to change in the manner they do, providing insight into which factors truly aid and which discourage the process of gaining employee support.

Findings are presented in three key areas: individual motivation and organizational change, the individual and change, and the organization and change. This research found individuals at these agencies with relatively high levels of public service motivation (PSM) and unique conceptualizations of what this meant to them. Additionally, results indicate that PSM develops over time, with management being a large contributing factor to this development. Higher levels of PSM are associated with increased support for organizational change. While change most frequently created initial negative or mixed results on employee motivation, individual acceptance of change tended to increase over time. A perceived negative impact of organizational change did not predetermine the level of support for change by respondents. The organization's previous experiences with change shaped how employees responded to change both in a positive and a detrimental manner. Consistent with previous research, the importance of a change champion is demonstrated through this research. When employees perceive that there is a clear, distinct, and pressing need for change, it can set the stage for acceptance and support. The inclusion, integration, and support of unions proved a crucial component in organizational change.

This study, like many earlier ones, seeks to more fully understand employees' perspectives and opinions. While much remains to be done, these initial findings help to inform the creation of hypotheses and future research endeavors.


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