On March 24, 2014, Nóirín O'Sullivan got the call: senior Irish officials wanted to know if she would become the Interim Commissioner of An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police force. Most long-time law enforcement officers spend their entire careers preparing for that kind of opportunity, but O’Sullivan, who had joined An Garda Síochána in 1981 and was then serving as the agency’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations, knew that the agency’s next leader would face enormous challenges. The organization’s previous commissioner had just retired amid a highly publicized whistleblower scandal, damaging already tenuous officer morale and public and state confidence in the organization. More broadly, An Garda Síochána was grappling with a dilemma. On the one hand, because of recent austerity measures, it was operating with a reduced budget and workforce. On the other hand, the organization had to deal with serious and complex security risks, ranging from terrorism to gangland activity to cybercrime. Thus, the next leader of An Garda Síochána would have to do more with less while facing scrutiny from the public and the highest levels of the government. “Those recurring controversies and crises,” O’Sullivan explained, “had a very significant impact not just on [the] trust and confidence of the public and our democratic legitimacy, but also the trust and confidence of the institutions of the state in policing and the morale of our own people.”
Nonetheless, O’Sullivan felt a compelling call to serve. “I did have a choice,” she explained. “I could say, ‘No,’ but I’d been a career police officer and deeply committed to public service and to the Irish police service, [so] I said, ‘No, I really have to do this.’”
Thus, O’Sullivan and her staff set out on what she later characterized as a “journey of transformation and cultural renewal.” Along the way, they would have to confront stark tradeoffs as they attempted to answer a core, complex question: facing enormous threats but with limited resources and following years of controversy, how could they simultaneously protect the Irish people, renew their organization’s culture, and restore the public’s faith?
Dating to its inception in 1922, An Garda Síochána has prided itself on its peaceful approach (Garda members are unarmed) and the critical role it plays as a stabilizing force in Irish democracy. , But over the past decade, An Garda Síochána had found it increasingly challenging to fulfill that role. This was in part because of a recession beginning in 2007 that prompted the government to introduce severe austerity measures, including a significant pay cut for Garda officers. Meanwhile, the organization was dealing with grave threats, including gang violence, domestic terrorism, and drug trafficking. Finally, the agency had come under fire from whistleblowers alleging that the agency had corruptly handled penalty points on driving violations for “well-connected offenders.” ,
O’Sullivan had anticipated these challenges when she accepted the post, but upon taking office, she realized that she would have to overcome an additional difficulty: many staff questioned her power. In the past, An Garda Síochána had appointed internal leaders as commissioner; in 2014, however, government officials decided to have an open competition and conduct an international search. Some officers anticipated that the government would hire an external candidate and were unenthusiastic about following O’Sullivan. “It’s very difficult,” she reflected, “to persuade people to come with you on a journey when actually they’re looking at you saying, ‘I only have to put up with you for three or four…months.’”
To steel herself against skeptical staff, O’Sullivan drew on her “personal resilience” and the strength of the community that she had witnessed in decades on the force. At the same time, she prioritized three tasks: bolstering the force’s morale, restoring community trust, and reassuring state institutions.
The commissioner understood that to achieve these goals, she would have to incorporate the insights and assuage the concerns of a wide range of stakeholders while simultaneously effecting broader cultural change. Thus, she and her staff spent much of their first months in office visiting Garda stations where they drank tea with staff and asked about their pain points. O’Sullivan also invited community groups to meet with her and her colleagues and offer feedback. Throughout these interactions, she impressed upon her team the importance of listening. O’Sullivan explained:
For leaders at all levels of the organization, you have to go out there, you have to engage with your people…Does that mean…[you are] going to have an agenda? No, you’re not. The most important thing you’re going to do is listen…and then you’re going to make something happen that lets them know you’ve heard them.
Thus, this dialogue involved an effort to change the organization’s perception in the community. “Every contact leaves a trace,” explained O’Sullivan, whose appointment became permanent in November 2014, “and the culture of An Garda Síochána will be redefined one encounter at a time, internally and externally.”
These consultations and analyses, as well as An Garda Síochána’s scan of the international operating environment, led to a new policing plan for 2015. The strategy’s core premise was that the agency had to “renew the present” while “creating the future.” This meant that the organization should not do away with its history but instead find ways to renew it by celebrating its best qualities and improving its weaknesses. At the same time, An Garda Síochána had to start developing a forward-looking approach to learn from recent challenges and effect more permanent reform. “We can fix little bits,” O’Sullivan said of the thinking and questions that animated the strategy, “but what’s actually transformational, what’s going to sustain this?”
With these aims in mind, O’Sullivan and her staff began to pursue significant structural change. Some of these reforms were designed to address acute problems. For example, a great deal of crime in Ireland stems from gang-related activity. O’Sullivan therefore combined the agency’s drug and organized crime bureaus to create a single unit that could focus on these dangerous groups. Similarly, over the course of her dialogue with community groups and Irish citizens, the commissioner had heard that the agency did not do enough to support victims. O’Sullivan therefore announced the establishment of Victims Services Offices, staffed by trained professionals, in all 28 Garda divisions; she also created a Protective Services Bureau to ensure that the country’s most vulnerable victims (e.g., children and victims of domestic violence) received the support that they needed.
O’Sullivan introduced a separate set of structural changes to ensure that the agency could manage the overarching reform process. This included creating a Strategic Transformation Office (STO) to manage change at the national level. The STO was initially tasked with helping to create a five-year transformation program, and its staff—which included a mix of Garda personnel and private consultants—reported directly to the Garda Executive, a senior leadership team that included Commissioner O’Sullivan. The STO also worked closely with staff at regional Risk Compliance and Continuous Improvement offices, which were responsible for managing the reform process—and ensuring its consistency with national efforts—at the local level. As O’Sullivan explained, this network of reform offices would function as an “organizational spine” that ensured that reform is “cascaded to the frontline,” that feedback could then be transmitted back to officials at the national level, and that innovation would spread across the entire agency.
To ensure that these newly created offices—and other critical Garda posts—were staffed with some of the agency’s most high-performing leaders, O’Sullivan made a series of significant personnel changes. This included promoting 40 officers to newly created superintendent positions; reassigning dozens of other officers; and more sharply defining the roles of “Regional Detective Superintendents,” who would now be explicitly responsible for investigating crimes in their regions. According to one local outlet, this represented a “historic shake-up of the force.”
Finally, as part of an effort to signal to state institutions that they were taking past feedback and oversight seriously, O’Sullivan and her staff synthesized the extensive feedback it had received from recently established supervisory bodies. Since 2005, when the government had created an ombudsman and inspectorate to oversee it, An Garda Síochána had received hundreds of reform recommendations contained in 43 reports. O’Sullivan understood that it would be impossible to respond to all of these suggestions; but if she and her staff could organize them into broader lessons, it would help the organization improve and reassure the Irish government—which had recently created a new oversight body for An Garda Síochána—that they were committed to incorporating outside guidance. Thus, she and her staff consolidated the insights from these reports into the five pillars of the TRUST program, which stands for “Taking care of our communities, Renewing our culture, Unified governance and leadership, Supporting our people, and Technology-enabled.”
Thanks in part to these plans and reforms, An Garda Síochána began to attract more support for its change efforts. Initially, in November 2015, the agency secured an investment of 5 million Euros from the Irish government to begin an operation to tackle crime in rural communities. Capitalizing on predictive analytics, community text alerts, and a “lock up and light up” campaign, An Garda Síochána decreased rural property crime by 34 percent. More recently, the agency obtained 300 million Euros from the Irish government to back the TRUST program. This has allowed for investments in An Garda Síochána uniforms and fleet that, according to O’Sullivan, have helped to restore the force’s pride. The support has also set the table for more significant technological investments, which will help the agency achieve its vision of not just revitalizing its best traditional qualities but also embracing a more modern approach. As O’Sullivan explained, “We want to renew, we want to modernize, and we want to get to a whole new place.”
Two years into O’Sullivan’s tenure as commissioner, the agency still faces obstacles. For example, in June 2016, questions surrounding the agency’s responsiveness to whistleblowers continued to linger.
Thus, the agency continues to push ahead with reform. Most notably, in June 2016, An Garda Síochána launched to the public and media a five-year transformation program titled “Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021.” The program included over 50 initiatives, subdivided into individual projects. It also included a committed set of initiatives—with concrete timelines and outcomes—under TRUST. The STO—which had been divided into sections focused on program architecture, program management, business readiness, and reporting—was tasked with managing the new program in partnership with Garda’s regional Risk Compliance and Continuous Improvement offices.
In part because of An Garda Síochána’s commitment to sustained improvement, the landscape in Ireland has already dramatically improved. According to surveys commissioned by the department, public trust recently rose to 86 percent, a substantial improvement from the all-time low of 67 percent reported in an Irish Times survey in April 2014. , Meanwhile, applications to join the department have skyrocketed, which suggests that An Garda Síochána is reemerging as a point of pride in Irish society. Finally, the structural changes that she and her team introduced in 2015 have led to concrete improvements in public safety. For example, the combined drugs and organized crime bureau has made more than 200 arrests and seized 36 million Euros worth of drugs. For all of this progress, O’Sullivan lauds the extraordinary work and dedication of her staff. “I put that very much down to a testament to the men and women of An Garda Síochána,” she said, “who [went out] every single day, despite everything that was going on out there. They stood up; they stood up and did what was asked of them.”
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