Convergence and the Transformation Imperative
The financial crisis created intense, external pressure for public service reform, shaped by a disillusioned public, the demands and expectations of Ireland's elected officials, and international organizations with a financial stake. The transformation imperative was clear, but the path was not. A multitude of convergence dynamics, inside and outside of Ireland's human service agencies, made developing a plan for transformation a daunting and delicate enterprise.
First and foremost were the citizens themselves. Angered and bruised by economic collapse, increasing numbers were finding their way into DSP offices, many of whom had never accessed services before. Moreover, the sentiment toward public service grew increasingly negative, due in part to the amount of public money spent in keeping the nation's banks afloat. To engage them effectively, the new DSP would have to quickly gain citizens' trust.
The DSP transformation would also coincide with a momentous political shift. Amid the financial crisis, support for Ireland's ruling party crumbled, and a general election in 2011 replaced them with a new coalition. While the previous government had already made several decisions around realigning public services, and in particular aligning job training with a consolidated approach to income support, the new government restated this reform agenda, folding in additional services that seemed to mesh well with the core DSP functions.
The financial assistance from Troika organizations brought with it external pressure to reform (as well as firm ideas for how Ireland should go about it), which could potentially prove more troublesome than helpful. "That’s a hugely difficult thing for a sovereign country to face," O'Donoghue said. "All of these external people come in and start telling you how to do your business and what you need to be prioritizing and focusing on."
Transforming service-delivery also meant transforming the workforce, and here, too, several dynamics would have to be considered. Civil servants were already under tremendous strain, having received significant pay cuts while being required to work longer hours. Public-service organizations could also not replace change-resistant employees with the same freedom that private companies could, and any significant changes to workforce conditions would have to meet with some degree of union input and approval. Finally, DSP would be transforming the workforce in the midst of a strict moratorium on recruitment—no new hires into the public service. To win hearts and minds, DSP leaders would need to construct an elaborate plan for workforce engagement, one that hinged upon a shared and promising vision for change.
And of course, the transformation plan would have to be implemented quickly, without any interruption in service. "All of this was a bit like changing the wiring in the house while the lights were still on," O'Donoghue said. "But that’s all we can do."
A Vision for Realignment
The government of Ireland recognized that, historically, DSP had particular strengths that made it a promising foundation for public service realignment. The department had a rich history of organizational change, for instance, and also possessed a variety of channels for customer service delivery, channels that could be leveraged to deliver not just income support, but also support for employment, housing, and other services geared towards activating citizens.
DSP became the anchor of a consolidation plan designed to streamline public services and build capacity at a time of limited resources. The ultimate goal for this plan was to proactively and efficiently move clients toward independence, in support of a new policy document that mandated getting citizens back to work over sustaining them in unemployment. The DSP plan focused heavily on developing the workforce, engaging potential employers, and creating a single point of service-access.
Aligning the Workforce
Consolidating the workforce would include developing a comprehensive Human Resources (HR) strategy, teaching new technology platforms, developing new team models, and training employees to work across two or more service streams. But without shared ownership, any alignment plan was doomed to fail. "If people don’t understand the problem," O'Donoghue said, "they’re not going to understand why you’re imposing a solution on them." Moreover, it was the frontline workers who knew the business best and understood what was needed to deliver services, and so leaders would depend on them to "put the flesh" on the visions and frameworks they developed.
DSP installed a change management approach that was based on building a new organization with a new business that respected the various traditions and experiences that workers brought with them from their respective organizations. O'Donoghue accompanied these change management teams as they held ‘town hall’ meetings with staff in areas around the country. They shared the vision for change with staff, discussed their concerns and ideas, and expressed their intention to maintain constant and open communication regarding the transition. "Even if the news isn’t good," O'Donoghue said, "even if items have fallen off the agenda," keeping staff in the loop was paramount. Reinforcing common culture and values to underpin the new organization was considered as important as the structures and processes of the previous business areas.
The department created a comprehensive learning and development strategy to provide staffers with the appropriate training. DSP envisaged that workers’ new skills and abilities, besides increasing their functional versatility, would build workers’ professional confidence and enhance their sense of ownership over the change process.
DSP also instituted an engagement and innovation program to empower local offices to participate in building the new organization. The program brings together local managers, unions and staff to identify challenges, establish priorities, and innovate solutions within their area. It's noteworthy that this program was based on a model of social partnership that had previously been discredited, but which DSP leaders considered fundamentally sound and still worthwhile. The department was able to revive the model, this time with more staff buy-in and a few other changes.
To create pathways to employment for clients, DSP had to understand employers' needs and how best to meet them. Essentially, their goal would be to offer a competitive matching service, along with a range of new incentives and supports, in order to ensure that employers would consider filling positions through DSP before going to a recruitment agency.
O'Donoghue described one example of a new incentive program involving simplified, in-work payments (as opposed to tax credits). If an employer, for instance, hired someone who had been unemployed for two years or more, the employer received a subsidy—a cash grant payable on a monthly basis for the first two years of that person’s employment.
The DSP formed a labor market council comprised of Ireland's largest employers to serve as a forum to discuss employer needs. They also conducted workshops, road shows and town hall meetings to promote the new vision for public service and associated services for employers, as well as to solicit their input.