Accelerating Public Service Transformation in Northern Ireland: Where to Next?

On 13th October representatives from the public and community sectors came together to reflect on lessons learned from the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what is required to continue a streamlined and effective response.

The first in a series of webinars that will examine the consequences and implications of the pandemic in Northern Ireland, the event provided a space for conversations to be had around what lessons can be embedded in the transformation of public services to better reflect the needs of society.

The virtual event opened with a presentation on the findings from Shifting Gear, a report by Social Change Initiative (SCI) and Deloitte on ways to enable change in public services, before Moira Doherty, Deputy Secretary at DfC, Paschal McKeown, Director with Age NI, Seamus Corr, Black Mountain Shared Space Initiative and Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of NICVA, each provided their experiences over the past six months as well as highlighting how lessons learned showed be carried forward after the crisis.

Angela Hodkinson, SCI – Shifting Gear Report findings

The report identified three themes that would enable a change to the way in which public services interact and engage to produce and implement policies.

Collaboration enablers

Outcomes Based Working

Structures for Implementation

Lessons from the report can be built on to achieve a new level of collaboration in a post Covid-19 society:

  • Vital that there is cross sector collaboration as well as meaningful engagement with communities. 
  • Acceptance of innovation and use of innovation tools.
  • Appropriate funding to encourage, incentivise and support collaboration.
  • Effective and efficient communication
  • Enhance understanding of the outcomes-based approach across all sectors, including within the Executive and Assembly.

Moira Doherty, Permanent Secretary, Department for Communities

  • The establishment of an emergency leadership group on the 20th March enabled the department to be agile and quick in its response to the impending crisis.
  • The input from the community grassroots level feeding into the interventions was beneficial and vital to moving forward effectively. It provided a way of knowing and understanding what needs where in the community, and where targeted interventions where required.
  • Technology helped to bridge the gap that had developed for engagement between organisations. Virtual meetings, and the chat function, allowed for candid conversations and ensured that it was a two-way conversation, not just the Department expressing their next moves.
  • Partnerships were vital, during the initial stages of the pandemic response, and continue to be. It was through partnerships that the Department were able to understand the needs, to target funding, to set up advice lines and to provide the food parcel initiative.
  • Recognition by the Department as to their limitations was also important. Officials recognised when the Department need to step in, when they need to provide a platform for enabling other organisations, as well as when they needed to stand back and allow organisations who were best placed in particular areas to take the lead.
  • The reduction of bureaucracy became a natural response to the crisis. It was important to get things moving and implemented on the ground quickly. Initiatives were then improved upon while in action.
  • Not acting was the bigger risk. The main thing was to be responsive and put something in place that at least addressed some of the problem and could be enhanced during the process.
  • It is vital that the relationships and networks between the public sector, the private sector and the voluntary and community sector, and the communities themselves are kept working in a meaningful manner.
  • The use of data, and the collection of data, has been very important to enabling organisations to carry out their work as well as providing insight for future polices.

Paschal McKeown, Director with Age NI

  • Recognition that the response to the Covid-19 pandemic came in three stages:
    • An emergency response – ensuring healthy and safety of staff, volunteers and end users; provision of home working; providing practical support and needs to keep their end users safe.
    • Emotional Response – Addressing the loneliness and digital void that many of their end users experienced.
    • Strategic Response – Proactively looking at how they could reach older people via print and their media, working in partnerships with others, developing information booklets and health and wellbeing videos – “helping people to help themselves”.
  • Listening to end users is critical. It is not okay to assume you know and understand the needs or sections of the community. Engagement and meaningful conversation are vital for decision makers.
  • In listening to the voices of older people Age NI were able to be responsive in the demands to meet need; reshaped how support was delivered and set up a new service.
  • The importance of cross-team working became apparent during the pandemic. Technology enabled the continuation of an effective and streamlined work environment.
  • The value of data should not be undermined. It enables organisations to understand wat needs to be done, what has been done and the impact that the services and initiatives have had. Having real time reporting is key.
  • Partnerships and relationships are importance not only internally, but externally and across sectors.
  • The focus and energy that was in evidence at the  beginning of the pandemic needs to be kept. This will help keep initiatives and relationships moving forward in a post-Covid world.
  • It is important we take time out and create platforms that allow sharing of experience, reflect on what has been working and discussions on how those changes can be embedded.
  • Covid highlighted the inequalities that exists in our society and is critical that we examine those, and that policies look at addressing them. The public sector should have a common purpose to address all inequalities.
  • Although technology has been a fantastic mechanism to allow many services to continue, we must recognise that it is not always an enabler for everyone. There are sections of society that do not have the capability or understanding to use it.
  • Early intervention and prevention are key. Covid will be around for quite some time into the future and it is important that we have things in place now to keep our society connected, keep everyone well and also provide a positive look forward for everyone.

Seamus Corr, BMSSI

  • Working in an interface area, on a good relations project, it was uplifting to see how both communities came together to address the unknown that they were faced with.
  • Planning for the second wave is vital. It is important that people are provided with eh right information early so that they feel reassured.
  • It is important that the pandemic is looked at as something we all need to unite to tackle; green and orange should not come into it.
  • Disinformation needs to be tackled early and quick. Keeping communities reassured will help them feel safe and reduce any level of panic that may be out there. Different strategies or recommendations coming from parties is not an effective way forward. The messages coming from the Government need to be streamlined and show a togetherness or else it will cause fractions at a grass roots level.
  • Having partnerships in place is critical to having impact at a local level.
  • Knowing what support is available is important to enable community groups strategically plan how they will help their end-users.
  • The voluntary and community sector is, and has been, vital in helping to support our society through the past six months therefore they can not be treated simply as a spectator going forward. Partnership working needs to be a two-way conversation between all sectors.
  • Challenges around isolation, poverty, mental health are still issues. These need to be addresses, especially as it would seem we enter a second wave. These issues are still very much apparent and need attention to help alleviate the pressures they present.
  • Data and data sharing should not be an obstacle to having services and initiatives implemented on the ground. This was the case in the initial stages of the pandemic and there needs to be provisions in place to prevent it from happening again.

Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive, NICVA

  • Agility was key in the first weeks of the pandemic. Meetings with DfC and Ministerial announcements regarding funding and flexibility helped reassure the voluntary and community sector.
  • Connections and relationships have been and will continue to be a vital support link between the sectors. They helped to enable quick conversations with senior officials, and therefore helped to achieve quick responses.
  • The flexibility of the sector was paramount to implementing many initiatives, for example the football club that had to close its doors to spectators and players was able to open its doors and allow the production and delivery of food parcels to the most vulnerable in society. The ability to use voluntary and community-based organisations to allow for spontaneous responses was vital.
  • The lessons learned should not be wasted. Bureaucracy has been cut and the need to cut out unnecessary bureaucracy should be carried forward.
  • It is important that the lessons learned during the crisis, the positive ways of working, are sustained after the crisis is over.

Critical Messages

  • The need for a collective message from the Government and information on the support that is available, and the ways in which it can be put into action to ensure the most impact.
  • The Northern Ireland Executive need to get a position and collective understanding on the value of the voluntary and community sector and the work that happens outside of the statutory sector.
  • Keeping the Conversation going. The two-way conversation from end users to the Departments and Executive needs to continue in a meaningful manner.
  • Respect different strengths and allow people in different sectors to play to those strengths.

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