‘Rushing public service reform poses a risk’

Rushing public service reforms, or doing so without key data, poses a risk to effective change of delivery, according to an assessment of lessons from the early difficulties of a centralised student grants body.

The report on the 2012 start-up of Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) affirms findings of previous reports that the handover of grant processing was hampered by delays getting the right staffing levels and an underestimation of the volume of work.

But the study for the Department of Education also stresses that the kind of justified political and media criticisms that the project attracted in its first year of operation should not deter other major public service reform projects. One of the major problems that caused long delays to thousands of students applying to Susi, which now handles almost all college grant applications, was that it did not have enough baseline information.

As a sub-agency of City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (now City of Dublin Education and Training Board), the requirements in terms of documents from families were estimated on how it had previously handled 5,000 grant applications every year. But assumptions about how the expected 60,000 applicants would behave, or levels of demand, were not based on any other source of baseline data.

“What was required was not a bigger version of a system that worked for 5,000 applicants but a transformation of the entire framework, including how the applicant engaged with the system, how the system responded, how the response was understood by the applicant and how a wide range of different stakeholders experienced and responded to the change,” the report by Centre for Effective Services (CES) says.

“In large-scale change, missing data cannot be extrapolated from data about the existing system. Data and information are as important as resources of time and personnel and the impact of deficits in data has an impact throughout planning, development and delivery.”

The CES said one of the key lessons for public service reform is that an urgency to deliver a specific change can create rushed implementation time frames. This, it said, not only reduces clarity about what change is required, but also takes time from exploring the most practical and effective way to achieve it. Despite the early problems, Susi has adopted significant improvements to minimise delays, and expects to make first payments to most grant recipients by mid-October this year. The CES report says effective reform requires a willingness to engage in measured and informed risk-taking.

“There are serious and long-term implications of the failure to take appropriate risks in the service of innovation and reform. However, there are also implications of taking risks which are inadequately measured, in response to pressures and demand for change,” it said.

All the people involved in handing over grant processing from councils and VECs to Susi highlighted what was at stake if the change had fallen through. “Just as PPARS [personnel, payroll and related systems] became a shorthand for failure of large-scale public ICT, if Susi had failed, it would be cited every time a proposal to centralise, integrate or outsource public services was raised,” the CES report says.


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