Case Study from the Centre for Effective Services

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Case Study from the Centre for Effective Services

17 Jun 2024
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What was the main focus of the collaboration?

The Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation supported systemic change in public services in Ireland and Northern Ireland with the aim of improving outcomes for people using public services. The programme, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, was delivered by the Centre for Effective Services (CES) in partnership with seven government departments in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Government departments and CES selected nine large scale sectoral reform projects in Ireland and Northern Ireland:

  • Developing Evidence and Knowledge Management (Department of Health, Ireland
  • Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing Pathfinder (Department of Health, Ireland)
  • Building Collaborative Working Practices (Department of Education and Skills, Ireland) Using Data to Inform Policy (Department of Education and Skills, Ireland)
  • Reform of Youth Funding Schemes (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Ireland) Evaluation Training for Civil Servants (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Ireland) Leadership Development Programmes (The Executive Office, Northern Ireland)
  • Children and Young People’s Strategies (Departments of Education and Health, Northern Ireland)
  • Embedding Innovation (Department of Finance, Northern Ireland)

The nine exemplar projects tested new ways of working in the public and civil service. CES supported government departments to:

  • Connect policy domains – promoting collaboration across sectors and disciplines
  • Support leadership development
  • Build skills and capacity
  • Intervene at “whole” system level – both vertically and horizontally
  • Model and trial new ways of working
  • Capture and disseminate the learning from the exemplar projects to support systemic change.

How did it come about? Tell the story of what happened and with whom?

The origins of what became the Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation go back to a 2013 meeting of the board of The Atlantic Philanthropies (Atlantic) in Dublin with a group of government ministers from Ireland about how Atlantic might make best use of their final grants to Ireland. A lot of the discussion centred on the need for more effective coordination and joining up of government services. There was a perceived need for capacity building to ensure better delivery of services for citizens. The governments in Ireland and Northern Ireland both had existing public sector reform programmes, and the Atlantic board saw support for the development of aspects of these programmes as a way of furthering the achievement of their social goals across the island of Ireland, targeted at meeting the needs of disadvantaged citizens and communities. Early in 2015, the Atlantic Philanthropies requested a formal grant proposal from CES for the Goal Programme

What did you do together?

CES provided specialist skills to teams within participating departments, including data analysis and mapping, programme implementation, research, and evaluation. We conducted evidence reviews, designed and delivered professional development and training and mapped data. Our teams in Dublin and Belfast worked together with the Departmental officials to support the teams and co-produced tools and resources to build capacity.

We created opportunities to share learning across the participating departments, and with a wider audience of public servants involved in delivering change. We held Learning Days which brought together those officials involved to share experience and learning, reflect on challenges and achievements. We commissioned an independent external evaluation of the Programme, to provide useful learning for policy makers about change and what supports it. We held events in both jurisdictions and invited senior leaders to launch the findings. We produced and shared resources, including briefings, reports, toolkits, videos and digital content.

What were the successful parts and what impact did you see/measure?

An independent evaluation conducted by the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) found evidence of increased collaboration as a result of the Programme.

  1. Staff engaged in new ways of working:
    The Goal Programme has been successful in helping staff engage in new ways of working. Across most of the projects, participants referred to new ways of working to support positive cross cutting outcomes. For example, participants in the Children and Young People’s Strategies project referred to more joined-up working across departments to develop and deliver the strategies.
  1. Exemplar projects embedding new ways of working in the public and civil services:
    Participants in the Goal Programme were positive overall that the outcomes from their project would be sustainable. However, given delays in implementation of most of the projects, plus the fact that projects were phased in with some starting later than others, it was difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding the degree to which the work was embedded at the time the evaluation concluded.
  1. Improved collaborative working processes within and between government departments:
    There was evidence of the Goal Programme leading to improved collaborative working practices within and between government departments. For example, the Using Data to Inform Policy project has contributed to greater collaboration of sections across the department in how they share and use data However, overall, cross-departmental collaboration had been modest.
  1. Public and civil servants connecting learning and practice between Ireland and Northern Ireland:
    The main arenas where connecting learning and practice across the jurisdictions was viewed in a positive light were the Advisory Group and two learning days, held in 2017 and 2018. The Advisory Group was seen as providing a ’safe space’ where the top managers of each civil service could share experiences. Departmental staff involved in the Goal Programme attended two learning days, where they could share their experience and learning. However, at the project level, the achievement of this outcome was less well developed.
  1. Strengthened skills and capacity within the civil and public services:
    Alongside the development of new ways of working, this outcome was one where significant progress was made. Project participants identified a number of enhanced skills and capacities resulting from their participation. For example, in both the Evaluation Training for Civil Servants and Leadership Development Programme, the projects themselves carried out evaluations that indicated that participants had strengthened their skills and capacity
  1. Increased numbers of civil and public servants with experience of driving improvements in outcomes and working collaboratively:
    This was another very positively reviewed outcome by departmental staff involved with the Goal Programme. As with the embedding issue, however, challenges remained regarding spreading the benefits from projects more widely across the system.

What ran smoothly?

CES used its Programme Management expertise to jointly agree and manage projects. The layered relationships and leadership involvement within participating departments made a huge difference to project delivery. A range of staffing models were utilised to assist the delivery of work, which was essential in such a large-scale programme. There was funder flexibility and challenge to guide and enable programme delivery.

What didn’t go well and what learnings did you harvest from those aspects of the project?

There was a significant lesson about the effort that is required to deliver and embed such large-scale reform so that it makes changes in the lives of people living here. This speaks to the effort that is required to support transformation and culture change in public services. CES has carried these lessons into new programmes of work. CES also anticipated a greater extent of internal collaboration than was the case in both administrations.

  1. Getting and keeping the right people/skills/expertise and managing succession:
    Departmental project leads were crucial to project development and implementation, as their role is to act as change agents. Once the project team is established, it is important to invest in their capacity and development. Dealing with staff turnover was a challenge. Better use of succession planning and knowledge management can ease the difficulties.
  2. Accessing and using external supports:
    Putting an emphasis on co-design and co-production of projects, through wise and careful use of external supports, played an important role in skills and capacity development. The research and facilitation skills provided through CES’ external support helped in progressing the projects. Another key role for the external support was to strengthen capacity of the departmental teams. In the case of the Knowledge Management project in the Department of Health, departmental personnel emphasised what they referred to as ‘the benefits of a middle ground approach’ – not on your own, but also not commercial consultants coming in and telling you what to do. CES people became ‘part of the journey’, ‘a partner and a critical friend with them on the journey’. It was noted that this is somewhat unusual for the civil service.
  3. Applying appropriate tools and techniques to support change:
    Two aspects of the technical supports provided by CES were particularly helpful to reform projects. One was the analytical frameworks, project management and facilitation skills provided. The other was the identification and presentation of evidence to underpin the change. Both support project development and implementation. Enabling and embedding sustainable collaboration and cross-sectoral learning

Probably the most challenging aspect of the process of reform is the issue of building sustainability and ensuring a lasting legacy. Aspects of the Goal Programme were seen as helpful in supporting better collaboration and learning. Departmental staff involved in the programme appreciated the importance of taking time out to reflect, think things through and engage constructively with colleagues across departments.

For example, a briefing update for the Advisory Group from the Department of Health and Department of Education in Northern Ireland on the Children and Young People’s Strategies project noted that the Goal Programme had achieved ‘the development of a mindset and a willingness to pursue other projects jointly across departments’. Among those projects identified are a trial Family Drug and Alcohol Court between the Department of Health and the Department of Justice, and a joint project between the Department of Health and the Department for Communities, which aims to support the most vulnerable families to secure access to benefit entitlements.

What barriers, challenges or other points of learning did you identify?

Sustaining and embedding change in how services are designed and delivered is very challenging and takes time.

What opportunities for future collaboration did you identify? Are you working on these and if yes please outline, if no please explain why?

CES has continued to partner with government in Ireland and Northern Ireland and to share learning across policy and practice.

Learn More

Weblink: Building capacity for change through the Goal Programme (

Resources: Managing Change in Public Services (

group photo
L-R Malcolm Beattie, Department of Finance Innovation Lab, Irene Hewitt, CES Associate, David Sterling, former Head of the NI Civil Service, Majella McCloskey, Director for Evidence Informed Policy and Communities, CES, Tony Young, DFP Innovation Lab


Dr. Richard Boyle
Dr. Richard Boyle, Head of Research, Institute of Public Administration

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