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Q&A: Paul Wickens, NICS Enterprise Shared Services

Q&A: Paul Wickens, NICS Enterprise Shared Services
Outsource Q&As

This article originally appeared in Outsource magazine Issue #31 Spring 2013.


Paul Wickens is the Chief Executive of NICS Enterprise Shared Services, an SSO established three years ago to serve the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As part of an ongoing research project into shared services, researcher Kathleen McLoughlin interviewed Paul on the formation of his organisation and the importance of developing a coherent brand, embedding the concept of enterprise right at the heart of the structure…

Kathleen McLoughlin: How was Enterprise Shared Services formed?

Paul Wickens: ESS was established in January 2010 and tasked with integrating six previously separate NI Civil Service reform projects into a single, cohesive organisation. For example through the NICS reform programme we developed an IT shared service centre from the ground up called IT Assist. A strong business case was made to bring it and the other IT, finance and HR projects together within ESS – a new directorate within the Department of Finance and Personnel.

KM: What would you say was the single driving force for developing shared services? Was it the need for civil service change or was it cost reduction, quality improvement, and better, more joined-up thinking?

PW: It was all of those things. The business case gave us a mandate to have greater clarity on accountability, a sharper focus on customer experience, an enhanced level of collaboration, co-ordination and integration, improved efficiency through rationalisation and co-ordination of specific skills (for example, contract and supplier management) and the opportunity to benchmark and share best practice.

Costs had to be reduced and there was a range of systems and services that required attention – many of which were outdated and no longer fit for purpose. The main problem was that all we were doing was fire-fighting: putting out one system at a time, without the opportunity to look at the big picture.

As an example of this: HR had a number of different payroll systems, some in a fragile state, and with various contracts that were due for renewal. On the finance side there were different implementations of Oracle financials throughout the NICS. We then took the opportunity to look at cost, but simultaneously, to consider an overall transformation process, which would consequently drive step changes in quality, efficiency and effectiveness in five areas (see below).

Figure 1

KM: Was IT the driver, the enabler, or the impediment?

PW: That’s a very good question. For us, IT was the platform that allowed the step change in terms of effectiveness as well as efficiency. So in that sense it was an IT-enabled change, rather than technology for the sake of technology. Through the shared services model we could lever the technology to drive change and transformation across the board.

KM: Whom were you actually selling the idea of shared services to? Who was the key decision-maker and who put the funds in place?

PW: It was complex. We have an Executive with a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister and 12 ministers heading each government department. The Minister for Finance and Personnel was the person we needed to convince of the merits of taking this kind of approach as he would be providing the funding for it. So we had to develop the whole business case, get the funding approved and then go out and sell the proposals to each department.

KM: Were you selling this in isolation, or did you have a competitive threat, which was a possible alternative?

PW: We had the support for the concept from the Head of the NI Civil Service but it is important to understand that the 12 government departments are each autonomous with an accounting officer at the head of each department. Then each has a Minister and a Permanent Secretary who is the accounting officer for the organisation. So there was no one single project sponsor.

Therefore we had to sell a fundamental change proposition to all 12 departments individually and collectively. There was no competitive threat to do something different so we had to establish a mandate for change with them. The only other scenario would have been for each of the 12 to go back and do more of the same, or undertake their own change agenda. This would have created the opposite in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, spending more money but still not delivering joined-up systems for a joined-up government.

One of the things we did was to put a single system in place right across government departments to measure and report on expenditure in a very similar way for all parts of the NICS. As a result we can now be scrutinised by committees who can draw comparisons between departments. This means they can ask more informed and searching questions. It was an example of doing something different and doing it better.

KM: How do you engage your staff and how do you get them all on-side?

PW: We met every one of them. We didn’t do a town hall meeting because there are too many of them and we had to keep the service running, so we took groups of 40 to 50 staff away for around two-and-a-half hours. Managers had a chance to ask the hard questions of us. Some weren’t fully supportive of the concept, even though they worked in the organisation. The willingness to engage on that level, to explain the idea to them and be prepared to take the hard questions; that built a whole lot of kudos and credibility for us in taking the project forward.

KM: I guess that sort of scrutiny had a value in the development of the value proposition?

PW: It certainly did. Not only did it shake out some of the specific problems in the plan but it also encouraged a discipline of pre-emption and preparation. That sense of challenge also helped create an identity for the team and helped us to be clearer about the value proposition and identity of the new service.

KM: Tell me about the name “Enterprise Shared Services” and its brands. Did you use consultants and communication specialists?

PW: We actually used our own in-house design team. But the naming did take a while. We wanted to choose something that would suggest that something was changing and improving within the organisation – in short that we were enterprising. Before ESS as an organisation was created we had lots of individually branded shared services. We initially kept the brands because they had a value in their own right but as ESS establishes itself and gains full recognition in its own right we can eventually lose these individual brands.

KM: It all looks quite “racy” for the public sector?

PW: Although we’re part of a government department, the Department of Finance and Personnel, we deliver services to the entire NICS. I therefore felt it was necessary to be seen as a more standalone organisation. That’s one of the reasons we came up with a brand that made us stand out separately from the department, even though we’re part of it. Moreover, it helped give the perception of a commercial organisation, being enterprising in terms of the concept.

KM: Here you are finding yourself as a shared service manager with brands all over the place and facing questions such as “What do I do with them? Shall I rationalise some? Shall I keep them?” So would you say it’s a fluid thing or is it the case that these have developed and bubbled up and there’s a value in these brands?

PW: There was a value in each of these brands. Some of the shared services were being provided in-house, others were outsourced and still others were delivered with a strategic partner. Some services were established and running smoothly while others were still facing teething problems and struggling to gain user-acceptance. So we had brands with low customer satisfaction and others with high customer satisfaction who were reluctant to lose their reputation. That’s why we created a brand that sat above it whilst keeping the brand recognition already gained. So it’s an adaptive strategy in that sense.

KM: How did you want your customers, employees and stakeholders to see and perceive you?

PW: Our raison d’être is being customer-focussed, high-performing and innovative. We listen and respond to our customers. In other words, we are prepared to say how we want to be perceived by our customers, stakeholders and employees. Eventually, all of this came together as just a very simple strategy diagram (see below).

Figure 2

KM: Do you see this as a largely internally focussed model or an external one?

PW: Our mission statement and our values are very much internally focussed. In fact we distributed a user-friendly version of our business plan to every member of staff. It’s a simple desk-aid which enables every employee to say “I feel part of this organisation. I can identify myself with it”.

KM: Would you go as far as to say that the mission statement penetrates all the way through the organisation and that everyone, regardless of their role, knows it and identifies with it?

PW: We have an induction plan for all staff. We’ve got our own intranet portal which takes people through what we are, what we do, what our role is. We also have a balanced business scorecard stemming from the very top of the organisation which is completely aligned to each department’s scorecard and to each of the different businesses that we have in ESS. That’s then taken down to branch level and right down into individual performance objectives. We are extremely clear on the level of staff engagement that’s necessary. So, I come back to the notion of the brand again. Bringing that together is a key part of our rationale at NICS Enterprise Shared Services so that people clearly understand things.

KM: How do you know a satisfactory level of recognition is there? Or if perhaps the staff engagement strategy requires refreshing? Often these schemes start in a fanfare but then new people come in and a year later it starts to become forgotten about. How do you keep it fresh?

PW: We’ve got a number of different initiatives and a team of people focussed on it. One is a Quality Programme focussing on continuous improvement that runs right throughout the organisation with customer and staff focus groups. Those insights feed back into our customer service improvement plan which is then communicated back to our staff. We also survey our staff as well as our customers.

As just one example of this, our IT Shared Service has won an award twice now for being one of the “Ones to Watch” in The Sunday Times’ ‘Best Place to Work’ guide. That’s purely about measuring staff engagement, looking at understanding what things we need to do and what the messages are we’re trying to get through with the quality improvement programmes.

KM: There seem to be two things going on here. One is the development of shared services but in parallel there is a transformation programme within the organisation and various functions themselves?

PW: That’s correct. In the early days of the NICS reform programme the branding was “changing for the better”. When I came on board to create the new shared services organisation, one of the first things I did

was to drop the old reform branding. Shared services were in business so it was no longer relevant. I wanted to do something new so for a while we focussed on improving and developing the services in order to bring them together and be “better together”.


Kathleen McLoughlin

About the Author

Kathleen McLoughlin is an academic researcher.

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