A Trip to the Dentist – Embracing the challenge of change in Northern Ireland

Working in CollaborationNI, I am constantly reminded that one of the biggest challenges facing the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors is the challenge of change.  Facing it can feel as unwanted as a trip to the dentist.

The challenge for change is now

We are living in an unprecedented time of change largely brought about by the Reform of Local Government and Review of Public Administration.  Ultimately it is hoped the changes will lead to a more vibrant, efficient and forward looking society.

In order to get to this desired state of being, one thing is certain; there will be a demand to do more with less.  Debates about funding cuts and their potential impact on beneficiaries are regularly being played out across the country. There is a real challenge for organisations to demonstrate good value for money and not to duplicate services.

In these challenging times it is all too easy to get caught up in the all-encompassing atmosphere of doom and gloom.  However for the vast majority of the approximately 900 voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations we have worked with, people do recognise the need for change.  Sector leaders are looking at the situation and considering whether there new models that can help bring positive social change! In some cases this means considering new, further or deeper collaborations that ultimately will provide better services to those they serve.

Getting change right is no easy task

Exploring the challenge of change and the pressure to get it right is no easy task, especially as the services being provided are often to the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. And in these difficult times there is even more pressure on the most vulnerable and those supporting them. When we meet with senior managers and trustees in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors they know all too well why it is important to embrace change. However they are also often fearful of the unknown.

The necessary trip to the dentist

As human beings we naturally do not like change.  From working in CollaborationNI I have come to see the challenge of change as being like going to the dentist.

None of us really want to do it but we know it is essential. And with the right professional advice and support it should lead to a positive outcome.  Although to get to that positive outcome there is usually awkward small talk and some discomfort.

Already in the Dentist’s Waiting Room – the Advice sub-sector

Even with the discomfort, change is being embraced all across the voluntary and community sector.

It is very real and difficult decisions being made.  Take for example the Advice Sub-Sector: the Department for Social Development recently completed a consultation on the future of generic advice services in Northern Ireland[i].  The consultation stated that going forward it is vital to work collaboratively and not competitively in the provision of advice services.  It also stated that there will be a need for advice services to be organised in a collaborative way that will maximise the impact of resources and take account of new council boundaries.

This is coming at a time when the economic downturn has resulted in more people turning to advice services for money, debt, housing and welfare advice. Society’s need for advice services has never been so great.

Across Northern Ireland CollaborationNI is working with senior managers and trustees of many advice organisations as they embrace the challenge to work collaboratively and yet do so in a way that takes account of the new council boundaries. It is an ongoing journey but already a number of consortia have been formed.  We are supporting them to build relationships and strategically plan for the future.  Already some of the consortia are exploring the possibility of cross referrals, sharing good practice and lobbying.

In some cases not all the potential partners are around the table.  There are a number of reasons for this.  It can be because there is little relationship, or a negative past experience, or they have little culturally in common.  Collaborative working can only be successful when organisations want to work together. It is for this reason we would never force absent potential partners to be brought to the table.  However we would always advise groups that in the future it may be necessary to widen their consortia to include more partners from within the new council boundaries.

In the Advice Sub-sector I believe the existence of the Northern Ireland Advice Consortium (Advice NI, Citizens Advice Bureaux Northern Ireland and Law Centre NI) is an excellent model of good practice. Together, the consortium partners are successfully giving a lead to the voluntary and community sector and its beneficiaries in the Welfare Reform debate.

I believe that the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Advice Consortium is having a positive influence on the process of change within the Advice sub-sector.

The trickledown effect throughout the sub-sector should help advice organisations make what will be difficult leaps of faith as they embrace further collaborative working.

This is an ongoing journey and one that CollaborationNI is happy to be part of.

Change is all about people

Government would like the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors to collaborate more to make the most of scarce resources and ensure maximum impact.  If we are to do this effectively we need to remember that change is all about people. It is important that people are appropriately supported and managed through a change process.

To do this effectively it is important to have technical assistance on how to build effective partnerships - but it is equally important to use facilitation to build the relationships that will be key to the long-term success or otherwise of the partnership.

Do not under estimate the challenge of embracing collaboration as part of your change journey. For a collaboration to work effectively it is necessary to share information beyond your own organisation - and this is something that you would not usually do.  It requires you to know when to compromise and there is always a need for compromise. But it also requires you to see the big picture.  It is often difficult and that is why it is essential to always keep your beneficiaries at the centre of the change process. Ultimately you should only get involved in a collaborative journey of change if it results in a positive outcome for your beneficiaries.

Our job is to support collaborations, give you a road map and help you avoid the pitfalls.  This is what we do every day. So, if you feel a trip to the dentist is on the cards, please do not hesitate to contact us.  We will (metaphorically) hold your hand throughout the process, provide you with appropriate professional advice and technical assistance.



[i] ‘Advising, Supporting and Empowering: Strategy for delivery of generalist advice in Northern Ireland 2015-2020’, Consultation Paper published by DSD, September 2014.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.