PeoplePoint’s Head of Operations, Rob O’Toole talks about the challenges Ireland’s civil service HR and pension administration service has faced and how it is overcoming them.
What is PeoplePoint and what is its ultimate goal?
PeoplePoint currently provides HR and pension administration shared services to 30,000 civil servants from 35 government departments and public service bodies. It is part of the National Shared Service Office (NSSO), the body responsible for delivering shared services within the civil service and setting standards and implementing government policy for shared services across the public service in Ireland. Since the launch of the 2011 public service reform plan, the government has approved the establishment of a number of shared service centres for the civil service; PeoplePoint is the first of these.
PeoplePoint was established in March 2013, taking on the administration of HR transactions and pensions administration for all government departments and a number of public service bodies (PSBs). This has occurred in waves involving groups of PSBs at a time, following a detailed project-based implementation plan.
The structure of PeoplePoint includes a ‘first point of contact’ portal, a contact centre, as well as HR operations for leave management, absence management, pay and resignations and retirements. These core functions are supported by service management, quality management, training facilities, document management and information support services. Prior to the establishment of PeoplePoint, there was no single standard approach to the implementation of civil service people policies or maintaining data integrity on basic HR systems.
What has it achieved so far?
Our key focus has been to effectively on-board each client department or PSB and provide a quality service to them, in line with our agreed SLAs (service level agreements). Significant progress to improve operational efficiency has been achieved already, primarily through developing stronger relationships across our customer base and partnering with local HR units in client departments, as well as with line managers and employees.
As with any new operation, the start-up period was difficult. In addition, the introduction of a self-service culture was such a different way of working for most people within the civil service. Thankfully, we have a very committed and dedicated team of staff who continue to be customer focussed. The monthly service management meetings with each PSB are key for PeoplePoint staff to understand how well we are performing, and what areas we need to improve on, as well as to recognise succeses.
To date 35 out of the planned 40 PSBs have transitioned to PeoplePoint, with the remaining five PSBs due to transition in the coming months, bringing the total customer base to around 34,000 civil servants.
PeoplePoint aims to be the ‘one stop shop’ for HR and pensions administration, supported by the PeoplePoint web portal that provides employees with information in relation to the administration of government policies in one location for the first time. The portal also provides access to a self-service system where staff can maintain their personal data and request a number of services directly. PeoplePoint is continuously working to provide more online services to its customers both in terms of data and reporting.
Prior to PeoplePoint many of our customer departments operated paper-based systems. PeoplePoint has streamlined and standardised many of these processes for the first time. We are also engaging with, and influencing policy reviews across the civil service by providing evidence of the impact of new policies on staff and on operations arising from changes in policy.
What challenges have arisen during the implementation and running of the project and how have they been overcome?
People, process and technology are always our key focus areas for improvement. It is by continuing to work across the wider civil service: with our employees, local HR units and at policy and senior management levels in the civil service, that we can deliver better service to our customers.
At the start we had significant staffing challenges primarily due to the recruitment moratorium at that time. This required us to staff the majority of roles in the organisation with inexperienced temporary clerical officers. Understandably, this was a very challenging time, and not just for PeoplePoint. At the same time our customers lost their link to experienced colleagues who knew them personally. As a result there was an initial negative impact on customers that we have worked to proactively manage ever since. However, from 2016 we will have a fully permanent staff and with two years of experience behind us, our collective memory is stronger and training plans are more focused for new starts.
What lessons have been learnt in the running of the project?
We have learned a great deal along the way. We have learned that we need to communicate the change impact on everyone more clearly and that shared services is about creating a partnership with our client departments. The services we provide cannot work as a ‘stand-alone’, our clients are part of the end-to-end process and we need to work together to achieve the best outcomes for the people using these services but also hold people to account for their role too.
Since its inception, everyone in PeoplePoint has been on a steep learning curve. While we have made some mistakes we have always tried to learn from them and adapt and change ourselves to make improvements to our processes and systems. We continue to explore improvement opportunities all the time. Training is key, as is developing our staff to deliver better service as we move into the next phase. We recently established Process and Training Officers whose function is to deliver process improvements and train our staff in these improvements. Simplification and standardisation of all processes is an ongoing effort. It is only through standardisation that we can get the maximum benefit out of further technology investments and integration.
I think we also need to remind people that the decision to introduce shared services as a new way of working applies right across the Irish public service, not just the civil service. Shared services is a whole of government approach, not just for one sector or from one department. PeoplePoint cannot succeed on its own, a huge part of this change involves managers and employees at all grades across the civil service; we need their ongoing support to drive end-to-end compliance and they need to understand that they also have a responsibility to fully engage with these changes.
In November 2015, PeoplePoint won the CCMA Shared Service Centre of the Year award which is solid recognition of our work to date. It also reflects the ability and determination of all civil servants to overcome major challenges to deliver significant change programmes successfully, something the private sector may not always recognise us for. However we know we are still on a journey and there is more to do to deliver greater value and improve our service. We take each case as a person and are really trying to do our best each time every time.