Change management in the Northern Ireland Prison Service


The challenges of end-to-end transformational change in a high-profile public sector environment.

Sue McAllister and Mark Adam share their experience of driving major change
Sue McAllister and Mark Adam share their experience of driving major change

Change management isn’t an abstract discipline, despite all the models and methodologies in play. It was good to be in the large audience at Riddell Hall in Belfast to hear Sue McAllister and Mark Adam, of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, discuss ‘Driving a Major Change Programme’ where social outcomes of the first importance and widest range were at stake.

This isn’t the place to rehearse the political and media ‘toxicity’ of the local prison service ‘brand’. (The term was Mark Adam’s, not mine.) But as the advance note of the talk summed it up, what was under discussion was ‘one of the biggest reform programmes in the public sector in the last 15 years’, an ‘end-to-end transformational change to how the Prison Service operated, moving from a Service rooted in security-based historical working practices into a Service with modern, progressive regimes and rehabilitation at its core.’

As the evening’s chair Professor Adrienne Scullion reminded us, such radical change is not only a ‘time of challenge and concern, scrutiny and reflection’ and ‘a spur to creative thinking’. On this scale, loaded with such intense public anxiety, change can always threaten to be – quoting Mary Shelley in Frankenstein – ‘monstrous.’

Frankenstein's monster
‘Change can always threaten to be … monstrous.’

Mark Adam, Prison Reform Change Manager, kicked off by reminding us of the power of symbols (that ‘toxic brand’ again) and the need for thorough-going preparation. He suggested that some had queried the initial three months the team devoted to consulting hundreds of stakeholders, but that building the right dynamic team was an absolutely essential commitment.

People and culture issues were at the heart of the vision for change. The prison service – its culture and those who worked in it – had been shaped by the worst periods of the Troubles. Mark warned us about the potential impact of ‘cultural lag’ in change programmes – that practices, symbols and attitudes from previous eras can have intractable afterlives in later phases of an organisation’s existence. (Is this a particularly powerful feature of long-lived and broadly-stable organisations like government bodies, I wonder?)

NIPS Director General Sue McAllister shared some of the more personal lessons she drew from the programme so far. Don’t underestimate the importance of ‘political savvy’, even if not all environments are as hotly contested as prison service reform. Try to ‘hold the anxiety’, Sue said – meaning I think not just her own, but anxiety levels across the full spectrum of those affected by the changes proposed. It was important to ‘recruit for resilience’ (Mark had earlier championed ‘attitudes and behaviour over grade and experience’) and to ‘separate the important from the VERY important’!

Listening, I was impressed with the stress Sue put on the importance of ‘thinking time’ for her senior team – regular gatherings without papers or agenda to chew over issues and possibilities in a frank, robust but collegiate atmosphere. And she was clear as to the importance of the blueprint – in this case, the recommendations of Dame Anne Owers’ 2011 review of NIPS – which put in place a solid foundation for dealing with stakeholder relationships and sleepless nights!

For what it’s worth, I came away particularly impressed by the team’s courageous and disciplined insistence on longer perspectives – taking clear early steps, but not sacrificing the blueprint for quick wins. Sue’s insistence on the value of diversity in leadership struck a chord. And so, most of all, did Mark’s last piece of advice for change programmes: ‘don’t have a ridiculously stupid governance structure.’


Sue McAllister, Director General, Northern Ireland Prison Service, and Mark Adam, Prison Reform Change Manager, were speaking at the Chief Executives’ Club at Queens on 27 January 2016.   


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