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Five Common Fears of Service Integration

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Introduction:  In autumn 2020, BMG welcomed MSW placement students from the University of Windsor. MSW student Eileen Lam conducted research and analysis on service integration, and participated in an integration learning session for community agencies in the Ottawa area. We asked Eileen to identify the greatest barriers to more integrated human service delivery. She offered the following insights. It does not necessarily reflect the views of BMG.

Barnes Management Group recently hosted an event focusing on service integration to stimulate conversations and build knowledge and partnerships. Attendees included senior management, executive directors, and other leadership, and spanned organizations of various sectors and sizes. Despite the differences in their organizational structures, focus, and readiness, many of the fears and hesitations expressed about initiating an integrative change were similar.

When managing an organization, finding ways to streamline processes and improve the quality of service delivery is a priority. Whether or not a particular framework is the solution, an understanding of the resistance to change, especially in the context of integration, is imperative. Here are five real fears that should not be ignored by leadership and those implementing a new framework.

  1. Loss of organizational identity and mission
    Organizations with extensive community ties and legacies may be reluctant to give up any aspect of their identity, whether it is a name change or alteration to their mission statement. Members of the organization may feel that they will not be able to achieve the same impact with their clients and lose clout with established partners and communities, if their organization merges in a way that erases their history. Any degree of integration must be inclusive and reflect the histories and needs of members. Looking at models of integration that only share back-office resources, may be another way to preserve a strong identity while streamlining administrative costs and services.
  2. (Fear of) Job losses
    Job security is a universal aspect of well-being that transcends social service sectors. Organizations may merge in a way that includes human resource changes, whether that is reducing redundancy in administrative roles, or amalgamation of departments. Being transparent about employment outcomes, whether that is responsibility changes or role reductions, is vital to ensuring a smooth transition. It is ultimately up to the organization to decide on operations and budget, and whether that directly impacts employment opportunities, but it is their responsibility to provide clarity about changes.
  3. Increased Bureaucracy
    Fear of increased bureaucracy can reflect a fear of losing personal connections to the leaders and colleagues with whom you have established relationships. If organizations merge, staff may feel resentment to an unknown faceless corporate entity taking over their former workplace. This might mean that the human resources representative is no longer down the hall, or paperwork approvals now get sent to someone who does not fully understand their needs, or that the increase in workforce might mean that you are lower on any priority list now. Interactions that would help build personal relationships at the workplace now feel purely transactional. As we move into a predominantly virtual work environment because of the pandemic, a focus on organizational culture and building relationships should take precedence, especially when considering ways to integrate organizations. Successful service integration will require building collaborative organizational culture as well.
  4. Funding equity across services or sectors
    Government funding and the rules around allocation can direct the operations of an agency and impact the ways in which organizations collaborate. This can result in an informal rivalry between similar agencies or the way an organization can partner across sectors. Agencies and staff that are integrating may feel a loss of financial autonomy, and that their priorities are being minimized or downright ignored. Transparency about funding allocation or committing to funding equity after integration can help mitigate fears of losing resources.
  5. Choosing an approach or degree of integration
    Selecting a model of integration can be a daunting commitment to make on behalf of a whole organization and client base. No single framework or model exists, nor is service integration a panacea for improving delivery. However, integration is on a spectrum, and the degree to which your organization collaborates or merges with another can be customized to the needs of your organization and clients. From linkage to coordination to full integration, there are benefits and downsides to different elements of integration. Other considerations include foci (for example, entire communities), levels (funding, delivery, administrative, etc), and breadth of integration (horizontal or vertical). Service integration should be viewed as a positive step forward, in creating new partnerships with other experts, like-minded agencies, and above all, creating an improved experience for the communities served.

Five Things to Consider before Integration

  1. Good leadership
    Open-minded, can establish organizational culture, governance that takes into account needs of multiple stakeholders, including clients, and direct service staff
  2. Open communication
    Clarity about frameworks, timelines, changes, what remains the same
  3. Clear vision and purpose
    Shared vision and purpose with partner that is inclusive of each organization
  4. Client-centred
    Client needs for services
  5. Ongoing measurables
    Annual reports, client surveys, staff feedback, data collection and analysis

Written by: Eileen Lam, BMG Placement Student

Image Copyright: Kheng Ho To, 123rf.com

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