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Fuel to the fire? The sensemaking of volunteer firefighters and public managers in the context of public reform

13 Jan 2020-Journal of Organizational Change Management (Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.)-Vol. 33, Iss: 2, pp 229-252

AbstractThe purpose of this paper is to advance ongoing debates on the organizational impact of wider public sector reform in the field of organizational change management by presenting an analysis the regionalization of the fire service in the Netherlands. How regionalization has impacted the work floor of local fire stations, where the workplace majority comprises volunteers, requires further empirical investigation.,The authors apply an interpretive approach and qualitative methodology to study how volunteer firefighters and public management make sense of public reform and the ensuing organizational change.,Findings indicate that while the fire service has professionalized, notable tensions have emerged between public management and volunteers, the regional and local level of fire service and between professionalism and volunteerism which are problematised in the paper.,The originality of the paper is found in the insight it provides in the sensemaking of volunteer firefighters and public managers of diverse of change regions and fire stations during the regionalization process by applying an emergent perspective to change.

Topics: Public sector (56%), Sensemaking (53%)

Summary (4 min read)

Introduction

  • On May 12, 2000, in the city of Enschede, the Netherlands, a firework storehouse exploded wounding 950 and killing 23 people and destroying over 200 homes.
  • While there is a legitimate urgency to bring about such public reform to advance crisis and disaster management (Boin et al., 2016) and multidisciplinary operation and coordination (Boersma et al., 2012), how this process has translated to the work floor of local fire stations in the Netherlands requires further empirical investigation.
  • In light of the above, the authors formulate the following research question: RQ1.

Theoretical framework

  • As mentioned in the introduction, the Dutch fire department’s regionalization has been actualized via the establishment 25 safety regions that are run by a new layer of regional public managers who implement organizational changes, having (un)intended consequences for local fire stations and their staff.
  • The literature on public reform, and particularly NPM, lacks an empirically grounded comprehension of the translation, daily enactment and micro-level perceptions of reform in organizational settings (Thomas and Davies, 2005).
  • Therefore, critical management scholars promote a processual perspective of change (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002) as an emergent, contextual and ambiguous process transpiring at the work floor in the daily sensemaking, narratives, activities and interactions of diverse organizational actors (Van Marrewijk and Van den Ende, 2018).
  • Besides, individuals usually get involved in volunteering with the aim to satisfy social and psychological needs related to career, esteem, community and reciprocity (Sokolowski, 1996; Allison et al., 2002; Manatschal and Freitag, 2014).
  • The sensemaking of volunteer firefighters 233 are entangled with public reform, it is crucial to scrutinize the social and cultural implications of organizational change and new managerialism at the work floor of local fire stations for volunteers in more detail.

Case selection and methods

  • In collaboration with the Union of Volunteer Firefighters the authors selected five safety regions across the Netherlands in which they conducted case studies at six different fire stations (see Table I).
  • The main purpose of their study was to investigate how regionalization impacts local fire stations and, more specifically, how volunteers, station commanders and public regional managers make sense of the change process.
  • According to this methodology, data are analyzed through three distinct levels: “first order concepts,” “second order themes” and “aggregate dimensions” helping to build theory by identifying new concepts and ideas, rather than solely relying on extant ones.
  • Safety regions did appeal to their residents, but municipalities meanwhile lost control of their own fire brigade.
  • At station Hilltown, a more serious closure threat occurred in 2011/2012 due to the new coverage plan, meaning that the deployment territory would be taken over by other surrounding stations.

The redistribution of specialisms and materials

  • In addition to the reclassification of coverage areas, regionalization went hand in hand with the reorganization and redistribution of specialisms and materials via the so-called “material distribution plan.”.
  • According to volunteers, whereas they used to be able to exercise influence over these matters, regional management now decides on this.
  • Moreover, due to the increase in scale resulting from regionalization, the equipment can be used more quickly in another area if there is an JOCM 238 33,2 emergency.
  • The current fire department has become larger and more uniform and is now organized from “above,” whereas in the past it had a more horizontal structure that was appreciated by the volunteers.
  • (Respondent 10 – Eastvillage) Uniformization and professionalization are main manifestations of regionalization.

Managing change

  • The interviewed regional managers first and foremost describe the regionalization as a legal obligation, which they all consider in a positive light.
  • About the fact that some stations have indeed been faced with the reduction of, for example, vehicles and specialisms, one regional manager gives the following analogy: [It is as if] the authors started ‘living together’.
  • (Regional Manager 2) All interviewed regional managers consider it essential that volunteers are involved as much as possible in these – occasionally painful – changes and that they are informed about this as well as possible.
  • The coverage plan and material redistribution plan.
  • It will occasionally hurt at stations where things are taken away.

Motivating and retaining volunteers

  • The managers state that there is a declining trend in the number of volunteers nationwide.
  • Yet their research shows this is not experienced as such at local fire stations.
  • They have enough motivation and hope for a fire” (Regional Manager 1).
  • While managers observe that volunteers have generally retained their passion for firefighting in the context of regionalization, they do indicate that the increased input demanded from volunteers might diminish their passion.
  • This is a difficult issue for management: I come from the volunteer world myself, so I want to be careful not to professionalize too much.

Plurality or uniformity?

  • There is a tension between what a fire station can do autonomously and what is centrally regulated.
  • (Regional Manager 3) Given the fact that the regionalization process increases the distance between top management and the work floor, managers think about whether and how to assign more responsibilities to the stations themselves.
  • You pay attention to each other, and you complement each other, in this sense it is in their culture and their education that the authors can trust each other blindly.
  • The community involvement of firefighters is important to “show potential candidates that [the fire department] is not only occupied with misery but is also there for society” (Respondent 6 – station Hilltown).
  • In contrast to the relationship between the volunteers and higher management, the relationship with the station commander, who also functions as a middle manager, is experienced by all respondents as “good,” “personal” and “informal.”.

Discussion: fuel to the fire?

  • This paper focused on the regionalization of the fire department in the Netherlands, from the perspective of volunteer firefighters and public managers.
  • In the eyes of volunteers, regional managers are not “one of us”; they are “paper tigers” sitting in far-away office buildings and deciding what changes to implement at the local stations whereas they themselves are not firefighters or familiar with the activity of firefighting.
  • Therefore, the authors propose there is room for improvement regarding the participation of volunteers, especially since “involving organizational members helps reduce barriers to change by creating psychological ownership, promoting the dissemination of critical information, and encouraging […] feedback for fine-tuning the change during implementation” (Fernandez and Rainey, 2006, p. 170).
  • As the authors argued in their theoretical framework, this has been problematized by prior literature warning that purely top-down and large-scale administrative change will have drawbacks when it regards workers as passive receivers.

Regionalization vis-à-vis local embeddedness

  • The reorganization of the fire department stems from wider public policy and reform on a national scale to advance crisis and disaster management and multidisciplinary operation and coordination.
  • Moreover, the fire service organization as a whole has become more skilled, especially in terms of training, courses and exercises, and stations have become less fragmented like separate islands which can be perceived as advantageous.
  • Hereby it needs to be acknowledged that vehicles, equipment, territory and the station are not merely material aspects, but embody great symbolic value for the volunteers as an extension of their identity as firefighters.
  • In their opinion, regionalization also led to more bureaucracy, by which managerial logic has displaced the practical, local wisdom, echoing critical literature on the impact of NPM (e.g. Simonet, 2015).
  • This tension became clear through the performance measurement strategy implemented to allocate coverage territories which volunteers experience as unfair.

Professionalism vis-à-vis volunteerism

  • Fire service volunteers are socially involved and driven to make a contribution to their community.
  • While respondents make sense of this extra emphasis on knowledge and skills as necessary for national security, in their personal opinion volunteer firefighting should not become too much like “real” work.
  • In any case, it is vital that the current volunteers remain enthusiastic and willing to continue with their vocation.
  • In light of the tensions described above, a main finding is that the position of the station commanders within the regionalization process has become increasingly important for the translation of change between the safety regions and local volunteers.
  • Another main cautionary implication is that if station.

Contributions and implications

  • The originality of this research paper is found in the insight it provides in the sensemaking of volunteer firefighters and public management of diverse safety regions and fire stations in the Netherlands concerning the public reform of regionalization.
  • The paper exhibits a critical and emergent perspective of organizational change to both challenge and supplement the dominant top-down and managerial approach to the implementation of public reform.
  • Additionally, the authors advise public administrators to respect and protect, rather than transform, the local culture, identity and autonomy of volunteers because these are integral to their motivation to provide adequate service to the public.
  • As such, the authors suggest supplementing a planned, top-down and managerial perspective of change with a more emergent, multi-level and multi-actor JOCM 248 33,2 approach that gives voice to the work floor and especially volunteers.
  • Furthermore, from a pragmatic standpoint, the authors suggest collaborative practices might help to alleviate discrepancies between the local, regional and national level of fire service, demanding further investigation and action-based research.

Corresponding author

  • Leonore Van den Ende can be contacted at: A.L.vandenEnde@tudelft.nl.
  • For instructions on how to order reprints of this article, please visit their website: www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/licensing/reprints.htm.
  • Or contact us for further details: permissions@emeraldinsight.com JOCM 252 33,2.

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Fuel to the fire? The sensemaking of volunteer firefighters and public managers in the
context of public reform
Van den Ende, Leonore; van Steden, Ronald; Boersma, Kees
published in
Journal of Organizational Change Management
2020
DOI (link to publisher)
10.1108/JOCM-03-2019-0067
document version
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Link to publication in VU Research Portal
citation for published version (APA)
Van den Ende, L., van Steden, R., & Boersma, K. (2020). Fuel to the fire? The sensemaking of volunteer
firefighters and public managers in the context of public reform. Journal of Organizational Change Management,
33(2), 229-252. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-03-2019-0067
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Download date: 10. Aug. 2022

Fuel to the fire? The sensemaking
of volunteer firefighters and
public managers in the context
of public reform
Leonore Van den Ende
Department of Management and Integral Design,
Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
Ronald van Steden
Department of Political and Administrative Sciences,
VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and
Kees Boersma
Department of Organization Sciences,
VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to advance ongoing debates on the organizational impact of wider
public sector reform in the field of organizational change management by presenting an analysis the
regionalization of the fire service in the Netherlands. How regionalization has impacted the work floor of local
fire stations, where the workplace majority comprises volunteers, requires further empirical investigation.
Design/methodology/approach The authors apply an interpre tive approach and qualitative
methodology to study how volunteer firefighters and public management make sense of public reform and
the ensuing organizational change.
Findings Findings indicate that while the fire service has professionalized, notable tensions have emerged
between public management and volunteers, the regional and local level of fire service and between
professionalism and volunteerism which are problematised in the paper.
Originality/value The originality of the paper is found in the insight it provides in the sensemaking of
volunteer firefighters and public managers of diverse of change regions and fire stations during the
regionalization process by applying an emergent perspective to change.
Keywords Sensemaking, Organizational change, Volunteers, Public reform
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
On May 12, 2000, in the city of Enschede, the Netherlands, a firework storehouse exploded
wounding 950 and killing 23 people and destroying over 200 homes. This catastrophe, termed
theEnschedefireworkdisaster, was the biggest explosion in the nation since the Second World
War. Not much later during the 20002001 New Year transition, the interior of a cafe caught fire
in Volendam, wounding 241 and killing 14 people, due to inadequate safety measures. These
incidents, among others, prompted the Dutch government to take serious action to advance its
emergency preparedness, and crisis management and prevention. The Dutch fire service was
seen as too fragmented as most fire stations operated independently and were managed by
municipal authorities due to their strong local basis (Scholtens, 2008). Therefore, a governmental
inquiry resulted in the realization that the local-oriented management structure of local fire
stations was insufficiently capable and equipped to counter crises for which multidisciplinary
operation, coordination, response and learning are needed.
Received 1 5 March 2019
Revised 11 July 2019
12 September 2019
Accepted 25 October 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
https://www.emerald.com/insight/0953-4814.htm
The authors wish to thank Mauro Boelens, Anthonie Drenth, Baukje Rijpma, Felicia Hartjes, Coen
Hilbrands, Ivana Mazurel and Kim Laken for their assistance with conducting the research.
The
sensemaking
of volunteer
firefighters
Journal of Organizational Change
Management
Vol. 33 No. 2, 2020
pp. 229-252
© Emerald Publishing Limited
0953-4814
DOI 10.1108/JOCM-03-2019-0067
229

Consequentially, in 2010, the Safety Regions Act was passed in the Netherlands, which
led to the establishment of 25 safety regions where fire service, medical assistance and crisis
and disaster management are regionalized and integrated as multidisciplinary actors. As a
result, local fire stations have been reorganized and sometimes fused or closed, and their
coverage territories, specialisms and materials have been redistributed. Moreover, new
public management (NPM) has been appointed at the regional level to take charge in order
to enhance professionality, uniformity, efficiency and decrease costs, among other purposes
( Justice, 2013). While there is a legitimate urgency to bring about such public reform to
advance crisis and disaster management (Boin et al., 2016) and multidisciplinary operation
and coordination (Boersma et al., 2012), how this process has translated to the work floor of
local fire stations in the Netherlands requires further empirical investigation. Indeed, how
change recipients make sense of and evaluate change is a critical aspect of understanding
how planned organizational change unfolds ( Jacobs and Keegan, 2018, p. 87).
It is clear that the main purpose of public reform in the case of Dutch fire service
regionalization is the professionalization of its workforce. Therefore, gaining a better
understanding of how public reform impacts local fire stations and their staff is invaluable,
particularly volunteers because they comprise approximately 70 percent of the total
workforce of the Dutch fire service (Scholtens, 2008). Volunteerism here does not mean a
rigid opposition to full-time firefighters since both subgroups must meet the same training
standards and professional competences. Still, volunteers receive a relatively small
reimbursement (per deployment) compared to their salaried colleagues, meaning that they
might make sense of reform differently. The scant yet extant research on the regionalization
of the fire department in the Netherlands claims that it has become increasingly difficult to
retain volunteers, as public reform takes its toll on their workplace motivation, well-being
and satisfaction (Kerstholt et al., 2013). While public reform may impact the work spirit of
paid professionals, the impact on volunteers might be even more profound as their desire to
join the fire service draws almost exclusively on intrinsic motivation (Bruno and Fiorillo,
2012). It is therefore necessary to investigate how both volunteer and salaried professionals
make sense of public reform.
Beyond the fire service, though volunteers in public and non-profit organizations have
been the subject of much scholarly attention, focusing on recruitment, retention and identity
for example (e.g. Jamison, 2003; McBride and Lee, 2012; Warburton et al., 2018; Nesbit et al. ,
2018), there is less research on how volunteers make sense of organizational change
resulting from wider public reform. The wider literature on public reform in the field of
public administration (e.g. Ackroyd, 1995; Schedler et al., 2000; Skålén, 2004; Horton, 2006)
reveals limited empirical evidence on what the ensuing organizational change means for the
work floor. This is needed to show how public reform affects the perceptions, activities and
identities of workers, let alone volunteers (Fernandez and Rainey, 2006; Kuipers et al., 2014).
Moreover, literature in the critical management tradition of organization science has warned
that public reform initiatives can create or widen chasms between management and the
work floor and pose a threat to professional identity and organizational culture, which raises
concerns about the implementation, translation and impact of public reform (Thomas and
Davies, 2005; Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2016). In light of the above, we formulate the
following research question:
RQ1. How do volunteer firefighters and public managers make sense of public reform i.e.
the regionalization of the fire department in the Netherlands?
We focus on sensemaking to show how volunteers attribute meaning to, reflect on, and
attempt to understand their experience of regionalization, as a novel, ambiguous and
disruptive phenomenon (Weick, 1993; Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Maitlis and Christianson,
2014). To provide a balanced perspective, we subsequently inquire how public managers, i.e.
JOCM
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station commanders (the heads of local fire stations) and regional managers (heads of safety
regions) reflect on the regionalization process. We make this hierarchical distinction because
position and authority may have important implications for how public reform is translated to
the work floor and made sense of. By answering these queries, our paper offers a contribution
in two main ways. From a societal standpoint, we provide empirical evidence regarding
volunteer retention, well-being, motivation and satisfaction among the Dutch fire service
(Kerstholt et al., 2013), permitting us to draw further conclusions and offer pragmatic advice.
From a theoretical standpoint, we build theory on the social and cultural implications and (un)
intended consequences of public reform and organizational change. Namely, by adopting a
critical management perspective on organizational change, we found that public reform with a
NPM ethic can seriously threaten the culture, identity and autonomy of local organizations
and volunteers. In line with this, we agree with Kelman (2005) who claims the field of public
administration would benefit from a stronger connection to organization theory which we
provide in the paper.
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. First, we link the regionalization of
the Dutch fire department to literature on public reform and NPM. We then draw from
organizational change theory in the critical management tradition to conceptualize change
resulting from public reform, after which volunteers are distinguished as a unique workforce
and relevant theme in this research. In the methods section, we provide a case description,
research operationalization and data analysis. In the findings we first describe the context of
regionalization, after which we discuss the sensemaking of volunteer firefighters, followed by
the sensemaking of public regional managers and station commanders for a balanced account.
We then put change into perspective by elaborating on the local embeddedness of fire stations,
the relationship between volunteers and regional public managers and between volunteers
and station commanders. In the discussion, we debate public reform and emphasize the local
embeddedness, translation and implication for volunteers. Finally, we offer conclusions,
research contributions and suggestions for further research.
Theoretical framework
Public reform and new public management
As mentioned in the introduction, the Dutch fire departments regionalization has been
actualized via the establishment 25 safety regions that are run by a new layer of regional
public managers who implement organizational changes, having (un)intended consequences
for local fire stations and their staff. The public reform of regionalization contains elements
of NPM particularly bureaucratization, budget cuts, performance measurement and the
introduction of new managerial layers (Boon and Verhoest, 2018; Worrall et al., 2000;
Fernandez and Rainey, 2006; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011). Theoretical underpinnings of the
NPM doctrine reveal the application of economic, rationalistic and positivistic approaches
and tools for efficiency and performance measurement and enhancement in organizations
(Gruening, 2001; Ashworth et al., 2007). For example, in the regionalization of the Dutch fire
department performance measurement is used to allocate coverage territories to fire stations
situated in close proximity who can prepare for deployment the fastest; and efficiency is
enhanced via uniformization and the redistribution of materials and specialisms among
regional fire stations.
In the field of public administration, there is a common consensus that NPM is typified by
an exceptional growth and dominance of managerialism in the public sector (Worrall et al.,
2000; Thomas and Davies, 2005; Simonet, 2015), which has become apparent in the Dutch fire
department as well. As Thomas and Davies (2005, p. 684) argue, it is generally accepted that
increased political attention given to the management of public service professional
organizations has been marked by the ascendancy of the managerial prerogative and the
legitimacy of management. Scholars have problematized this trend with a call to to strike a
The
sensemaking
of volunteer
firefighters
231

better balance between managerial interests and those of professionals, and to emphasize
the needs and expertise of professionals without completely aborting the need for public
reform and management that seeks efficiency, effectiveness and value for money (Overeem
and Tholen, 2011; Rhodes, 2016).
The literature on public reform, and particularly NPM, lacks an empirically grounded
comprehension of the translation, daily enactment a nd micro-level perce ptions of reform
in organizational settings (Thomas and Davies , 2005). Extant research betrays that public
reform may not always benefit organizations and their staff alike; quite the contrary.
For example, a study on municipal reform in Toronto shows that public servants
felt disquietude, even anguish, [] over being unable to provide the level or quality o f
service that they wished (McDonough 2006, p. 643) in the context of public reform. In a
similar vein, Kuhlmann et al. (2008 , p. 859) claim that staff members are increasingly
tiredofreformsandperceivethemodernization primarily as downsizing and cutback
management. Relevant, for our case, is that volunteer firefighters perceive increased
work pressure and decreased motivation and well-being as a consequence of reform
(Kerstholt et al., 2013). Therefore, there is a need to understand the various ways in
which reform and NPM are responded to and received, supported and subverted,
translated and created, by [individuals] (Thomas and Davies, 2005, p. 685) at the local
level of investigation.
Moreover, it has been argued that public reform entails the redefinition of the workplace
and transformation of professional identities, to the extent that NPM has been labeled as an
identity project (du Gay, 1996; Meyer and Hammerschmid, 2006). The NPM reform agenda
tends to overlook the specific characteristics and cultural dimension of public organizations
and to impose a uniform identity on their members (Skålén, 2004). For example, Jacobs et al.
(2008, p. 245) show how a NPM change project at the German police force produced
violations of cultural norms that were central to the continuity and stability of the police.
Therefore, in our study we must acknowledge that the fire service is locally embedded with
a unique cultural background (Desmond, 2006), in which opposing values such as safety
awareness vs risk taking, and family culture vs para-militaristic doctrines co-exist. Previous
studies on the motivation of volunteers in the fire service reveal that it is precisely this mix
of values that makes the service attractive for them (McLennan and Birch, 2008). Hence,
it is relevant for us to investigate how volunteer firefighters make sense of and identify
with their profession and organizational culture in the context of regionalization which
contains elements of NPM. Not least because firefighters may inspire bottom-up pressures
that subvert, resist or constrain managerial efforts to implement organizational change
(Thurnell-Read and Parker, 2008).
Organizational change: the translation of public reform to the work floor
To conceptualize the translation of public reform in this case regionalization to the work
floor of local fire stations, we draw from organizational change literature, thereby
connecting the fields of public administration and organization science (Kelman, 2005).
Organizational change is here defined as a process of organizational renewal, in terms of its
direction, structure, culture and competencies, to respond and adapt to ever-changing
internal and external needs, pressures and dynamics (Moran and Brightman, 2000; Todnem,
2005). However, there is limited research on organizational change in public sector
organizations resulting from wider public reform and the NPM movement. The majority of
this research is from the private sector, and private sector models of change are often
mimicked in the public sector (Fernandez and Rainey, 2006). Moreover, private sector
change models may be problematic in the public sector, due to their top-down, managerialist
implementation and disregard for public sector issues (Worrall et al., 2000; Jacobs et al., 2008;
Simonet, 2015). To help us remain sensitive to the issue of managerialism in the public
JOCM
232
33,2

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The purpose of this paper is to advance ongoing debates on the organizational impact of wider public sector reform in the field of organizational change management by presenting an analysis the regionalization of the fire service in the Netherlands. The authors apply an interpretive approach and qualitative methodology to study how volunteer firefighters and public management make sense of public reform and the ensuing organizational change. Findings – Findings indicate that while the fire service has professionalized, notable tensions have emerged between public management and volunteers, the regional and local level of fire service and between professionalism and volunteerism which are problematised in the paper. The originality of the paper is found in the insight it provides in the sensemaking of volunteer firefighters and public managers of diverse of change regions and fire stations during the regionalization process by applying an emergent perspective to change. How regionalization has impacted the work floor of local fire stations, where the workplace majority comprises volunteers, requires further empirical investigation.