Local government is at a pivot point. A unique opportunity exists to move fast and embed the renewed sense of purpose and ingenuity seen during the COVID-19 response into a collaborative approach to achieving outcomes together.
It’s not surprising local authorities have rapidly adapted because time and time again they have been brilliant in dealing with a crisis. In the pandemic, organisations and individuals have pulled together united by a common purpose to protect public health and livelihoods. The speed, scale and shock to the system forced a trust leap with greater willingness to do new or different things, and many don’t want to go back.
Science suggests it takes an average of two months for habits to form. Shifts experienced during lockdown have the potential to become a permanent part of our public service psyche. And they come on top of concerns such as ageing, inequality, skills, climate change, safety and, of course, Brexit. Across agendas, right now, we can rethink the way Britain works while attitudes are more fluid and flexible. We can hardwire a better future - not simply return to normal.
This is a unique opportunity to move fast and build on the shared purpose and ingenuity experienced in the COVID-19 response. To create a new voice, realign and rebalance relationships, rapidly advancing technology and to energise collaboration.
Achievements across local public services during the crisis have been incredible. Pipedream projects and collaborations have been realised over and over. Joint working achieved in a fortnight rather than two years. Renewed respect for experts and the frontline is making efforts even more potent. A sign of what could be after a decade of local government scaling back, while still maintaining high levels of trust.
COVID-19 presented a public health crisis but also a social and economic one. We may have passed the peak of the first aspect, but if the last decade taught us anything, it is that social and economic disruption has a long tail. There will be direct and indirect consequences for local government for years to come. Recovery will be harder than lockdown.
A crisis can be a catalyst for a better future - whatever your politics. From John F Kennedy ‘be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity’ to Lenin’s ‘the worse, the better’, allegedly a favourite of Dominic Cummings. As Rob Whiteman at the CIPFA has said, if we can agree on the big issues, all those in and around local government can support the next part of the journey.
No one is saying it is easy. Major uncertainties remain, but COVID-19 has shown the potential for a golden age of local government building on four emerging themes:
1. Business and society will expect and accept councils having a stronger voice
After such significant intervention, there is an opportunity for a leap forward on collaborative arrangements, between levels of government and across localities. People want a coming together in a shared endeavour to implement shared goals. The need for economic and social support supercharge the ‘powerhouses’ to enable local growth and spark new efforts to tackle big issues such as social care.
2. Authorities can radically prioritise and respond to new expectations
Kevin Cunnington, director-general of the Government Digital Service (GDS) might not have anticipated the speed of change, when he said in 2017: ‘We will always be looking to improve, because the expectations of citizens and demands on services will always be shifting.’
In lockdown those shifts have been faster than ever. More than ever, now is the time to offer better, simpler service design and delivery. Contact during shielding has reconnected staff with communities and generated real insight. The readiness to share relevant data across organisations has improved service responses and communities have shown they want to help. 76% of millennials consider social and environmental considerations before taking a job. Generation Z are almost 50% more likely to be socially minded than Millennials were at the same age.
3. New ways of working are likely to at least partially stick
Previously unimaginable workplace efficiencies underpinned by accelerated technology-adoption have opened up. Local government can capitalise on a desire to do good accelerating existing trends. Councils are already utilising new technologies. Adur & Worthing have developed online community response services using a low code platform which allows digital services to be operated with minimum coding skills. Hampshire has used automated call services to quickly reach 84% of shielded residents.
4. The extraordinary events of the last few months, have broken silos and allowed greater mobility of skills and innovation within and beyond organisations
COVID-19 has nurtured the green shoots of a collaborative society. Examples include Greater Manchester’s PPE taskforce where local companies donating vital items and changing manufacturing processes or #StokeOnTrentTogether co-ordinating the response from local residents and organisations to ensure everyone who needs help can receive it, and that everyone who is well and wants to help others, can do so.
Extraordinary opportunities and challenges require extraordinary ingenuity. With the implications on localities only starting to be understood, times are going to get tougher. The herculean task of COVID-19 highlighted many public service heroes. But we need to go beyond heroic behaviour and embed collaborative practices within a shared ambition for change catalysed by COVID-19. It is, we believe, a unique opportunity for genuine transformation – let’s not waste it.
Tim Pope is a local government expert at PA Consulting
How the public sector can become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative