A catalyst for change?

By Codrina Cretu | 29 April 2020

As councils strain under the immense pressures of COVID-19, new ways of working are emerging. In many places across the country, councils are leaving behind traditional roles, processes and bureaucracy to support vulnerable residents, communities and businesses. At Nesta, we have spent the past year studying this change in local government – we call this shift ‘new operating models for local government’.

Our initial conversations suggest that the severity and urgency of the crisis and the need to act in more dynamic and collaborative ways has helped advance the shift towards new operating models: mass digitisation of services and better data practices, collaboration with the private sector, volunteering sector and other public sector organisations or using council assets in new ways.

In Manchester and Liverpool the councils are working with hotels to provide rough sleepers with shared accommodation during the outbreak. Reigate & Banstead BC is using a council-owned theatre as a community support centre for its vulnerable residents. In Staffordshire, the council is using ICare, an online platform to recruit and train volunteers to assist vulnerable people. This crisis has increased the impetus for change, but these ways of working are by no means new.

This supports findings in our research, which identified common elements of the new operating models adopted by progressive councils. We developed a framework for understanding this shift before the crisis hit, but it can help explore the new ways of working emerging as a response to the crisis.

Over the past decade, the pressures of austerity and an increasing understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of social issues have led public sector organisations to rethink the traditional model of public service delivery and reframe the nature of their relationship with citizens and communities. Local government has been moving away from ‘command and control’ mindsets, bringing communities and those working in public services together and challenging traditional power structures to address challenges in new and inclusive ways. Conversations we’ve had over the past few weeks with councils have revealed that reconsideration of local government’s values, guiding principles, capabilities and infrastructure operating models has been a part of their COVID-19 responses.

Many local authorities are rethinking their purpose, and putting people and communities at the heart of the change. During this crisis, this has meant exploring different roles for local authorities such as that of convener, data provider or funder. In Leeds, building on existing relationships and culture, the council and its partners’ ability to reconceive their role and purpose in the midst of crisis has helped them to resolve complex problems and respond quickly.

The mindset of local authorities is also shifting, with values such as collaboration, flexibility and openness at the center of COVID-19 responses. They have shifted the focus away from trying to manage services to be as efficient as possible towards trying to achieve better outcomes for everyone by building a system underpinned by values and relationships. City of York Council attribute their ability to quickly mobilise volunteers to embracing collaboration, rather than reverting to traditional top-down approaches.

New capabilities, such as new technology, skills or methods are enhancing the work of local authorities and ensuring needs are met quickly, for example by using digital tools to match vulnerable people with volunteers. We’ve also seen local authorities rethinking the way they use their assets, data, or revenue models to create new, supportive infrastructures for these ways of working. This has meant using physical assets in new ways by repurposing a council owned building into a community centre or pooling data together across a borough to identify vulnerable people in need of assistance.

Local authorities that were already working to embed these people-centered and relational new operating models have laid a strong foundation: they are able to access existing relationships with volunteering organisations, statutory partners, private sector or the community, override lengthy procurement processes in favour of speed and responsiveness and guide their response following principles of collaboration, openness and learning. This is helping provide support for their communities in a swift and agile way.

For councils that were at the beginning of their new operating models journey, this is an opportunity to make the case for more participatory and inclusive ways of working and put people at the heart of public services.

It is imperative local government takes the time to reflect on the changes happening and identify the things we want to preserve and let go of as we come out of this complex crisis. The new operating models framework can aid reflection on the new ways of working within the public sector and on what can be learnt. Over the next three months Nesta will work with councils in our network to understand the learning they can take, so that they do not revert to traditional approaches as we move past the pandemic.

Codrina Cretu is a researcher in digital social innovation at Nesta

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