Can local government continue at this pace?

By Paul Abraham | 24 November 2021

As we continue to fight the battle against the pandemic, the campaign to recover and rebuild our nation is well underway. Huge efforts across central and local government, frontline service providers and citizens themselves have got us this far, but to steal a line from Winston Churchill: ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning…’ Getting back to some form of pre-pandemic way of life is going to take years, and things will certainly be different when we do.

Even in the darkest hours of the 18 months, there have been countless uplifting stories and greater appreciation for the unsung heroes in our communities and our public services. Working together, councils have achieved much, responding in weeks where previously it would have taken months or years due to politics, budgets or the complex web of council governance. It has shown the nation how valuable local government is and the potential, should we choose, to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity for change.

A great opportunity

In a recent survey we conducted with YouGov, we asked senior leaders from a range of sectors to score how they and their organisations fared during the crisis and their outlook for the future. Unsurprisingly in local government, a sector at the front of the fight, 72% said the pandemic had negatively impacted their council, with 65% indicating a negative impact on them personally. When asked about the next six months, 86% expected either service or organisational transformation, while 81% anticipated transformation in the local government sector.

There have been positives. 86% have seen their organisations change faster than expected and 61% are collaborating more with their peers to achieve their objectives. Adoption of new technologies was rated ‘good’ or ‘very good’ by 86% of councils, with half of them saying productivity had increased (about 25% said it had gone down).

The most surprising result was the 44% who said that the current pace of change could be sustained over the next 12 months and the 7% who thought it could be faster.

Finally, many believed that the next 12 months will bring further disruption. The results suggest that there have been changes in employee expectations regarding work, and that organisations need to rethink how and where work is done as we emerge from the pandemic. Despite the clear sense of disruption, there were also positive signals. Respondents reported that they were collaborating more with other organisations, that there was more willingness to embrace innovative ideas, and there were suggestions that the shift to remote working had led to greater levels of individual productivity. Despite the magnitude of disruption faced, resilience, adaptability, and a sense that the crisis may in fact be a catalyst for change were all evidenced in the results.

Transformation at pace

Perhaps unsurprisingly, finance and funding were seen as the primary challenges for the sector over the next 12 months as leaders struggle with reduced revenues, lack of funds and rising demand, plus the burden of enabling the local recovery. On the personal side, burn-out and adaptation challenges are key concerns. So how do we maintain this pace, as 44% believe we can, while ensuring that we and our teams don’t buckle under the pressure?

Adopt a resilience mindset

In the short-term, resourcing key services is not going to radically improve. Without careful management, the accumulated leave of millions, could be taken out over December to enjoy a longer than usual extended Christmas break. Well deserved, but the demand is going to remain high for a while yet and will need to be covered. Reaching out to partners and peers that can support you though a peak in demand or trough of resources is the first step, but it’s worth considering the medium-term measures such as services redesign and some automation to free up officer time.

Do digital differently

Many councils have shifted services to digital channels during the pandemic as a necessity. But, while moving to portals and webservices has provided access for citizens, much of the underlying process is still mandraulic or a digital replication of the old process. Taking the time to rethink these processes, automate the admin and open new channels to citizens is time consuming, but should be considered as the long-term benefits are significant from both a cost-to-serve and officer wellbeing point-of-view.

Go deep on data

Turning raw data into information, then into intelligence and into insight is going to be critical if we’re going to proactively manage demand. Legacy systems, technical debt, and the inability to share easily across departments and agencies all make this step hard. Previous endeavours in other sectors have not always been viewed as successful and councils still have to deal with citizens whose views on data use and sharing are divided and often very emotive. While we can continue to evolve our approach to data within local government, I believe we have the opportunity to transform everything from our data infrastructures, hardware estates, software, citizen interfaces to in-community IoT.

Always put the customer first

It isn’t just organisations that have had to radically rethink how they deliver services – citizens and businesses have also had plenty of time to re-think how they want to engage with public services. With so many individuals and businesses now home based, previous geographic restrictions and the importance of face-to face contact are less important – but seamless and intuitive customers are. Make sure you are listening to how your customers want to interact with your organisation rather than assuming that they, too, wish to go back to pre-COVID-19 customs and practices. Be brave and use this opportunity to redesign your services and processes around your customers.

This isn’t going to be easy

I don’t think that we can maintain this pace for much longer without transformative thinking and courageous action by all those serving citizens in communities across the UK. I don’t think the transformation will be easy. It will require public sector leaders to maintain and build on the culture changes that the pandemic has enabled – openness to innovation, speed of decision-making, and pace of change. It will also require local authority leaders to become cross-organisational leaders, bringing together the best ideas and capability from the public, private, and 3rd sector. Those organisations that can continue to ride the momentum kick-started through the necessities of COVID-19 will reap significant benefits. The future may well favour the brave.

Paul Abraham is Managing Director and Client Partner for Capita Local Public Services

  • To find out how we are helping local authorities to transform, please contact me for an informal chat at paul.abraham@capita.com

This article is sponsored content for The MJ

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