Councils v Coronavirus: plan beats no plan

By Robert Pollock | 07 September 2020

At the onset of the pandemic Social Finance argued that scenario planning offered a very practical way of making sense of COVID’s impact on public services, local economies and communities.

We have since tested this with the help of the Key Cities Network, Cheshire East Council, Oldham Council and the European Venture Philanthropy Association.

It has been revealing to see how many of the key trends identified in early April (workforce burnout, national-local disconnect in the COVID response, pent-up demand for social and health services) have played out over the subsequent months. And, that the central assumptions we used about a prolonged economic contraction, and secondary lockdowns have held true too. But more importantly, regardless of region or sector, common themes are emerging about the types of decisions local leaders will need to take to support their communities in future.

What have we learnt?

'Working from home, moving digital services online, half the team seconded to public health, preparing for school opening etc... while making sure there's hand sanitiser in the office bathrooms. This is my new normal.' (senior council officer).

It’s a marathon not a sprint – While there has been a lot of rhetoric about #buildingbackbetter the world as we knew it has changed and isn’t reverting to ‘normal’ any time soon. The country is slowly coming to the realisation that COVID is here to stay. Social distancing is our ‘new normal’ at least until mass vaccination is available and any plans for transformation should be realistic about this. Implication: we need to adapt plans for this ‘in between’ phase over at least the next 24 months.

Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise – For many senior officers, after three months of firefighting the scenario workshops were their first opportunity to reflect together on what had worked and what hadn’t, and plan ahead. Participants were generally optimistic about sustaining positive changes and new partnerships with communities and the third sector. In one area, different parts of the local system had managed to accelerate place-based integration during lockdown. But they had noticed the move to online had radically expanded residents’ access to services and their notion of place, suggesting  a rethink was necessary. Implication: be ambitious and joined up but don’t bite off more than you can chew as you might not be able to cope with a second outbreak.

Finance is the elephant in the room: following the government’s initial commitment to cover council’s costs finance seemed less of a worry. But as the group sessions progressed the uncertainty grew and began to raise difficult choices. For example, a choice between preventative public health programmes and doubling down on the impact of COVID. One authority was planning to make in-year cuts to some services of between 10-40% just in case. Implication: unless organisations can plan financially they can’t plan effectively. Treasury should consider an early local government settlement for 2021/22 (with details announced now rather than towards the end of September with the Autumn Statement?).

Data, needs and vulnerability – uncertainty around official statistics and the challenge of collecting good, timely data from local services makes it hard to accurately assess future demands. Front doors are expecting to be overwhelmed this month as schools reopen, and not by the usual suspects. Some councils have developed local data tools to identify risks and vulnerability in local populations, many others have not. Implication: the sector should consider collectively funding low cost digital tools to integrate local data on health, economic and household vulnerability

Resilience and dependency – some officers were surprised that when a service had been stopped (e.g. day care) resourceful service users had ‘fared better’ through other means of support from friends, family or the wider community. However, in another area young people had new needs and safeguarding concerns were rising due to gang exploitation. Implication: dependency is designed into some services, so consider focusing on asset-based approaches and getting better feedback to enable services to adapt more quickly.  

‘Plan beats no plan’ 

This is just a small slice of the insights that emerged through several scenario planning exercises. Imagining plausible futures and assessing uncertainty has benefits. It can help you see the wood from the trees and demonstrate the personal and collective agency participants have to improve outcomes for residents. If your organisation wants to give it a go a ‘how too guide’ and more detail is available at  https://www.socialfinance.org.uk/projects/covid-19-local-government-futures

There are however two significant questions the scenario work has raised. The first is more immediate: are we collectively learning the lessons from the past few months and confident we can identify and support those at most risk if there is a second wave, continued local lockdowns, or winter pressures? The second is much more systemic and goes far beyond the centralising tendencies of the current administration. Is the way the British state is organised to govern locally and nationally fit for purpose in a world with COVID? 

Robert Pollock is a Director for Social Finance, a not-for-profit social enterprise.

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Finance Transformation Public health Data Coronavirus
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