Getting through the greatest challenge of a generation

By Joanne Roney | 14 April 2020

Bad situations often bring out the very best in people, and that has definitely been the case as we all – public sector organisations and private businesses, residents and volunteers – respond to the coronavirus crisis.

For those of us working in local government it is not a surprise to see how good the sector can be at not only innovating but delivering complex schemes at short notice. But even the most seasoned professionals among us surely can’t fail to be impressed by what has been delivered in the last few weeks.

Much of the focus of the national response has quite rightly been on the NHS. But there also needs to be a parity of esteem; recognition of the crucial role of local authorities in helping to save lives and reduce the pressure on our hospitals, not just as part of this unique national emergency, but in more normal times too.

It is striking how, while it is the Government who decides how to respond to the issues raised by COVID-19, it is so often local government that is needed to deliver many of these new policies. As system leaders who play a pivotal role in connecting public and private partners in a place, we have had to collaborate closely with a wide range of actors locally and nationally to get things to work, even if the outcome is not always perfect first time out. We at Solace are always here to help the Government and we have welcomed the increased opportunity to provide feedback on policies as they are being developed. The irrefutable truth is that the more, and the earlier, ministers and civil servants involve us, the better outcomes will be.

In common with my peers across the country, the fast-moving nature of the coronavirus challenge and the sheer number of council staff and partner organisations involved in responding to it mean that my role requires long days of convening and co-ordinating as well as leading. Along with council leader Sir Richard Leese, I am on groups steering the response across Greater Manchester - and I'm supporting and comparing notes with fellow chief executives elsewhere including the other Core Cities and through Solace.

As a management group we are working intensively both to ensure that essential services are maintained and our staff are focused where they are most needed - including bespoke responses to help those most affected by the impacts of COVID-19  and a prolonged lockdown.

We have to recognise that the economic impacts of this situation will continue to reverberate long after the immediate crisis has receded. We need to start thinking now about the range of short and longer term innovations which will help our places during the recovery phase. It's encouraging to note that some of these conversations are already taking place with local government at the table.

When I became chief executive of Manchester City Council three years ago I knew I would face many tests, professionally and personally – but I could not have envisaged what future events would unfold and how far that would push me and the organisation I lead. This is an incredibly tough challenge and it is important we all take time to look after our own resilience as well ensuring our organisations and the communities we serve are well looked after. But I know that by working with my colleagues, both in Greater Manchester and across the country, that we will get through this and emerge stronger.

The response from everyone involved has been nothing short of inspirational and amazing. When I stand outside my front door and join my neighbours clapping at 8pm on a Thursday I do so thinking of not just the wonderful work going on in the NHS but in local government too, as well as by the army of volunteers in our communities. Together we have united behind a single goal: to save as many lives as possible – by supporting the NHS, by keeping vulnerable people safe, and by suppressing the spread of the virus. The irrefutable truth is that the more, and the earlier, ministers and civil servants involve us, the better outcomes will be.

One day we will look back on this period and remember how tough it has been for everyone we know and love. But I also like to think that we will look back on how cities like mine, and the country as a whole, pulled together and responded with enthusiasm and positivity to help get us through the greatest challenge of a generation, and worked creatively and at speed to deliver positive outcomes in the most challenging of circumstances.

But crucially, once we get through this – and we will – we should not just slip back into old habits and ways of working, and that goes especially for the historically imbalanced relationship between central and local government. The resilience we need across the country can only come from an empowered and sustainably funded local authorities.

Joanne Roney is Solace spokesperson for leadership & learning, and chief executive of Manchester City Council

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