Leaders and laggers in a post-COVID world

By John Knight | 21 July 2020

As we move into the eye of the hurricane of COVID-19 we are starting to look around at the impact on everything that has come before for local government and what the future might have in store as the reality hits.

At C.Co we have been working with and speaking to councils around the country about how they see the future and what change they need to consider now to respond, and we have seen a spectrum of reactions. These range from the ‘leaders’ who have adapted and accelerated their plans for transformation, to the ‘laggers’, who have put any change plans on hold because there are too many unknown-unknowns.

Many of those in the latter camp tend to favour the phrase ‘new normal’. However, this is becoming over-used rhetoric that gives succour by implying that everything is going to be very similar to the past with the minimum of change. By using this language, we reimagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, using the past as a yardstick.

It’s a comforting phrase, but unlikely to be a realistic situation because of the enormous cost pressures that will be put on local government, through a triple whammy combination of reduced income, increased demand and a need for government to recover the economy from the costs put into COVID relief. This might be especially severe for those councils who have spent the last few years building up a property investment portfolio, and may have been relying on occupied shops and offices for business rates and rent.

Even through the most stringent times of austerity of the last few years, any change or transformation for a local authority was almost without exception a more pared down adaptation of what went before, a slimmed down version of the ‘modern’ council that we have known for at least the last 50 years. Any change usually meant just resetting the reform measures that had been employed in the recent past for a more financially constrained time. This is because it is a mindset that builds on experience and capacity, and deals with the familiar rather than considering the unknown. But this strategy has its limits and to be sustainable a more fundamental reshaping of public service provision will need to be considered. We may be entering into an era of ‘post-modern’ local government, where everything that went before is questioned, a zero-based approach to service delivery is used and constant change is the only certainty.

If change is to be the only thing that is certain, then forward thinking councils are those who recognise that being in front of the change and steering progress in a desired direction is essential. However, the culture of councils as whole organisations can be similar to that of smaller groups or even individuals. There are the ‘leaders’, who are the early adopters of new opportunities, there are the lukewarm wait-and-see cohort in the middle and then there are the resisters or ‘laggers’, either suspicious of or completely denying any change is necessary.

While it is still early days to know exactly how councils will respond, over the last few weeks we have been working with authorities across the country to understand some of their thinking about the future. There have been a number that have impressed us.

At Cheshire West and Chester Council they are working on a recovery and reform plan which, while staying true to the council’s plan and aspirations, adopted a clear principle that the future would not be ‘going back to normal’. They are currently engaging with the community on this vision for a stronger future through their interactive digital platform.

They have laid out a number of key messages to frame this future transformation aspiration:

  • The window of opportunity to make the change is short
  • The scale of ambition and pace needs to be balanced with financial reality and capacity
  • There will be some difficult decisions to be made
  • Building community capacity, greater independence and participation should be key considerations, in line with the council plan
  •  It needs to be recognised that the plan will be critical to delivering objectives within reduced resources and more complex demand – not a ‘nice to have’
  • This agenda needs to be owned by members and officers – it is fundamental to future of the council.

At Kirklees MBC they were quick to develop a recovery framework to respond to the crisis, but always keeping one eye on their existing transformation plans. One thing was made clear as they adapted to the future, they would not be returning to the status quo. Instead, they used the situation as an opportunity to accelerate the plans that they already had.

Part of the role of the corporate transformation team was to organise ongoing recovery support challenge meetings with the services, to understand what had changed, what was working well and what could be adopted as future practice. This included identifying gaps that weren’t previously being met, including recognising vulnerable groups by analysing who was calling the council support line, and also importantly who was not.

One of the time-critical activities they have recognised is to identify active citizens during the crisis, many of whom had previously been passive recipients of council services. The council knows that at this time citizen engagement will be essential.

Having supported numerous community-led responses from the beginning there was a need to find an opportunity to mobilise these networks in the longer term and they have been in discussion with mutual aid organisations to find a way to continue the support they have been providing within the community into the future.

In common with most local authorities they have seen sudden and dramatic change to the way their staff work. This means not just where they work, but how they work. In terms of ‘where’, almost all office based staff have been working from home. This has been a positive experience for most staff, allowing them to see for real the work-life balance opportunities that this brings. The council has seen productivity rise and sickness absence fall. Workforce transformation was already a pillar of the council’s transformation plans and the last few months have seen them speed up their plans with much success. The work has changed too. They have taken a locality based approach to problem solving, bringing together a networked team from across the council to focus on issues. The keys to success of this new way of working are a focus on outcomes not tasks and a trust based adult-to-adult relationship between staff and their managers.

While much smaller in number, there are also some authorities that will fit into the ‘lagger’ category – organisations that are in stasis, unable to move forward because of all of the unknowns. And even more worrying, there are some that have put their transformation activity on hold completely. This could be a very high risk strategy, but perhaps reveals an inherent weakness in the way these organisations are run.

In the words of one private sector business turnaround specialist when discussing why companies fail: ‘There are companies that perform adequately well day-to-day, but are completely dysfunctional’. But then a significant and unexpected change happens. ‘In the companies that we see that hit the wall, a dysfunctional corporate culture is the major problem.’

In other words, in a post-modern world of local government we may well be looking at the survival of the fittest. The councils that have been just about able to get by despite serious leadership and strategic weaknesses could well be heading for a slow motion car crash into decline, which will be letting down their citizens and their staff.

Those councils with strong, coherent ambitions and a citizen centric approach have a much better chance of emerging from the current situation sustainably and in some cases hopefully even stronger and fit for the future.

John Knight is programme director of C.Co, CIPFA’s consultancy service

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