Walsall MBC may have been driving its transformation programme for some time but the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted it up a gear, council leader Mike Bird says.
‘When we started on the journey, we didn’t realise how quickly we would go. We were on the slip road and suddenly we are hurtling down the motorway.’
Despite the massive change, the high level of pressure on the council to respond to the emergency, and the shift to home working, he says: ‘We have continued seamlessly running the council services throughout.’
Chief executive Helen Paterson agrees. She says the change programme has not been halted by the pandemic but ‘we’ve paused and regrouped’ and now it is moving on faster than ever. Taking the leader’s analogy one step further, she quips: ‘We went into top gear one weekend – and then we went into warp speed.’
It is a reset not a recovery, she says, because there is no plan for Walsall to go back to where it was. ‘The pandemic has jumped us into a new world. Why would we want to jump back?’
Change is what the chief executive came to the council to achieve. In her interview for the role of chief executive of Walsall, Ms Paterson was quite clear with the council about what they were getting.
‘I said, if you want a caretaker, don’t appoint me. If you want change, appoint me.’ That rate of change has been, since the pandemic, faster than ever.
Her original transformation programme had three main strands, improving customer services, improving things for staff. and getting more efficient – ‘in that order’, the chief says. ‘None of that has changed, but through our reset we were well prepared as we went into the pandemic.’
There were plans to fast-track the transformation programme, but it was overtaken by lockdown.
If she had asked council staff to completely change the way they were working, shift onto more home-based work patterns prior to the pandemic, it would not have been an easy transition. ‘We would have had resistance,’ Ms Paterson says. ‘But because there was such an impetus, we all just did it.’
But it is not just the rise in home working, or massive increase in the use of Microsoft Teams, that has changed. The new ways of communicating with the ‘shielding’ is something that the council doesn’t want to lose.
The chief executive and leader also admit there are some services that have been dropped by the council while they dealt with the emergency presented by the pandemic which are unlikely to be reinstated.
There have also been some unexpected upsides. She says the scrutiny and transparency has massively altered, with locked-down residents bumping up the viewing figures of webcast council meetings to levels they would never normally reach.
Cllr Bird agrees it has been a change for the better. ‘People see councillors in a different light,’ he says. ‘It means people can be seen in meetings by the general public and we can refer people back to the meetings so they can see how councillors have performed….people can see how decisions are made.’
He believes the pandemic is reinvigorating democracy in Walsall, creating more transparency and shining a light on the councillors who work hard – and those who are less effective.
‘One of the best decisions we made is to have invested in the technology in such a way that there’s not a lot of people who can’t communicate through it.’ It is perhaps unsurprising as his background was in the tech industry before he came into politics.
There will be a huge number of challenges ahead for Walsall, Cllr Bird says. The town centres will need a lot of attention, adapting to the new reality of a shrunken retail sector. Ms Paterson agrees, suggesting the future of the high street will be to make it a ‘place to go and do, not just go and spend’.
A new local economy, where people live and work closer to home will have its benefits for both the council and for local people.
Returning to his original motoring analogy, Cllr Bird says he feels like the council has transformed itself from being a ‘Morris Minor to a Lamborghini’.
‘We want to build on that. We don’t want to lose the impetus.’