So many of us feel a sense of battle weariness as we seek out every last bit of stamina to take on the relentless third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The last 10 months have shone a bright light on the army of brilliant public servants working so hard in the NHS and local government but they have also depleted our reserves of energy, resilience and fortitude. It is hard to remember what the ‘normal’ world of public services looked like pre-COVID and what we used to spend our time.
Speaking to many NHS and local government leaders and senior managers, there is a common overwhelming exhaustion alongside a worrying lack of organisational or system capacity and financial resources to dedicate to reimagining life in the post-COVID world of public services.
Back in March 2020, there was an urgent need to shift to gold ‘command and control’ management mode; we were in the early days of a pandemic, dealing with an unknown assailant. We needed to set up the structures and use the language of emergency planning. Nobody expected we would remain in this transactional top-down control mode for so long.
There is a danger that the common enemy of COVID, necessitating a centralised military command-type response, could become a permanent feature of how we manage our systems and run our services as we deal with urgent presenting issues.
There is a danger we may not have the time for the deep-rooted transformation, for deep listening to staff and residents, for the relational human-centred redesign, to deliver the courageous community paradigm we all signed up to a year ago.
We can’t let ourselves forget that our public services in both the NHS and local government were already in need of serious transformation before the pandemic as we saw demand for our services skyrocket and costs spiral out of control as our resource base diminished as a result of longstanding austerity policies and the outcomes for residents deteriorate rapidly.
Support from Government does come, but it arrives in short-term ministerial vertical packages of support for single issues rather than helping us deal with the reality of the on the ground challenges we face. These include the challenges of increasing demand for adult social care and children’s services without the resources to fund the standards expected by inspectors.
If we want more money to fund the services needed by residents, we need to increase council tax. In other words, we need to pass the costs on to members of the public, council tax being the most regressive form of taxation of which the poorest pay the largest proportion.
None of the multi-million pound place- based regeneration policy initiatives created by Whitehall over the years have stuck permanently in delivering genuine transformation. Whether it was the single regeneration budget, a new deal for communities, City Challenge, Public Service Agreements or Total Place, they all had different flaws because they weren’t about listening to citizens and changing the relationship from one of paternalistic parent/child to one of shared endeavour, deep listening and understanding. We have a narrowing window of opportunity to step back – to get on to the balcony rather than keep being tripped up on the dance floor.
When the chaos of COVID has retreated we need to set aside the time and capacity to permanently reshape public services working together with citizens in the place over the long-term; making the learning from Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help just the way we work together every day, rather than another trendy initiative that fizzles out when the money runs out.
This is the real heavy lifting. It is harder than anything we have ever been through before and we need to try to identify the brightest and the best to help us shape this new future for public services.
Professor Donna Hall CBE is chair of New Local