Pandemic’s route to devolution

By Anthony May | 13 January 2021

Many years ago, I took part in the national leadership development programme for directors of children’s services. The themes were adaptive leadership and wicked problems. Back then, I was too busy dealing with tame problems to bother about the wicked variety but I remember thinking it might come in handy one day.

Scroll forward to 2020 and there it was – a genuinely wicked problem – the COVID-19 pandemic. I knew it was a wicked problem because I had never seen it before; it was bigger than me or my organisation and I didn’t know how to solve it.

In the first few weeks, we didn’t recognise it as a wicked problem because there was a crisis to manage. The urgent priority was to respond, mobilise, react and make sense of the problem. We needed to crank up the Local Resilience Forum, using the systems and processes tailor-made for crises. We needed to learn new ways to communicate with Government, develop new service models, and implement new guidance, often daily.

At the start, we used our authority to direct activity, often through command and control, and we made remarkable progress. Crisis management worked for a while, but it isn’t sustainable. I began to reflect on the notion of wicked problems, and could see our approach was adapting. We brought more people into the virtual room to solve challenges. We made more use of collective endeavour, for example, to set up arrangements to support the ‘shielded’ and to establish local track and trace systems, from a standing start. We recognised that no one person or agency had the answer – solutions were tested, refined and implemented in real time. All options were considered – even the left field ideas which, otherwise, would not have seen the light of day. Partners came to the table prepared to take ownership of problems and solve them with new levels of ingenuity and innovation. PPE is a great example of this, where local areas came together to find new ways to secure vital supplies.

For these problems, command and control doesn’t work. There are too many people involved and they don’t all work for one organisation. If you don’t know how to solve the problem, what is your command and what are you controlling, other than ambiguity?

What did this mean for our relationship with Government? The truth is, throughout the pandemic, my contact with Government has been largely positive. There have been times when I didn’t agree with a course of action, and wanted more speed, information and greater consultation. I reached the view that I wasn’t likely to get everything I wanted. The world isn’t perfect and Government is too big and complex to be treated as a homogenous entity. Some parts of Government work better than others – like most councils. Throughout the pandemic, my opinion has been sought by senior officials in Government and I have felt listened to.

What worked well were the regional arrangements established by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), where lead chief executives have worked with colleagues across their regions, to feedback and disseminate information and guidance.

The Local Economy Recovery Group has done some good work and I would encourage the Government to use it as the basis of a coherent plan for economic recovery. What worked less well was the pre-November lockdown process for agreeing bespoke packages for Tier 3 areas – the less said about that the better! On data collection, the delta returns have been invaluable in getting a handle on financial pressures. The data collected on infection control and through the care homes’ tracker offers a real opportunity to shape the future of the market, provided we use it for more than audit purposes.

It is too soon to reach an objective view about long- term learning. As I write, we are entering lockdown again. Deaths from COVID have exceeded 75,000, and cases are rising. We are too deep into solving the problem to evaluate success or failure. I am convinced that, while command and control helps come to terms with a crisis, it doesn’t solve it sustainably. Solving wicked problems requires strong relationships and cultures based on mutual respect and appreciation.

Going forward, we must use the learning from the pandemic to agree a new relationship with Government, based on a shared commitment to devolution. Decentralisation is a route to sustained recovery and resilience against future crises. Radical devolution of power and resources to local areas will secure better outcomes for communities and improve the relationship between local and national Government. The pandemic, with all its challenges, pain and suffering, has served to reinforce the need for a new devolution deal with all of local government, not just parts of it.

Anthony May is chair of the Association of County Chief Executives and chief executive of Nottinghamshire CC

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Local economies MHCLG Devolution Emergency planning Coronavirus

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